Either outcome will be clarifying. Shortly after Mr Bannon was fired, Mr Trump sent mixed signals on whether he would stick to his original campaign promise. First he announced that within six months he would start deporting “Dreamers” — those who came to the US illegally as children — unless Congress said otherwise. The right applauded.
Shortly after that he said he was open to a deal with Democrats that would legalise the Dreamers’ status. Mr Trump hinted he might even drop his insistence on funding for the Mexican border wall. The right erupted in fury. Breitbart News, Mr Bannon’s disruptive website, branded the president “Amnesty Don”. Alabama’s Republicans will now decide if their loyalty is to Mr Trump or to the cause on which he campaigned.
It is almost like one of Mr Trump’s reality shows. Which Mr Trump does Alabama want? The demagogue or the dealmaker? It is fair to say most Americans would prefer the latter. But Alabama Republicans, like the president’s base, are untypical of most of America.
Mr Bannon’s goal is to force Mr Trump to stick to his campaign message. In his view, the president has no core ideology: he responds to market signals. Applause is the key index. In the past few weeks Mr Trump has won ovations from Washington centrists and cable shows, such as Morning Joe. Should this continue, he could acquire a taste for bipartisanship, which would damage Mr Bannon’s cause. Mr Trump could start doing deals with Democrats. Worse, he could become an establishment Republican. Mr Bannon’s aim is to save Mr Trump from himself.
The backdrop is an America in which two-party politics is decomposing. The gulf between the Democratic moneyed elites and its grassroots is also widening. Do not expect Mr Trump to settle on any grand strategy. He is both a symptom and personification of America’s political breakdown. If his candidate prevails in Alabama next week, the battle will shift to other races. There are bitter Republican primaries brewing in Mississippi, Nevada and Arizona. Mr Trump has yet to decide whether to endorse the incumbents or Mr Bannon’s insurgents. Given his fickle nature, the president is unlikely to stick to any battle plan for long.
By contrast, Mr Bannon is digging in for the strategic long haul. Even after being cast out, his influence remains. This week Mr Trump gave the most nationalist speech yet delivered by a US president to the UN general assembly. It could have been written by Mr Bannon. Every time Mr Trump wanders off script, Mr Bannon will give him a reason to think twice. Though Mr Trump was speaking to fellow leaders in New York, his audience was at home in sweet Alabama.