President Donald Trump has kicked Stephen Bannon off the Trump train once and for all. Good for him. Now he should kick off a few more noxious passengers whom Bannon brought along — the racists and anti-Semites of the “alt-right” whom Bannon promoted and who are like an albatross around Trump’s neck, dragging down his presidency.
Trump should be extremely popular today. Under his leadership, the economy is entering what is expected to be its third straight quarter of economic growth above 3 percent. Unemployment is at a 17-year low, consumer confidence is high and the stock market is soaring. He has enacted historic tax and regulatory reform, put conservative judges on the federal bench and driven the Islamic State from its caliphate. With this record, he should be riding high in the polls and expanding his base.
Yet, Trump’s support is contracting, not expanding. After his inauguration, Trump enjoyed a 41 percent approval rating and 46 percent disapproval, according to the FiveThirtyEight average of polls. Today, Trump’s approval has dipped three points to 38 percent, while his disapproval has skyrocketed 10 points to 56 percent.
Why is that? Because, despite a booming economy and the president’s slate of policy achievements, many Americans are still uncomfortable with Trump in the White House. There are lots of reasons for that discomfort, many of them self-inflicted wounds. But a big reason is Trump’s perceived association with the alt-right — an association that is largely due to Trump’s now-ended association with Bannon.
The alt-right is a fringe movement, and it would have stayed on the fringes but for Bannon. Back in the 1960s, William F. Buckley Jr. and his magazine National Review excommunicated the fringe right of his day — the John Birch Society — from the respectable right. But Bannon and his Breitbart News website did the opposite, bringing the alt-right into the political mainstream through his association with Trump.
At the GOP convention that nominated Trump, Bannon declared proudly that he had made Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right.” He published pieces that praised, among others, white nationalist Richard Spencer as one of the movement’s leaders — the same Richard Spencer who led an alt-right audience (many with arms raised in a Nazi salute) in chants of “Hail Trump!” and helped organize the torch-carrying neo-Nazi mob that descended on Charlottesville in August.
At the White House, Bannon wreaked havoc from within, leaking like a sieve and giving Trump horrible strategic advice. It was Bannon who reportedly urged Trump to double down on his “many sides” equivocation after Charlottesville. After he was fired and returned briefly to Breitbart, Bannon has wreaked havoc from without, backing alleged sexual predator Roy Moore in Alabama and alt-right candidates such as Paul Nehlen — a virulent anti-Semite who refers to his critics as “shekels-for-hire” — to challenge House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.
Trump’s association with Bannon has been a disaster for his presidency and the conservative cause. Trump said: “Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country. Yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans. Steve doesn’t represent my base – he’s only in it for himself.”
Trump is right. The men and women of this country who delivered his victory are not racists, and they are not part of Bannon’s alt-right movement. The steel workers who lost their jobs because of China’s illegal dumping, the factory workers who lost their jobs as manufacturing plants moved across the border and the coal miners who lost their jobs due to environmental regulations voted for Trump despite the alt-right, not because of it. Trump’s reluctance to disassociate himself from the inhabitants of the alt-right’s fever swamps has hurt him. Many Americans who might otherwise embrace Trump based on his record of achievement are unwilling to say “I’m a Trump supporter” because of it.
Trump must denounce the alt-right for one simple reason: because it has embraced him. Trump was factually correct that there was violence on both sides in Charlottesville, but only one side claimed to be acting in his name. And it still does. Which is why America needs to hear the president say: These bigots are not part of my movement. They don’t represent me. I don’t want their support, and I don’t want their votes.
Trump has denounced the “alt-left.” Yet, as Spencer pointed out gleefully after Charlottesville, “Trump has never denounced the Alt-Right. Nor will he.”
Prove him wrong, Mr. President.
Marc A. Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.
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