When conservatives were afraid President Reagan would get rolled by the Soviets at Reykjavik, they sent in old Reagan friend and aide Lyn Nofziger to try to talk some sense into him. Don’t worry, Reagan assured Nofziger. “I still have the scars on my back from fighting the communists in Hollywood.” That’s sort of how I feel right now when it comes to my criticism of the media feeding frenzy surrounding Donald Trump naming Breitbart boss Steve Bannon as a senior advisor. The so-called “alt-right” hates me, and I’m not getting soft on them. But that doesn’t make Bannon a white supremacist, as some have alleged.
In fact, the influence of this unseemly brand of fringe right-wing politics is one of the main reasons I opposed Trump in the primary and did not support him in the General Election. But he won, and I generally believe a president has a right to pick his own advisors. And if Trump has assembled a “team of rivals” that include movement conservatives like Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, then I don’t believe that having Bannon (who represents another part of this very large tent) in the room is the end of the world.
I also think we tend to do too much hand-wringing over things like this. Last night on CNN, I compared this to the scandal over “green jobs czar” Van Jones. Not everyone was amused.
— Peter Daou (@peterdaou) November 16, 2016
My point is not to say that Van Jones and Bannon are exactly analogous; they’re not. Before I get into that, though, here’s a refresher from Politico:
Jones was under fire for his past affiliation with the 9/11 conspiracy “truthers” and for calling Republicans “a**holes” in a video before he was appointed to the Obama administration. Republicans had also begun using him to escalate criticism of the administration’s deployment of czars across the policy landscape, saying that they were being used to avoid Senate scrutiny of appointees.
For reasons unknown to me, Glenn Beck (then a Fox News host) decided to lead this charge against an Obama advisor and was able to claim a scalp. For what it’s worth, Van Jones turned out to be one of the most thoughtful and insightful liberal commentators this entire election cycle, leading me to believe that he wasn’t quite the bogeyman conservatives initially made him out to be.
My point here is that presidents sometimes surround themselves with people who have, shall we say, interesting backgrounds and past affiliations. And sometimes these people are actually not as extreme as the other side would have you believe.
I don’t know Steve Bannon well, and a lot of people who know him better than me despise him. But he did come on my podcast in 2011, and has always struck me as brilliant and energetic, if eccentric. Bannon has been many things, including a Naval officer and a Goldman Sachs investment banker. He has also been involved in running a website that has, to some degree, normalized the alt-right—which is not the same as saying that he, himself, is a white supremacist.
Again, my default position is generally that a president should get to pick his advisors. It’s unclear how this Bannon controversy will play out, but I think the media freak-out is, for now, premature.