Because someone with white-nationalist ties occupying a prime seat in the West Wing breaks so many norms, Steve Bannon’s selection as chief strategist to President-elect Donald Trump has dominated headlines. But Reince Priebus’s getting the chief of staff job matters a lot more.
Yes, Bannon’s name appeared before Priebus’s on the press release. Yes, the announcement says they would be “working as equal partners” in the White House. No, I don’t really believe that signifies much.
The chief of staff actually has a defined role. He oversees hundreds of members of the White House staff. He manages the daily schedule and determine access to the president. A chief strategist is just an adviser; Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod filled this role for President Obama. Bannon may have clout, but Priebus can limit his input to the president and get the last word. With Trump, a demonstrably terrible listener who habitually takes the advice of the last person he talks to, that’s a huge advantage.
Ryan Grim is correct that Bannon will have his far-right media empire to employ in a fight against the establishment—and Priebus. But Priebus will have institutional control, along with close relationships with congressional leadership and the entire Republican donor base.
Priebus, in fact, has been here before. As chair of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, he fused the Tea Party and establishment wings together to help Scott Walker to victory in 2010. During a tumultuous period for Republicans he was one of the longest-serving Republican National Committee chairs in history. He’s managed to hold the GOP together even as the various factions split apart. He can handle Steve Bannon in a knife fight.
For policy, this probably signals an agenda closer to that of Paul Ryan’s, from the phasing out of traditional Medicare to extreme deregulation to high-income tax cuts. That’s not because Priebus has any kind of known policy preference but because he’s been selling this agenda for many years, and remains close friends with Ryan. Having Priebus as chief of staff is like putting a hotline to the House speaker right in the Oval Office.
That’s not in any way a good thing, nor does it “normalize” Trump. The mainline GOP agenda is just an operational version of what the Bannons of the world have been screaming for. It’s just as punitive to people of color and vulnerable communities, if not more so because it’s more likely to become reality.