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    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


The Chaos Presidency, Brought to You by Steve Bannon

When you choose to cause chaos, there's usually a reason.

January 29, 2017




I had intended to publish on a different subject today, but it seems for the moment, and maybe for the foreseeable future, the only subject that matters is the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

The impact of the president’s executive order on travel and immigration has an obvious higher ed angle. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, students and scholars have experienced extreme disruption in the wake of the president’s decision. 

Executing this order on a Friday evening having reportedly not consulted with his own Department of Homeland Security or issuing any warning or guidance to immigration and customs officials on the front lines created immediate disruption as travelers with what had been valid visas and green cards when they took off were suddenly subject to detention upon landing.

The situation remains unsettled even as I write, with two federal courts having issued stays, and Senator Chuck Schumer insisting that he had been personally assured  by Homeland Security Secretary James Kelly that the court order would be obeyed, even as the Homeland Security office issued a press release suggesting otherwise in paragraph one, while nodding to judicial orders being followed in the final sentence. Reports are that customs officials are possibly violating the stay.

Who knows what the hell is going on? By the time you read this, I’m pretty sure everything I’ve said will be out of date.

It’s chaos.

Most executive orders, including those signed by President Trump earlier in the week, such as his declaration that a border wall with Mexico will be built, have little immediate impact. Consider that President Obama signed an executive order directing the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center his first week in office.

The detention center remains open.

But the chaos generated by this order seems entirely foreseeable and indeed could’ve been easily avoided by including a provision exempting those with green cards or valid visas acquired prior to the order’s signing.[1] Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to pass off the order as a reaction to an “imminent threat,” but this is clearly an ex post facto justification. Actions to prevent imminent threats flow from Homeland Security upward, not the Oval Office down.

If you could do something without causing chaos, but choose otherwise, why? Is it incompetence/inexperience, or purposeful?

The first week of the Trump presidency offers plenty of evidence for incompetence. Sean Spicer’s unhinged first public press statement pushing back against the obvious truth of President Trump’s relatively small inauguration crowds was disturbing enough to the president’s own inner circle for them to leak to any reporter who would listen about their concerns over the president’s apparent obsession over how much size matters.

The signing of the order on the wall scotched a planned visit from Mexican President Nieto, and resulted in a hastily arranged phone call and joint statements from both governments that were actually not the same statement.

For sure, stepping into the presidency would be difficult and disorienting for anyone, a difficulty magnified for someone who has never worked in government.

Conservative and former Reagan speechwriter John Podhoretz presumed something similar when he saw the administration’s statement on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day didn’t make specific mention of the Jewish people. At Commentary, Podhoretz wrote, “After reading it, I thought to myself, ‘The Trump White House is an amateur operation, understaffed and without much executive-branch experience, and whoever wrote the statement and issued it blew it out of ignorance and sloppiness.’” 

Podhoretz later learned he’d been mistaken. Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks confirmed to Jake Tapper that the omission had been deliberate and an effort to be “inclusive” of “all of those who have suffered.”

Podhoretz wasn’t buying it. “No, Hope Hicks, and no to whomever you are serving as a mouthpiece. The Nazis killed an astonishing number of people in monstrous ways and targeted certain groups—Gypsies, the mentally challenged, and open homosexuals, among others. But the Final Solution was aimed solely at the Jews. The Holocaust was about the Jews. There is no ‘proud’ way to offer a remembrance of the Holocaust that does not reflect that simple, awful, world-historical fact. To universalize it to ‘all those who suffered’ is to scrub the Holocaust of its meaning.”

Both the executive order on immigration and the statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day are reportedly the work of Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who was also given a permanent seat on the National Security Counsel even as the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were downgraded to supporting roles. 

Bannon appears to be setting the ideological tone for both domestic and foreign policy for the Trump presidency.

It makes sense then to consider Bannon’s ideology. As most know, prior to joining the Trump team, Bannon set the ideological tone for Breitbart.com, a website overtly welcoming to white supremacists. He also reportedly told conservative eminence Ronald Radosh that he viewed himself as an “American Nationalist” operating in the style of Lenin. According to Radosh, Bannon told him, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

The Trump campaign and now the Trump administration have worked assiduously to undermine many different institutions. The media is the “opposition party.” Both political parties are corrupt. Even the integrity of our electoral system is open to question.

It seems reasonable to believe that Bannon is encouraging Trump to take actions that now serve to delegitimize government itself, for example by selecting cabinet members without experience or expertise such as Ben Carson (HUD), or those who are openly hostile to the missions of their own agencies, i.e., Scott Pruitt (EPA) and Betsy DeVos (Dept. of Ed).

In this light, the “right” amount of chaos seems like a useful device for a revolutionary who has found himself on the inside. Liberals have gone (justifiably) ballistic over what Rudy Giuliani admitted is a Muslim ban  by another name.

Those paying less attention will just see the chaos, a chaos that to them looks partisan. There’s that Elizabeth Warren again. When we are in chaos, we are required to choose sides, with or against Trump, and Bannon will get a chance to test how large his side really is and what it will allow him to do.

The chaos was even more preventable, provided one’s goal is to actually govern.

Prior to the election, there was bipartisan consensus on the need to increase the rigor of screening of individuals travelling from the places targeted by President Trump’s executive order. A Trump presidency trying to show himself to be a uniter rather than divider could have addressed the issue in a way that brought the multiple stakeholders together and crafted a thorough and thoughtful response. He would’ve drawn praise from the media class he says is aligned against him.

Instead, chaos.

If you are Steve Bannon and are interested in tearing down institutions so we can start over, why would you exempt the government itself?

The answer is, you wouldn’t. This is not conspiratorial thinking. There is no vast cabal pulling strings.

This is what happens when a single morally unmoored man comes into proximity with great power, and those with the power to resist him do nothing.

Trump’s spokespeople have defended the president’s early actions as fulfilling his campaign promises. It’s interesting, however, to note a campaign promise that was not fulfilled this week and ask why.

Through executive order, Trump could change the immigration status of the so-called “Dreamers,” young, undocumented immigrants who have lived the bulk of their lives in the United States and are currently protected by President Obama’s 2012 “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) order. 

In real numbers, Trump’s immigration order chaos immediately affects several hundred individuals. The damage is real and significant, but it will not personally touch most Americans.

On the other hand, rescinding DACA for three-quarters of a million people, has the potential to directly affect vast swaths of our population. It stands the chance of rallying those not already aligned against Trump to join that cause in ways last week’s order does not.

Right now, the fight is largely over our core principles, and we are being tested as to how many Americans care enough to defend those principles, even when they are not being directly affected. It is heartening to see so much resistance from liberal and democratic activists. Their quick action has been vital to prevent further tragedy to innocent individuals caught in the chaos.

But practically speaking, until we have another election, Democrats are essentially powerless to stop the Trump administration from visiting one form of chaos after another on the public, that is unless they are joined in resistance by at least some Republicans in legislature.

I consider this a test of conservatives who, above all, should at least abhor the chaos, even if they desire some of the policy that may come out of it.

Will they step up?

We’ll all have to stay tuned.





[1] CNN reported that DHS pushed to exempt green card holders from the order only to be overruled by Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. 


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