Those who believed Donald Trump was sincere in announcing his intentions to heal America’s divisions might not be as confident following his naming of a key adviser and his selection of a controversial lawmaker for a prominent role in his new administration.
The president-elect’s choice of Stephen K. Bannon as a super aide who will apparently report directly to him and the news Friday that Trump wants Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be named attorney general is enough to give the willies to civil libertarians and even the more conservative of his backers. Both men at times have shown tendencies that challenge our gains in civil rights.
Bannon’s past incarnation as the manager of an online “news” site that appeals to white extremists and anti-Semites should dictate to any prudent politician that here may be someone to be avoided. But not Trump, who used this guy late in his campaign as a major strategist and now plans to elevate him to being his No. 1 assistant in all things political and who knows what else. Bannon’s position will supersede that of Reince Priebus, who will become Trump’s chief of staff.
Anyone paying attention, even if they’ve become war-weary and overcome by news of the campaign and the transition, should have some knowledge of the controversy surrounding Bannon, whose disparagements have earned him the enmity of leading Jewish organizations and others who regard him as bringing a racist taint to the White House. Bannon has been quoted as calling neoconservative commentator and editor William Kristol “a renegade Jew,” among other things.
Defenders say Bannon has a solid background in finance and, as the chosen head of something called the alt-right, merely built Breitbart on the principals of free expression, not necessarily his own. Bannon, while acknowledging there are fringe elements in the nationalist movement, contends its members aren’t extremists. He was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “These people are patriots. They love their country. They just want their country taken care of.”
Uh huh. Where have we heard that before? Perhaps in the past attempts to justify the efforts of xenophobic zealots.
Then there is Sessions, a Republican who once was rejected by a Republican Senate after being nominated by President Ronald Reagan to a federal judgeship. He was not confirmed because of alleged racist remarks, including supposedly calling a black lawyer “boy.” He denied making most of the statements. Well, not one of them, which he claimed was a joke. He said he had thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he heard some members smoked pot. He apologized for that.
His nomination to be the nation’s top lawyer, while not all that surprising, might face a confirmation challenge given his hard-nose attitude toward immigration and lingering suspicions of him harboring anti-civil rights inclinations. It is hard to imagine that Trump would appoint a person to be the nation’s top prosecutor who has questionable human rights credentials. But Sessions has been a Trump loyalist from the beginning of the New York billionaire’s unlikely campaign and has been counted among the few insiders who have helped make the heavy transition decisions.
The fact is, neither he nor Bannon should be anywhere near the new administration. Trump has enough trouble trying to make sense of the garble of this transition without raising racial questions. He is said to be dealing only with a handful of advisers, including his son-in-law, who is deciding whether he wants a West Wing assignment or to continue his highly profitable business. Unfortunately, like Sessions, Bannon is one of the leaders of the transition team.
The difficulties in bringing some order to the chaos are huge enough without aggravating the situation by seeming to support a return of rampant intolerance and other debilitating attitudes.
Trump aides have cited Bannon’s background in finance and the fact he is a Harvard man to justify his appointment to a permanent role in the White House — as if Harvard men can’t be racist. Certainly, Breitbart gives off an aura of intolerance, and it’s enough to set this unprecedented presidency off on the wrong foot.
As for Sessions, he might once again have serious confirmation problems.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.