[…] These developments may all be unrelated, but their net effect is to reassert the Washington foreign-policy consensus over what had, until now, appeared to be a fundamental shift in national-security strategy. Trump came into office with the prospect of thawing relations with Moscow, over the objections of Russia hawks in media and think-tank world. Trump set a new course in the Middle East as well, prioritizing the defeat of ISIS, in place of Obama’s strategy of attempting to undermine Assad and ISIS at the same time. Countering radical Islamism by destroying ISIS and clamping down on immigration from hot spots of extremism was a distinctly different strategy from the one pursued by Obama or the one advocated by neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists. To change U.S. policy so profoundly, the Trump administration had to weather political attacks from the mainstream media, Democrats, Republican hawks, and much of the national-security establishment.
Bannon appeared to be a key player in this struggle, as the architect of immigration restriction and the chief ideologist of “America First.” Recent weeks, however, have been marked by setbacks on every front of the ideological fight. Immigration restrictions have been frustrated by the courts, while rapprochement was Russia has been politically complicated by investigations into whether Trump campaign officials last year had improper dealings with Russian officials. In domestic matters, the administration found itself in a difficult position over repealing and replacing Obamacare: to many conservative activist organizations, the White House seemed to be on the side of the Republican establishment in pushing an unsatisfactory bill, which was ultimately withdrawn when it failed to garner enough support in the House from moderates or conservatives.
Each setback creates a new opening for Trump’s opponents to press the attack. They are aided by the presence in Trump’s administration of Republicans who, though they may serve the president, fundamentally agree with the old way of doing things and would like to see the president renew the Washington consensus rather than overthrow it. There are grave dangers in this direction, however. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both failed to advance American security by following the standard Washington playbook. Each was a disaster in foreign policy. President Trump is not in a position to improve on their performance with the same strategy—for one thing, he does not enjoy the popular support that Bush and Obama did, and what support he does have comes from voters who want America’s economic interests and cultural cohesion to rank first on the president’s agenda. For Donald Trump to pursue policies that might have come from Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush would be catastrophic both strategically and politically. Yet the pressure on Trump to conform will continue to grow.