President Donald Trump’s decision to part ways with Steve Bannon can be understood as an effort to save his presidency after Charlottesville. It may turn out to be the beginning of the end for the Trump administration, the moment Donald Trump became Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Like Trump, Schwarzenegger ran for high office as a celebrity outsider, promising to reform a corrupt, wasteful and lethargic political system, reaching across party lines.
When he took office in 2003 as Governor of California, “The Terminator” carried the hopes of conservatives in the Golden State, who saw him as a vehicle for their ideas, even if he was not a doctrinaire conservative himself. The faltering California Republican Party looked to Schwarzenegger to reverse its long-term decline, and Republicans elsewhere saw his success as a model from which they could learn as they courted moderate, swing-state voters.
But after struggling with intense media criticism, and after losing a key referendum on reforms to state government, Schwarzenegger gave up on his agenda, and abandoned the political base that had brought him into office. He re-invented himself as a liberal, embracing policies such as California’s controversial cap-and-trade program, which had zero effect on climate change but has chased businesses, jobs, and middle-class families out of the state.
Politically, Schwarzenegger’s gambit was a success. He won re-election in 2006. But his second term was a disaster. When he left office in 2010, the state was in a financial shambles and the California Republican Party had begun a decline from which it still has not recovered.
Bannon was not just Trump’s master strategist, the man who turned a failing campaign around in August 2016 and led one of the most remarkable come-from-behind victories in political history. He was also the conservative spine of the administration. His infamous whiteboard in the West Wing listed the promises Trump had made to the voters, and he was determined to check as many of them off as possible. Steve Bannon personified the Trump agenda.
With Bannon gone, there is no guarantee that Trump will stick to the plan. That is why — too late, in retrospect — conservative leaders wrote to the president Friday to advise him that Bannon and campaign manager-turned-counselor Kellyanne Conway were too valuable to lose. Bannon had delivered for the movement, reportedly convincing President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, and to visit Israel on his first trip abroad.
Bannon was also probably the only person who could deliver honest advice and criticism to the president, because he did not need the job. He is a self-made man, and not a Washington climber. Thus it was that Bannon reportedly told Trump that firing former FBI director James Comey would be more trouble than it was worth. He was right.
Trump voters have been patient, but they will soon know if Donald Trump is really Arnold Schwarzenegger 2.0.