Commentary: Bannon, Trump, Schumer and the risks ahead

A sometimes overlooked fact of our current political reality is the essential precariousness. All the major players rest on a knife's edge. Everyone senses that we are undergoing an upheaval, that the rules are being changed before our very eyes, but nobody has a sense of where this is all going.

Call it a fog of war. The great disorienting effect that accompanied the rise of Donald Trump is just getting more severe. Even the most experienced politicians in Washington are playing a daily guessing game as to what the right move is.

Into this uncertainty strides Steve Bannon, a man who seemingly has deep convictions even as he speaks from both sides of his mouth. Strategically speaking, he has a vision, one he outlined on Sunday to Charlie Rose: The way forward is populism, whether it be from the right or the left. "The only question before us is it going to be a left-wing populism or a right-wing populism…And that is the question that will be answered in 2020."

Bannon prides himself on being an unconventional thinker, but on this point he couldn't be less controversial. The informal Democratic autopsy of the 2016 election, conducted by a menagerie of pundits, politicians, and activists, have come to the near-universal conclusion that their party must become more populist in order to succeed. The problem for them is figuring out what that populism looks like.

On that note, another point on consensus seems to have emerged: the need for some kind of single payer health insurance 
scheme. Even Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat and outspoken obstacle of single payer during his tenure in the Senate, has changed his tune and announced that "the time has come" for such a system.

Beyond that, though, the Democrats still face a crisis in what they believe in. Which brings us to Chuck Schumer, whom the press has anointed de facto Senate Majority Leader after last week's deal with Trump.

Perhaps, though, we should not envy Schumer's position. As Bannon noted to Rose, the Democrats have not really had a "civil war" like the one that's divided the GOP over the last decade. Part of that is due to Trump, who has been able to keep Democrats united as the totemic representation of all that is bad. To them, he is the monster who lurks just beyond the campfire, so best not to leave camp.

Now Schumer, who rubbed shoulders with Trump for years in Manhattan and as a result is perhaps the senator who knows him best, has become the guy who can make deals with the monster. It's an enticing role, particularly given Trump's lack of any ideological mooring and his desire to at least appear like he's getting stuff done.

However, Schumer's part also comes with considerable risks. With the Democratic base hungry for fights with Trump on all fronts, Schumer is now being touted as the guy who can venture into the darkness and come back unscathed. Yet in doing so, he risks looking like a collaborator, another one of those Wall Street-friendly sell outs so despised by the party's base.

Schumer's way around this, it would seem, is to portray himself as a sort of Br'er Rabbit, a trickster who can constantly get the best of the lumbering Trump. Progressives may see Trump as essentially demonic, but they also see him as rather stupid, so perhaps this ploy will work. Schumer will get up there with Trump from time to time and maybe even smile and shake his hand, but Democrats will see what he's really up to, and allow him to work the president as he sees fit.

Still, this is all very precarious. A too-warm embrace of Trump, even in the service of getting a tax or infrastructure package no other Republican president would ever sign off on, might never be forgiven by the party's grassroots who were literally marching on Schumer's house just a few months ago. Their message then: no concessions, no deals, keep fighting everywhere all the time. Schumer must be tempted to ignore that advice, and may very well wind up paying for it.

Of course, the other half of this equation is Trump, who risks a right-wing revolt if he gets too cozy with the Democrats. Trump skeptics of both the Bannonite populist and #NeverTrump variety are often quick to note that the White House has plenty of erstwhile New York Democrats in its upper echelons. "With Steve Bannon gone, what's left of the conservative core in the West Wing?" wondered Rep. Steve King last month.

But there's another underlying problem for both Trump and Schumer, which is fulfilling what amount to deeply unrealistic goals set by the base of both parties.

The left demands that Democrats embrace the social democratic platform of Bernie Sanders, while liberals still insist on embracing the kind of identity politics largely blamed for Hillary Clinton's loss. The former will run a gigantic tax bill, while the latter turns off those white voters Democrats are so hot for these days.  

The right, meanwhile, wants a kind of economic populism that often carries with it the unseemly tinge of white identity politics. Bannon, through his Breitbart News, promises to try and keep Trump focused on that agenda, one that now has few proponents within the administration as the president pivots to deals he hopes boost his approval numbers a bit.

What happens if Trump doesn't deliver? Well, Breitbart has been hinting, with its usual lack of subtlety, of dire political consequences for Trump should he go squishy. Perhaps it would be good to remember what another populist former White House aide by the name of Pat Buchanan did when he felt the GOP was drifting too far left.

A primary challenge? Steve Bannon 2020? Laugh all you want. Then go and rewatch his interview with Charlie Rose. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.