clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Editorial: When a president knows nothing, others creep in

Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, is senior counselor and chief strategist for President Donald Trump. | AP file photo

Follow @csteditorials

While Donald Trump tweets, Steve Bannon increasingly runs the show, and horribly so.

Less than two weeks into the job, Trump is shaping up to be not only among our nation’s worst presidents, but among the least in charge of his own thinking.

He knows what he dislikes, if not always what he likes, in a vague and instinctual way — the Affordable Care Act, immigrants, Muslims, the evolution of American culture, allied countries that he thinks play us for saps, people who are not nice to him and any show of kindness that might be mistaken for weakness.


Follow @csteditorials

But Trump seldom actually knows what he is talking about, nor is he inclined to work hard to learn, which makes him a natural patsy for the likes of Bannon.

That might seem like a harsh critique of an American president during what traditionally is the “honeymoon” phase of a new administration. But it is one thing to give the new guy a chance. It is quite another to fail to report a crime in progress. President Trump is making our nation less safe, hurting powerless people and creating chaos from the start. He must be called out early and often, as Cardinal Blase J. Cupich did so well over the weekend.

“The world is watching as we abandon our commitments to American values,” Cupich said, criticizing Trump’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven largely Muslim countries from entry into the United States. “These actions give aid and comfort to those who would destroy our way of life. They lower our estimation in the eyes of the many people who want to know America as a defender of human rights and religious liberty, not a nation that targets religious populations and then shuts its doors on them.”

Other influential leaders have weighed in, too. For some, such as former President Barack Obama, it is easily done. But a real test of character is being put to Republicans and other conservatives, whether in think tanks, the media, elected office or even Trump’s Cabinet. Will they stay true to our American values and call out Trump when they must? Or will they chuck their conscience in the pursuit of power? Some people can make themselves believe anything.

Bannon’s influence on Trump’s thinking is not new. The former Breitbart publisher has been filling Trump’s ear with his alt-right views on global conspiracies, the Mad Max decay of America and the dangers of immigrants for the last year. You got a whiff of it now and then during the presidential election when Trump, in a speech, would weirdly link Hillary Clinton to “international banks” and “global financial powers.” The Nazis said junk like that to go after Jews.

But since Trump’s election, Bannon’s tremendous influence has become more obvious. He wrote the president’s dark and combative inaugural address, setting the administration’s tone. While Trump squabbled with the media about attendance estimates at the inaugural, Bannon took the lead in writing a flurry of executive orders that began the unwinding of Obamacare, the revival of the Keystone XL pipeline and the termination of a sweeping trade deal.

Trump signed the orders in showy ceremonies. He is good at taking credit. But it’s fair to wonder, given his aversion for the written word beyond the length of a tweet, how many he actually read.

Our nation’s great luck may be that Bannon knows no more about how to govern than Trump does. A number of Trump’s worst executive orders have had to be walked back, or have only symbolic power, because Bannon failed to consult with anybody in advance. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly was not notified of the Muslim ban until shortly before it was announced on Friday.

Bannon is a lone wolf, full of odd notions that won’t get much traction in places like the CIA, and if that ultimately limits his effectiveness, nobody should complain.

Who’s running the show in the Trump administration? Obviously, that would be the president, but maybe only in the same way that he was in charge on TV when he said “You’re fired!” All around him, off camera, were writers and producers telling him what to do.

On Sunday, Trump demonstrated just how fully and frighteningly he relies on Bannon by elevating him to the National Security Council. The NSA advises the president on the most explosive domestic and international security issues of our times. It is no place for a political adviser who has no experience in such matters. Adding to the bad joke, Trump downgraded the NSA status of the two people he really should be listening to — the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, tweeted on Sunday, that’s “stone cold crazy.”

Bannon says he is untroubled by the criticism. The media, he said last Thursday, is “the opposition.”

Funny how that works, but Trump said the same thing in the same way — the media is “the opposition” — one day later.

Send letters to

Follow the Editorial Board on Twitter: @csteditorials

Tweets by @CSTeditorials