Steve Bannon thought he had found his perfect presidential candidate. This person was “an outsider,” someone who was “not part of the political establishment,” “not for sale,” with “an ‘America First’ foreign policy approach” and “a ‘Drain the Swamp’ mentality about Washington, DC.” What Bannon loved most was how this person seemed to “put the American worker—the little guy—first.”
Except Bannon wasn’t thinking about Donald Trump. The dream candidate he had in mind? Sarah Palin.
Years before the partisan provocateur of the 2016 cycle hitched himself to the upstart populist billionaire from New York, Bannon openly fantasized about transforming the former governor of Alaska into the very kind of anti-politician who could humiliate the elites of both parties, the very kind of norm-defying outsider that Trump, with Bannon’s help, would ultimately prove to be. So he put all his energy into helping the self-described Mama Grizzly eat Washington’s lunch.
This was back in 2011 and Bannon, a filmmaker whose credits at the time included an homage to Ronald Reagan and two films on the Tea Party movement, told the National Review that he saw “a direct lineage” between the Tea Party movement and the Reagan Revolution, and he was desperate to find a contemporary Reagan. For Bannon, the upcoming 2012 election was an opportunity to “fight for the soul of the Republican Party.” He told an audience in Chicago in July of that year, “If we want to get eviscerated and have another 2008, all we have to do is run an establishment Republican.”
It was just a few months earlier that Rebecca Mansour, currently a writer at Breitbart and previously an aide and speechwriter to Sarah Palin, reached out to Bannon to ask if he would make some short videos for a potential Palin presidential campaign. Mansour told Politico recently that Bannon was enthusiastic about her boss’s potential candidacy; it was Bannon, she said, who identified Palin as an “outsider” with a “drain the swamp” mentality. Bannon saw in Palin someone who, in his own words, presented “an existential threat to not just the progressive left, but also to the entrenched country club Republican Party.”
Bannon declined to make the short campaign videos that Mansour requested, instead opting to go bigger. He independently financed and produced a full-length biopic of the former Alaska governor. To Bannon, Palin was a one-of-a-kind personality. He knew that she had already developed a loyal, cult-like following of “Palinistas,” but he hoped his film could broaden her base by reframing the popular narrative that surrounded her, that she was the rogue rube who had cost John McCain the presidency. Mansour told Politico that Bannon wanted to point out what he thought the liberal elites were missing about Palin: “Palin electrified the conservative grassroots during the 2008 campaign, and she really helped John McCain with that.”
The Undefeated, which came out in July 2011, chronicles Palin’s rise to prominence as a populist figure taking on crony capitalism within the Alaskan Republican Party, her fall from grace at the hands of seemingly unfair attacks by her own party’s establishment and liberal elites, and her constant efforts to fight for the working class. Numerous reviews (in the mainstream media, perhaps not surprisingly) rated it poorly for failing to address any of Palin’s shortcomings or controversies—from her use of the historically anti-Semitic term “blood libel” to her own “Troopergate” scandal in Alaska. But Bannon didn’t mind. As he had told a reporter for Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog organization, in 2010: “I’m not looking to be even-handed when I do these [films]. I’m looking to…come at this with a strong point of view. I am a partisan.” And just in case there was any doubt about Bannon’s scorn for balance, he told the Wall Street Journal: “I’m a student of Michael Moore’s films, of [Soviet director Sergei] Eisenstein, [Nazi propagandist Leni] Riefenstahl.”
Appearing on The Palin Update, a radio show hosted by Sarah Palin obsessive Kevin Scholla on Scholla’s independent network Mama Grizzly Radio, in September 2011, Bannon remarked, “I couldn’t make this film about any other political leader in the country.” He added, “I love all things Palin…Whether she becomes a candidate or not for the presidency, I think these big broad themes of her life and her political life are going to play out on the national level over the next couple of years.”
Just a few weeks later, despite Bannon’s strong encouragement to enter the race, Palin announced on October 5, 2011, that she would not seek the Republican nomination. She decided not to run, she told conservative radio host Mark Levin, because she needed to put her family first. But she also noted, “Not being a candidate, really you’re unshackled and you’re allowed to be even more active.” She didn’t rule out a run in the future.
In March 2012, Steve Bannon took control of Breitbart News after the unexpected death of founder Andrew Breitbart. Bannon didn’t give up on Palin. He used his new platform to continue cultivating her as a national populist figure. Scholla began writing for the alt-right media outlet in early 2013, extensively covering all things Palin-related; Breitbart News conducted numerous “exclusive” interviews of the former governor; Palin herself began writing op-eds and Bannon himself wrote columns praising her.
In one such column, Bannon extolls Palin for her public opposition to the ‘Gang of Eight’ immigration bill and her opposition to the GOP’s stated intention to court more Hispanic voters. The piece is ostensibly about Palin, but it reads as an early manifesto of the themes of blue-collar alienation he would push during Trump’s 2016 run:
“Had 389,821 more working class voters in four states (149,298 in Virginia, 74,309 in Florida, 166,214 in Ohio and 39,643 in New Hampshire) turned out for Romney, he would have defeated Obama with 270 electoral votes to Obama’s 268…For Republicans to win back the majority and the presidency, they need to win the so-called Reagan Democrats and a new generation of working class minorities who will have to become Reagan Democrats 2.0…These Americans that the immigration bill most adversely impacts make up the backbone of this country and see in Washington a permanent political class who are against them and think they “can’t cut it.” They see in Palin, though, someone who fights for them because she simply ‘gets’ it–and them.”
In another 2013 column, one in which Bannon praises Palin’s longstanding resistance to the GOP donor class and her mastery of social media to promote her ideas, Bannon writes:
“Technology not only allows grassroots conservatives like Palin to get their message across without the mainstream media’s filter and become a ‘force multiplier,’ it also helps them topple candidates financially backed by the establishment.”
Again, while he was talking about Palin he might as well have been forecasting the campaign that Donald Trump would run. It’s worth noting that Trump, even before he launched his campaign in June 2015, had established a Twitter following over twice Palin’s formidable 1 million-plus followers.
Bannon didn’t have a clear favorite in the early days of the 2016 election cycle. He was still looking for someone—whether it be Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz or some other anti-establishment figure—to champion the white working class movement he had hoped for four years earlier but that didn’t come to fruition. On June 16, 2015, Trump announced his candidacy, and the very next day Sarah Palin heaped praise on the billionaire real estate mogul in a Facebook post, saying, “he’s doing something right.”
Steve Bannon apparently took notice. On July 12, 2015, he penned another column for Breitbart, this one lauding Trump’s 2011 book Time to Get Tough: “Trump’s book clearly lays out serious policy solutions to vexing U.S. problems. Welfare reform, cyberwarfare, energy, illegal immigration and crime, taxes, healthcare, national defense—you name it, Trump offers his plans, often including specific bills and amendments. Best of all, Trump does it all in his refreshingly blunt and authentic voice—the very voice now resonating with a citizenry fed up with the Political Class and its conceits.”
Then, two weeks later, Bannon made the Palin-Trump populist connection explicitly clear – with a dose of Reagan adulation for good measure. Trump appeared on The Palin Update hosted by Breitbart’s Scholla. During the show, Trump spoke of his admiration for Palin and drew comparisons between himself and the former Alaska governor, while Scholla added that Trump’s leadership style reminded him not only of Palin’s leadership but also of Reagan’s. But despite the Palin tributes and comparisons, Trump made one thing very clear in that interview: Palin was not running for president—he was. Four days later, on July 31, 2015, Sarah Palin wrote another op-ed for Breitbart:
“The elites are shocked by Trump’s dominance, but everyday Americans aren’t…Trump has tapped into America’s great populist tradition by speaking to concerns of working class voters. He talks about fighting to bring back our factories…The GOP establishment would do well to listen to these voters and quit dismissing them. Reagan understood these blue-collar salt of the earth Americans. That’s why they gave him two landslide victories. If you want to win again, GOP, you need these good people…Here’s to ‘Making America Great Again’!”
The transition from a Palin-fixation to a Trump one was seamless. Steve Bannon told The Daily Beast in 2011 that despite his own Ivy League education and time at Goldman Sachs, he saw himself as a blue-collar guy at heart. In Trump, Rebecca Mansour told Politico, Bannon found a kindred spirit. On October 28, 2015, Bannon interviewed Trump on the debut episode of the three-hour talk radio show Breitbart Daily News.
“Steve Bannon,” as former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro later wrote for the Daily Caller, “turned Breitbart into Trump Pravda.” Bannon would go on to become Trump’s campaign CEO on August 17, 2016, finally accepting a formal leadership role in the kind of campaign he had first imagined with Sarah Palin.
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