It was February 23 when Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, appeared with Reince Priebus, the president’s chief of staff, before an adoring audience at the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting. Wearing a black jacket and dark button-up shirt, Bannon prattled on about the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and went after the “globalist, corporatist media.” He spoke of “economic nationalism,” and the Trump team’s desire to “reconstruct our trade arrangements around the world.” It was, arguably, the high point of Bannonism, the mix of isolationism, protectionism and nationalism that reinforced Trump’s own instincts on those issues and helped get him elected.
Yet Bannonism didn’t even last three months. Its promulgator is now said to be in retreat in the White House—possibly soon to be jettisoned entirely, if the rumors are true—as the president publicly distances himself from him. (In an interview with New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin, the president said—accurately—“I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist, and it wasn't like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
When you’re running the most powerful country on earth, it’s best to let reality intrude, and Trump, to his credit, has now done that. Some in the White House say his presidency effectively began on April 4, when Bashar al-Assad dropped sarin gas on innocent civilians, killing 82 men, women and children. Others believe the president’s reality check was already in motion—that the appointment of H.R. McMaster, the brainy Army general, as head of the National Security Council (who would later toss Bannon off the NSC) was a signal that the grown-ups were taking charge of the White House.
Whatever the precise moment, the facts are unmistakable: During the campaign, Trump bashed Wall Street and Goldman Sachs in particular. Now, Gary Cohn, Goldman’s former chief operating officer, who heads Trump’s National Economic Council, is rumored to be his future chief of staff. Jared Kushner, whose most important title is son-in-law, also has little time for Bannonism, and works on an ever expanding suite of issues.
Part of Kushner’s new portfolio: arranging the Mar-a-Lago summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump, which is where the new Trump revealed himself emphatically. Candidate Trump had mocked his rivals during the campaign for their militarism. “Every time you see [South Carolina Senator] Lindsey Graham, he wants to bomb somebody,” he once joked. Then, while at dinner with Xi, Trump bombed Syria. “I’m proud of him” Graham would say later.)
This Syria attack startled many in Trumplandia. Conservative columnist Ann Coulter, a longtime Trump cheerleader, told Fox News that Trump’s supporters didn’t want “more pointless wars,” and that Assad is actually one of the “least bad” leaders in the Middle East. In a column, she wrote that Assad is “not a murderous thug like Saddam,” which would be news to the surviving family members of the more than 500,000 people killed in Syria over the last six years.
Bombing Assad wasn’t the end of Trump’s apostasy. Before the meeting with Xi, Trump’s trade hawks were worried the president would toss out his economic agenda in exchange for Chinese cooperation on reining in North Korea’s nuclear program. Which is precisely what happened. Trump shelved plans to label Beijing a “currency manipulator”—deliberately weakening its currency to boost exports—as he had repeatedly threatened to do during the campaign. But the decision wasn’t just about North Korea. Behind the scenes, Cohn and his team had been educating the president on China and its currency, pointing out that Beijing was actually intervening to strengthen it against the dollar, not weaken it (a slowing economy and increased capital flight have put downward pressure on the renminbi).
This was the real world intruding, and it would happen again. Trump came into office saying he wanted better relations with Vladimir Putin and Russia, and his unwillingness to criticize the former KGB man fed critics who claim Trump somehow colluded with Moscow to win the election. This has led to an extraordinary spectacle in Washington. Many Democrats during the Cold War were consistently in favor of a détente with the Soviet Union compared with conservative hawks who felt otherwise. Jimmy Carter chided Republicans for their “inordinate fear of communism,” and Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 meant we were all going to go up in a nuclear flash. As recently as 2012, Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney for calling Putin a threat; “the 1980s are calling, and they want their foreign policy back,” Obama said during a debate.
Now, Democrats strut around cable chat shows in Washington channeling their inner Dr. Strangelove, huffing and puffing about how awful Putin is and how his “ties” to Trump must be investigated. But if Trump’s a Russian stooge, he’s a really bad one. In the wake of the Syrian attack, Trump sent his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to deliver a message to Moscow: Drop Assad as a client, and if he uses chemical weapons again, we’ll hit him again.
This is not what the Russians wanted to hear, and after Tillerson left Moscow, Trump said U.S.-Russian relations were now as poor as they have ever been. (No, this isn’t the Cuban missile crisis, and we aren’t doing duck-and-cover drills. But if the president meant post-Soviet U.S.-Russia relations, his point was defensible.) Trump then irritated Moscow even more by hosting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington. After the meetings, he acknowledged that during the campaign he had disparaged the alliance. But now? “NATO,” the president declared on April 12, “is no longer obsolete.”
It never had been. But the president was now more firmly grounded in the real world, not in Trumplandia. The irony that some members of his base prefer him in fantasyland is not lost on the New York real estate mogul. The flight to reality may actually cost him politically, and he knows it, says one adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “But his attitude is, so be it. He has good people around him, and he listens.”
The education of President Trump has begun. And that’s a relief.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Reince Priebus's name.