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Can Trump control the wave of racism he has released?

Dana Milbank on

WASHINGTON -- Lyndon Johnson, deciding whether to fire FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, famously reasoned that "it's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

President Trump has made a different choice, opting to fire Stephen Bannon, the nationalist envoy of the "alt-right" in the White House. And now Bannon, who only last week was boasting that his rivals within the administration were "wetting themselves," is on the outside, fly unzipped.

Bannon has returned to Breitbart News, his former haunt and the voice of the white right, and on Tuesday night, when Trump addressed the nation about Afghanistan, Bannon's Breitbart hit Trump with three unfriendly headlines:

Trump "defends flip-flop in somber speech"

"His McMaster's voice: Is Trump Afghanistan policy that different from Obama's?"

"Donald Trump echoes Obama's 'Blank Check' rhetoric in Afghanistan speech"

 

Which way the flow goes now in these early days of the post-Bannon White House could well be determinative -- not just for the Trump presidency but for the country as it grapples with a re-emergence of white supremacists. Can Trump control the wave of racism he has released?

Monday night brought an encouraging sign. Trump announced a responsible Afghanistan policy that was essentially a continuation of existing strategy -- that is, not the pullout Trump had wanted nor Bannon's cockamamie idea of turning the war over to the scandal-prone company formerly known as Blackwater. Just as important was the way he announced it, with an appeal to unity that had none of Bannon's "American carnage" influence.

"We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other," he said. "As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas -- and we will always win -- let us find the courage to heal our divisions within."

But is that what Trump really wants? Or was Bannon right when he told The Weekly Standard after his dismissal that Trump's "natural tendency -- and I think you saw it this week on Charlottesville -- his default position is the position of his base, the position that got him elected." But Bannon's cause for despair -- "I think they're going to try to moderate him ... I think it'll be much more conventional" -- is my cause for hope.

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