Steve Bannon says the Republican Party is “trying to destroy” President Donald Trump.
“I’m talking about Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans,” Bannon told the crowd at a recent fundraiser for GOP Senate candidate Kelli Ward, whom Bannon bet on to unseat Arizona’s incumbent GOP senator and Trump critic Jeff Flake. Fortunately for Ward and Bannon, Flake announced his retirement Tuesday, citing “the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics” as well as “the behavior of the president of the United States” as his demoralizing factors in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor. “The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take,” Flake told The Arizona Republic. Others have chosen to stand and fight. Maine Senator Susan Collins, another GOP critic of Trump, recently declined to run for governor in her home state, instead choosing to stay and register her opposition to Trump in the Senate. But even as Flake and Tennessee’s retiring GOP Senator Bob Corker, another disgruntled Trump foe, cast their recent decisions to forego reelection as protest, their evacuation of the Senate leaves more room for Trumpism as practiced by Bannon’s hand-picked insurgents.
Bannon has described his war on Trump’s doubters and critics in the Senate as an “open revolt” against the governing Republican establishment. Since he parted ways with the Trump administration in August amid staff turmoil and unrelenting public criticism of Bannon’s reactionary politics, he has reclaimed his old title, executive chairman, at Breitbart News, where he has turned his attention to GOP candidate recruitment for the 2018 midterm elections. Bannon’s efforts have drawn him into a feud with McConnell, the Senate majority leader, who has flatly committed himself to supporting even the most moderate GOP incumbents in Senate elections across the board. McConnell isn’t the only Republican establishment figure who has bristled at Bannon’s right-wing push. In recent months, erstwhile conservative mastermind Karl Rove has emerged as the sharpest critic of Bannon’s contentious midterm strategy. “From his perch at Breitbart, Mr. Bannon is vowing to defeat officeholders who back Mr. McConnell as majority leader or who won’t sign onto Mr. Bannon’s populist agenda,” Rove wrote last week for The Wall Street Journal. Political observers, especially conservatives, often write euphemistically about Bannon’s “populism” and all it entails: strict and merciless immigration controls, violent racial division, anti-feminist crusades, and bombastic governance overall. McConnell, Paul Ryan, et al., agree with much of Bannon’s agenda in substance, but his apocalyptic rhetoric and tolerance for white nationalist and white supremacist activists has thrown the GOP into a terminal branding crisis.
Bannon first entered campaign politics as a reactionary spoiler in the 2016 presidential election. He advised Trump, who more formally adopted Bannon’s chaotic style of white resentment and who later tapped Bannon to serve as his chief strategist in the White House. In recent months, Bannon has, occasionally but inconsistently, disavowed the white nationalist elements of the “alt-right.” On Monday, BuzzFeed reported that Bannon has ended his business relationship with the right-wing dilettante Milo Yiannopoulos, whose spectacular media antics spread Breitbart’s white nationalist themes into mainstream politics but whose personal scandals, such as his extolling pedophilia in unearthed interview footage, embarrassed Bannon and further embroiled him in conversations about white nationalism. Since returning to Breitbart, Bannon has turned his attention from cultivating a young generation of alt-right, neo-Nazi activists to running old-school, reactionary quacks such as Ward for public office. But the young staff and activists who animate campaigns such as Ward’s and the radical right-wing Senate candidate Roy Moore’s are pawns in Bannon’s white-nationalist program all the same.
Surprisingly, Trump is not yet on board with Bannon’s contentious 2018 plan. In August, Trump endorsed the incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange, the appointed heir to the seat previously held by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in the Republican primary of the special election to fill Sessions’s old seat for a full term. Two weeks after Trump endorsed Strange, Bannon revealed his own support for Strange’s reactionary challenger, Moore, a cantankerous judge who once dramatically defended a public monument to the Ten Commandments and who vehemently opposes “crime, corruption, immorality, abortion, sodomy, sexual perversion.” Despite Trump’s and McConnell’s support for Moore’s primary opponent, Moore defeated Strange by nearly 10 percentage points in the September 26 election, and Bannon has since gone on to promote other GOP spoiler candidates across the country, including Kid Rock, who, until Tuesday, was rumored to be interested in challenging Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. In his Journal op-ed, Rove billed the Alabama special election on December 12 as “the first evidence of whether Mr. Bannon has picked a team of winners or just a collection of misfits and ne’er-do-wells.” As a ne’er-do-well himself, Trump has gone on to express his regrets for endorsing Strange at the expense of Moore, the candidate who, most observers would argue, better reflects his own resentful and bewildering politics, given Moore’s wild, candid, reactionary style. If McConnell duped Trump into supporting Strange despite his basic political interests, then Bannon seems to have made it his mission to ensure that Trump isn’t duped again.
Bannon is out of the White House, but he is nonetheless proving to be influential in national politics. According to The Washington Post, Trump and Bannon remain in frequent contact despite the acclaimed efforts of White House chief of staff John Kelly to limit the president’s input from outside advisers and immodest influences. From outside the White House, Bannon has pressured Trump to break from McConnell and his slate of supposed GOP moderates. And beyond Bannon’s daily influence in the president’s thoughts, he has appointed himself arbiter of the GOP’s immediate future.
The Alabama special election spells out that future as much as it underscores the instability and unease of the Republican Party’s present state. McConnell, the boring establishmentarian, backed the incumbent Strange, a state GOP hack who posed little risk of defying McConnell’s leadership in the Senate. Moore, on the other hand, has made defiance the dramatic signature of his legal and political careers. For months before McConnell threw his endorsement and resources behind Strange, Moore had made the Senate majority leader the butt of his campaign ads, which characterized McConnell’s leadership as a “D.C. slime machine” opposed to renegade conservatives such as Moore. “I don’t have — nor want — the backing of Mitch McConnell and his cronies in Washington,” Moore wrote in one fundraising letter. McConnell is safe in his own Senate seat, as he’s not up for reelection until 2020, and even then he is likely to survive any challengers; but McConnell is losing his grip on the right-wing zeitgeist. To hear McConnell’s critics tell it, he has largely squandered his party’s three years in the majority. Bannon offers a bold, dark, alternative course where Trumpism could outgrow the cautious, conditional support of traditionalist Republican hacks; thus, Trumpism could capture the Congress and become a fully functioning governing coalition unto itself.
Bannon is reliving the dream of the tea party, a right-wing movement that formed as an urgent counterbalance to Democratic governance in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency; a movement that floundered despite helping the Republicans sweep the 2010 midterms and turning Congress over to GOP control. The Republican primary phase of those midterms was packed with tea party candidates who fared poorly against their bland, establishment GOP opponents. The GOP has built upon its House majority in the seven years since that Republican sweep, but the party has avoided reckoning with the ideological crisis that Trump’s election provoked. All Paul Ryan wants for Christmas is tax reform. McConnell has primarily committed himself to dismantling Obamacare, though his party’s attempts have repeatedly failed in the Senate despite Trump’s support. Bannon shares in these goals, but his ultimate priority is a much larger project that. Left practically unchallenged, he will exploit the GOP leadership’s failure to offer a less violent and divisive alternative to Trumpism, and he will redefine the Republican identity for a generation. Long after the Jeff Flakes and Bob Corkers have retreated from the scene, extremists like Roy Moore will likely remain. Unlike the elected leaders of his party, Bannon has a vision. It is dark, but it is clear.