Steve Bannon has been banished from Trumpland.
The Breitbart executive’s taste for the spotlight — and penchant for telling reporters inconvenient truths — got him evicted from the White House months ago. But he had remained one of the president’s long-distance advisers — and self-styled enforcers. In retaliation for congressional Republicans’ failure to both repeal Obamacare and kneecap the Mueller investigation, Bannon set out to recruit a band of GOP primary challengers who were willing to show Trump all due sycophancy. When Mitch McConnell forced the president to denounce this cause-less rebellion, Trump felt compelled to stipulate that “Steve is very committed, he’s a friend of mine and he’s committed to getting things passed” — adding, “I know how he feels.”
Since then, Bannon’s ephebophilic insurgent in Alabama cost the GOP one of the nation’s safest Senate seats; McConnell pushed through Trump’s tax cut bill; and Bannon allowed a reporter to quote him saying that the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia was probably criminal — and that Mueller likely has Jared Kushner and Don Jr. dead to rights.
“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor — with no lawyers,” Bannon tells Michael Wolff, in his new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, referring to the infamous meeting between Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and supposed agents of the Russian government in the summer of 2016. “Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”
Bannon went on to say that “the chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero,” and “this is all about money laundering. Mueller chose [senior prosecutor Andrew] Weissmann first and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr. and Jared Kushner … It’s as plain as a hair on your face,” and “it goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy.” And: “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”
In sum: Bannon said, on the record, that the Russia investigation is not “fake news”; that Trump has been lying to the public about his campaign’s interest in collusion; and that much of the president’s family is guilty of major financial crimes.
The White House is (understandably) apoplectic.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said in a statement. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind … Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well.”
Needless to say, this all undermines Bannon’s ability to lead an anti-Establishment crusade premised on its superior loyalty to Donald Trump. Bannon had endorsed West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey over Representative Evan Jenkins in that state’s Republican Senate primary. On Wednesday, Jenkins called on Morissey to renounce Bannon’s support, in light of the former White House strategist’s “vicious attacks on President Trump and his family.”
Given a choice between allegiance to the Republican president or the chairman of Breitbart, few GOP candidates are going to pick the latter. On Wednesday, Breitbart’s arch-nemesis, Mitch McConnell, celebrated the ostensible death of Bannonism over his campaign’s official Twitter account.
Given the choice between their boss and their readers’ hero, Breitbart’s initial impulse was to strike an “anti-anti-Bannon” line — spotlighting the glee that Trump and Bannon’s mutual enemies in the “NeverTrump” movement were taking in the two men’s rift.
But Breitbart can’t keep its audience united in opposition to John Podhoretz’s Twitter feed forever. Nor can Trump and Bannon’s mutual friends on the far-right flank of Republican politics indefinitely avoid picking sides.
Bannon’s power, such as it was, had four interrelated sources: his personal influence with the president; his relationship with the conservative megadonors of the Mercer family; his website; and (to a much lesser extent) his ability to articulate a halfway-coherent alternative to the Establishment GOP’s deeply discredited brand of conservatism.
The first is, ostensibly, kaput. The third probably hinges on the second: If the Mercers would rather maintain good relations at the White House than bankroll their own pseudo-white-nationalist political movement, it’s going to be hard for Breitbart to comport itself as the president’s disloyal opposition. And all signs suggest the Mercers have no deep loyalty to Bannon. Late last year — in the wake of a BuzzFeed exposé that highlighted Breitbart’s alliances with white supremacists — Robert Mercer sold his stake in the media company to his daughters, and said in a statement, “I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically. Those decisions do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.” Meanwhile, Bannon reportedly alienated Robert’s daughter, Rebekah Mercer, by telling other conservative donors that her family was prepared to support his hypothetical future presidential campaign. According to one Mercer confidante who spoke with the Washington Post, Rebekah “now does not plan to financially support Bannon’s future projects.”
Nevertheless, if Bannon were to earn his billionaires’ forgiveness and keep his media platform, then he could conceivably make constructive use of a break with Trump. Until now, Bannon and Breitbart have worked to appeal to both devotees of the president’s cult of personality and “alt-right” nationalist ideologues in hopes of converting the former into the latter (and/or maximizing web traffic). But the necessity of maintaining loyalty to the president robbed Bannon’s movement (such as it was) of ideological coherence.
In media interviews, Bannon has derided the Establishment GOP’s fealty to the rich, insatiable appetite for foreign intervention, and refusal to preserve America’s “civic society” through restrictive immigration policies. Meanwhile, he has championed giant public-works projects, higher taxes on the rich, and aggressive regulation of Silicon Valley monopolies. That agenda would (almost certainly) enjoy broader appeal than the one Trump has governed on. Tax cuts for the rich and health-care cuts for the poor is not a popular platform, even among GOP voters. Trump’s base is not motivated by a deeply felt desire to be scammed by their financial advisers. A well-funded “alternative” conservative movement that was 10 percent more racist — and 90 percent less economically libertarian — than Paul Ryan’s GOP could be a potent force in American politics, especially if Republicans suffer major losses in 2018 and 2020.
And yet, Bannon’s desire to appeal to Trump tribalists (ostensibly) has led him to endorse candidates whose views on fiscal issues are even more toxically regressive than Mitch McConnell’s. If Roy Moore weren’t an alleged sex criminal, bigot, and authoritarian theocrat, the best argument against his candidacy might have been his support for a flat tax.
So it’s possible to imagine that abandoning Trumpism for a coherent right-wing populism could have some long-term benefit for Bannon. That said, such a development seems highly unlikely. For one thing, it’s not clear that Bannon’s ideological incoherence was fully attributable to his loyalty to the president, rather than to the absence of conservative activists with an interest in pushing the GOP to the left on economic issues — and/or to Bannon being a loudmouth with more thirst for attention than ideological conviction. For another, even if the Mercers were to forgive Bannon’s recent indiscretions, they’re every bit as committed to upward redistribution as the next family of Republican billionaires — they just appear to dislike Muslims and immigration more than the Koch Brothers do.
It’s plausible, then, that Trump’s split with Bannon will have few significant consequences for Republican politics. The president and mainstream media both have the memory of a goldfish; Breitbart will just wait for the news cycle to spin this beef into obscurity. And although it’s conceivable that Bannon’s isolation from the White House could weaken the far right in the upcoming DACA fight, Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, and Trump himself are probably more than enough to keep this White House xenophobic.
All of which is to say: We’re about to find out whether “Bannonism” is actually a thing — and odds are, the answer is no.