Steve Bannon told allies he didn’t expect to remain in the Trump White House longer than eight to 12 months—and he was right. Donald Trump’s most controversial aide, who was dismissed by White House chief of staff John Kelly, was brought down by the same qualities that endeared him to the president and made him a valued confidant on the campaign trail: his sharp elbows and his intuitive understanding of the populist voters that helped boost Trump to power in November.
But the street-fighting nature Bannon wielded so effectively in 2016 against Hillary Clinton—“an apple polisher who couldn’t pass the D.C. bar exam,” he has said—became a liability in the White House, where his colleagues didn’t trust him and where Kelly, only weeks into his new role, quickly convinced the president that he was a bad influence. Trump himself, who hates firing people, has not spoken to Bannon personally since his dismissal, according to a White House aide.
The proximate cause of Bannon’s dismissal was the president’s halting response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that left a woman dead. While Trump’s senior aides huddled at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, urging him forcefully to condemn the agitators—some of who were waving Trump-Pence banners and wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats—Bannon was pushing him in a different direction. The president’s most enthusiastic supporters, he told Trump, opposed the removal of Confederate monuments—a cause that became the ostensible pretext for the neo-Nazi rally that spun out of control.
It was a message the president delivered in a topsy-turvy news conference on Tuesday, where Kelly—standing behind Trump—made his displeasure visible to all. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” Bannon emerged later that day to support the president, telling the New York Times that Trump “connects with the American people about their history, culture and traditions.” Trump himself was pleased—but Bannon’s remarks cemented Kelly’s sense that he exacerbated the president’s worst tendencies.
Bannon’s disruptive influence preceded his presence in the West Wing—and it will survive him. From his perch at Breitbart News, where he served as chairman before joining the Trump campaign in August, Bannon blew open the Republican consensus on trade and immigration. It was Trump who, in his presidential announcement speech, maneuvered to the front of Bannon’s parade.
Years earlier, at Breitbart, Bannon had found a passionate audience for what he proudly called “economic nationalism”—the trade protectionism and immigration restrictionism that Trump championed on the campaign trail—and had begun to turn that audience into a political force.
In June 2014, a little-known economics professor from an obscure liberal arts college, David Brat, drove Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor out of politics. It was the first sign that the ideological composition of the Republican Party was changing—even if most party leaders ignored it at the time. Breitbart News, then under Bannon’s direction, was the only national news outlet that paid much attention to the race, broadcasting Brat’s message to millions of Republicans across the country and turning him into a right-wing folk hero.
Brat homed in on Cantor’s support for immigration reform, something Bannon and Breitbart had been doing for months. The site’s criticisms—“Cantor Relentless in Push for Amnesty for Illegal Alien Youth,” one headline blared—previewed the nationalist appeals Trump would make on the campaign trail and demonstrated that a sizable portion of the Republican electorate was receptive to them. Months before Brat announced his candidacy, for example, Breitbart pilloried Cantor for attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, the annual gathering of leaders across the academic, business and non-profit sectors, deriding him as a part of the “global superclass” indifferent to the fate of the American middle class.
“The reason that this guy won is quite simple: Middle-class people and working-class people are tired of people like Eric Cantor, who say they’re conservative, [but are] selling out their interests every day to crony capitalists” Bannon said at the time.
The day after Cantor’s double-digit defeat, POLITICO reported, “Cantor loss kills immigration reform.” But the Brat-Breitbart nexus also revealed a number of other emerging political realities: that polls could be wildly off (Cantor’s pollster had him winning by 34 points); that money doesn’t matter all that much (Cantor had raised $5.5 million, Brat just $200,000); and that the political elite is far more fragile than it appears to be.
“One of the things it showed was that David can beat Goliath and you can do it with literally no money—lesson No. 1, money doesn’t matter, message does. Lesson No. 2, there’s a seething anger against the Republican establishment for not getting anything done,” Bannon told POLITICO in an interview last month.
The other was the brutal effectiveness of Breitbart’s smash-mouth politics. The site was unrelenting in its personal attacks not only on Cantor but on all Republican leaders. It was Bannon’s protege, Julia Hahn, the precocious University of Chicago graduate who posted photographs of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s house surrounded by what Breitbart termed a “tall border fence”—an effort to paint Ryan as a hypocrite for his failure to fund a border wall in an omnibus spending bill. (Bannon would later hire Hahn to work with him in the White House.)
During the presidential campaign, a host of others from Megyn Kelly at Fox News to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the “donor class” came in for similar treatment. “You don’t come to Breitbart for a pat on the head and a warm hug, right? You know you’re coming here—it’s the fight club,” Bannon told the journalist Reid Cherlin in 2014.
Bannon is an unforgiving opponent but a loyal ally. He insists Trump is “the best orator since William Jennings Bryan,” the 20th-century Midwestern populist, and said he told Trump when he interviewed to be his campaign chief—and again after the Access Hollywood tape was released—that he had a “100 percent chance of winning” if he stuck to nationalistic and populist themes.
If the “fight club” style was effective in a scorched-earth campaign against the political establishment, it has arguably been less effective in the West Wing, though Bannon disputes he brought it there. A flurry of executive orders with Bannon’s fingerprints on them, issued in the administration’s opening days, backfired. If they were intended to shock Washington into submission, they instead had the effect of subduing Bannon, who also helped to marginalize himself by boasting too loudly about his influence as the puppet master pulling the president’s strings—an act that reportedly enraged the commander in chief.
Bannon’s adversaries in the administration also suspected him of being one of the White House’s most aggressive leakers, and they got unusually public proof this week when he trash-talked White House economic adviser Gary Cohn in a conversation with the editor of the American Prospect, a small pro-labor magazine. (Bannon apparently thought the conversation was private.) They say that not much has changed since he ran Breitbart, except that he now uses the news media he supposedly disdains to spread damaging information about his ideological opponents, from Cohn to national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Bannon denies those claims and said, instead, that he participates in the debates that play out inside the White House on issues from free trade to foreign policy. Before his departure, he told me the White House “could be a lot more aggressive”—and it was clear he was pushing Trump in that direction. Senior West Wing aides now wonder just how much damage Bannon can do from the outside. They will now have a chance to see whether his aggressive instincts are turned on them.
“I’m a huge believer in the Darwinian argument for ideas, and let the best idea win,” he said.
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