first person

My Evening With Erik Prince and Steve Bannon

Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold/Intelligencer/Getty Images

Being a young Republican in New York can be tough. Tinder is a minefield, plastic straws are hard to come by, and MAGA hats can’t be worn in public. Some choose to keep quiet about their politics. But two weeks ago, a group of millennial Republicans braved the cold, the rain, and the jeers of a small band of protesters to attend the New York Young Republican Club’s 107th annual gala at the Yale Club in midtown. Once they made it past the protest, they checked their coats, and boarded an elevator up to the 20th floor, where an oasis awaited them.

“You should not be here. This is a private club,” said a man in the elevator who was neither young nor a Republican, apparently.

“Why do you not want us here? Come on, just say it,” a young tuxedoed Republican responded.

“I do not agree with you being here. I live next to Trump in Palm Beach,” said the boomer. “He is shameful. You should not be here.”

The youths got a kick out of that. Someone in the back of the elevator asked why he got to decide who belonged and who did not.

“I am independently wealthy,” the man responded. “Like I said, I live next to Trump …”

“Oh! An elitist!” a young man wearing a crushed-velvet tuxedo jacket said sarcastically.

“Elitist!? Look at how you’re dressed! You should not be here,” the man said before getting off on his floor. Once the doors shut, the elevator erupted in laughter. Spirits were high and refuge was just a few floors above.

“Did they call you guys white supremacists, too?” a woman asked us as soon as we stepped off the elevator. She was talking about the protesters outside. Such are the indignities in a hyperpoliticized city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans nearly 7 to 1.

The gala’s headline speakers were Steve Bannon and Erik Prince. As Trump rocketed toward impeachment, days after major losses in Virginia and Kentucky, I went to hear what Bannon (Trump’s former adviser) and Prince (Trump’s “shadow adviser”) would say to a room full of New York MAGA-philes. I was also interested in the New York Young Republicans and their boosters — people who had invested so much time and money championing, or defending, this president.

In 2016, the New York Young Republicans were depicted in a New York Times story as confused by Donald Trump. “When people ask me at work about him, I tell them he doesn’t represent all of us,” one member said. Either the NYYRs have come around or the club has seen a lot of turnover. In the past few years, the NYYRs have welcomed speakers like far-right blogger Pam Geller and professional internet troll Mike Cernovich. Milo Yiannopoulos was the guest of honor at the club’s MAGAWEEN costume party. (Yiannopoulos, who dressed as a priest with devil horns, was introduced by a stout bearded man dressed as Greta Thunberg.) The gala’s program bragged of “special guests in attendance” like Pizzagate amplifier Jack Posobiec, the former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London Raheem Kassam, and various other members of the Turning Points/Project Veritas/Federalist set. And Ann Coulter, though I did not see her in attendance.

I found my seat at table 21 and the program began with the Pledge of Allegiance. (“It’s nice to see nobody kneeling out there.”) Afterward, we took a seat, but 30 seconds later we were told to rise again. A woman sang “God Bless America” accompanied by a piano and then transitioned into a rousing rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Once that was over, we all sat down again, but less than a minute later, we were asked to stand for the “Star Spangled Banner.” The piano played the piece in its entirety and just as it came to an end and I was about to take my seat again, the singer began her own version of the national anthem. Once she finished, we were allowed to sit.

I sat next to a swashbuckling man in a three-piece suit. He seemed to have taken advantage of the world’s smallest open bar and he was the loudest voice in a 200-person banquet hall. Instead of listening to the first few speakers, he decided to talk to me. He told me that he is a lawyer and years ago he’d studied genocide. At the end of his biography he added, casually, “And then I worked for Cambridge Analytica.” He rolled his eyes at the speakers periodically and once he leaned in to say, “This shit is so fucking hilarious.”

Cambridge Analytica was his connection to the NYYR. He had worked for the company that used galaxies of Facebook user data to target Trump voters. He said he didn’t agree with the mission. I asked him what he did now that Cambridge Analytica is no more. “I’m in the cannabis sector,” he said, grinning as he showed me a packet of weed. “Welcome to the Young Republicans gala!” Spirits were high when Prince finally took the stage.

The greatest threat to America, Prince said, is not terrorism or Russia (“Russia is basically Italy with nuclear weapons”). It’s socialism masquerading as liberalism. It’s the sort of Trojan horse that can sneak the 16th Amendment into the Constitution and force people to pay taxes.

During interviews with journalists and the House Intelligence Committee, Prince has acted as if he was the last one to find out about his own ties to Trump. The Blackwater billionaire gave $250,000 to pro-Trump election efforts in 2016; his sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s secretary of Education; and he has pitched the president on a privatized intelligence force that would presumably make Prince an even richer man. Prince has obfuscated and lied about at least two meetings at which he appeared on behalf of Trump, the first in 2016 at Trump Tower and the second in 2017 in the Seychelles. He has also gone hunting with Don Jr. and Eric.

Prince’s speech painted his former company, Blackwater, as a victim of the so-called “permanent administrative state.” He said that “after one unfortunate event in Nisour Square, the political attack came. Literally a blizzard of subpoenas from every federal agency you might not have even heard of.” The “unfortunate event” Prince was referring to was in 2007, when his Blackwater employees killed 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 others. “In the Vietnam War, the left went after the troops, this time they went after the contractors,” Prince said.

People were chattering during Prince’s speech, savoring the chocolate opera cake, offering half-hearted applause when he mentioned the number of federal judges Trump had appointed.

“We need to privatize whenever possible,” Prince said. “Entrepreneurship made America great.” He ended with a quote from Saving Private Ryan and a warning that the last time Virginia was as blue as it is now, we were living under slavery.

Finally, it was time for “Uncle Steve,” as someone had referred to him earlier in the night. After some microphone troubles (“Deep state!” somebody yelled), Bannon proceeded to say that he had planned to talk geopolitics, but instead he wanted to have a frank discussion about the storm on the horizon.

“President Trump is going to be impeached,” he said, throwing cold water on the bacchanalia. Everyone stopped chattering. The opera cake was gone. Bannon, who recently started a podcast about Trump’s impeachment, expressed his reservations about Mitch McConnell and challenged the assumption that the Senate would not remove the president. “Do not think that the Trump revolution is going to be the same on the other side of this as it is now.”

Bannon’s speech wasn’t all doom and gloom. From the dais at the Yale Club, he slammed the “Davos class” and the bailout; he told the story of the 2016 election like it was his people’s creation myth; he called out the axis of countries — including “Persia” — “trying to control the Eurasian landmass.” He said that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are going “to destroy the concept of money”; he talked about the “fourth turning,” a reference to a 1997 book of the same name theorizing that America undergoes cataclysmic social change every fourth generation; he cracked an inaudible joke about Hillary Clinton.

At end of his speech, Bannon returned to the impeachment inquiry’s impact on the 2020 race. While it’s hard to picture him ever identifying as anything other than an underdog, I needed to remind myself that Bannon was talking about a candidate who currently occupies the Oval Office. “If you blink in this room, I can guarantee you we will lose,” he said. The room was quieter than it had been all night. “This country is as divided as it was during the Civil War.” In typical “Uncle Steve” fashion, Bannon ended with Napoleon’s quote — “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.”

People queued for pictures with Prince and Bannon. I tried to beat the rush to the coat check (the attendant accepted a tip, despite the “No Tipping” sign). I followed a young couple out of the revolving door onto Vanderbilt Avenue. The rain had stopped and the protesters had gone home.

My Evening With Erik Prince and Steve Bannon