Steve Bannon was trying to build a movement larger than the president himself. The bitter split between the two men may spell the end of that effort.
President Trump’s savage excommunication of his former chief strategist Steve Bannon Wednesday has left the movement that carried him to power at a crossroads.
Throughout his time at the helm of Trump’s campaign and inside the White House, Bannon had cultivated an image as the ideological leader of the Trump base—a reputation he retained even after leaving the White House and resuming his role as chairman of Breitbart News. He had continued to talk to the president from time to time, and traveled the country making speeches promoting his agenda.
But comments he made to the journalist Michael Wolff in a new book coming out this month—calling Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer “treasonous” and speculating about the Mueller investigation’s targets—enraged Trump. After excerpts from the book began circulating online, the White House released a statement from Trump saying Bannon had “lost his mind,” and accusing him of leaking to the press throughout his time in the administration.
From the moment Bannon left the White House last year, his stated mission was clear: expanding the coalition that elected Trump into a lasting ideological movement that would remake American politics. Their split tests the limits of both men’s influence within their shared base. It also calls into question whether Trump-style nationalism has a future, or whether it starts and ends with Donald Trump.
Hoisting high the banner of “Trumpism without Trump,” Bannon pledged a “season of war” against the Republican establishment, and set about recruiting populist outsiders to challenge GOP incumbents in the 2018 primaries. By flooding Capitol Hill with Trumpian torchbearers, Bannon believed, he would empower the president to make good on campaign promises like building a border wall, while also changing the DNA of the Republican caucus. That he would make life more difficult for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was an added benefit.
Meanwhile, Bannon has begun to work on creating an political infrastructure for his ideological movement. In November, he announced the formation of a new group that would promote a nationalist approach to trade, immigration, and foreign policy. (The group has not yet formally launched.) He used Breitbart Newsto amplify allies, attack adversaries, and shape new political narratives, all while coaching a new generation of conservative journalists in his combative style. He even showed a willingness to reach out to center-left writers and intellectuals—such as The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, in the most notorious previous example of Bannon getting himself in trouble in an interview—perhaps believing that he could seduce them into joining the post-partisan populism he envisioned.
While many doubted Bannon’s sincerity—detractors have long dismissed him as a cynical opportunist—his project was not without precedent. When, half a century ago, the conservative movement began taking control of the Republican Party, it was largely thanks to a network of think tanks, pressure groups, magazines, and commentators who had spent years articulating and popularizing their ideas. Bannon seemed to recognize that without a similar foundation, the unorthodox brand of populist nationalism that Trump campaigned on would struggle to achieve its goals, and be uprooted from Republican politics the moment the president left office.
But with his kneecapping of Bannon Wednesday, the president made clear that Trump—and not Trumpism—was still the main event, and that any effort to take the spotlight away from the Oval Office would be met with a swift and severe punishment. Amid the fallout of this high-profile political divorce, the most urgent question may be who will retain control of Trump’s core base of supporters.
Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart News editor-at-large who left the site in 2016 over his disagreements with management, said Bannon’s efforts to “graft a nationalist populist philosophy onto Trump” were always doomed to fail.
“Bannon was delusional,” he said. “There is no Trumpist movement, there is just Trump.”
Shapiro pointed to Breitbart’s own comments section—where hardcore fans were re-pledging allegiance to Trump on Wednesday afternoon and voicing their displeasure with Bannon—and said the president had little to fear from a potential backlash. “The White House has given conservatives more good policy in the past six weeks than they ever did when Bannon was there,” Shapiro said, citing the passage of the tax reform bill, the ongoing appointment of appellate court judges, and the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And while Shapiro has been an outspoken critic of Trump over the past two years, he said he was thrilled by the president’s statement disowning Bannon.
“It was spot-on in every conceivable way,” he said. “It is the truest thing Trump has ever said about any issue in any statement, ever.”
Others, however, continue to believe that Trump’s message has always been bigger than Trump himself. Ann Coulter, the right-wing commentator who is as much a leader among Trump’s core supporters as anyone else, said the “cat fight” between the president and Bannon will have little effect on his most ardent supporters.
“Unlike so-called conservative intellectuals, Trump’s base loved him BECAUSE OF HIS IDEAS,” Coulter wrote in an email. “Specifically: 1) immigration; 2) trade; and 3) no more pointless wars.” She continued, “Except for a few idiots, it’s never been about Trump’s personality or celebrity. It certainly isn’t about Bannon’s personality or celebrity. So there’s no reason for the base to take sides here.”
Similarly, Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser and a Bannon ally, said the base’s support for the president would continue to be “issues-centric.”
“If you had to ask them [who they’ll side with], they’re going to side with the president of the United States,” he said. “But does that mean the president can pass DACA [without consequence]? Does that mean the president can become Mitch McConnell’s water boy? The answer’s no.”
Bannon and his allies were mostly silent for the first half of Wednesday; he declined a request for comment. Breitbart reported the news of Trump’s statement straight, but did offer something of a defense of Bannon by noting that his foes, the “Never Trump” conservatives, had rejoiced at his falling-out with Trump. One Bannon ally, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to talk frankly about internal discussions, argued that the White House’s reaction to Bannon’s view of the Russia matter was suspiciously vehement. “It does seem like the White House is protesting too much,” this person said. As for the base, “all the president needs to worry about in terms of losing his base is DACA. He doesn’t need to worry about comments in books, throwaway lines or whatever.”
One person who spoke with Bannon on Wednesday, who requested anonymity in order to talk about a private conversation, said that Bannon seemed “blasé” about the matter and “didn’t seem to care at all,” and did not deny making the comments.
The situation puts pressure on Bannon’s chosen candidates to lead his “season of war” in the midterms. The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund has already begun using Bannon’s remarks against Trump as a cudgel against the candidates Bannon endorsed, as have some of their opponents.
So far, none of those candidates are exactly leaping to Bannon’s defense. The campaign of Kelli Ward, who is running for Senate in Arizona and for whom Bannon has personally campaigned, released a lukewarm statement.
“Steve Bannon is only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received,” Ward’s spokesman Zachery Henry said, referring to the feud as the “daily parlor intrigue in Washington D.C.”
Another Bannon pick, West Virginia Senate candidate Patrick Morrisey, went further on Wednesday.
“Patrick Morrisey has been endorsed by many conservatives throughout West Virginia and America because of his strong conservative record,” said Morrisey spokesperson Nachama Soloveichik. “Attorney General Morrisey does not support these attacks on President Trump and his family, and was proud to stand with President Trump in 2016 when they were both overwhelmingly elected in West Virginia and when he cast his vote for Trump in the Electoral College.”
The flap comes at a difficult time for Bannon, who nearly alone among top Republicans stood by the side of Roy Moore amid a deluge of sexual-misconduct allegations and was rewarded for his efforts with Moore’s embarrassing loss to the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, in deep-red Alabama. Though Bannon entered that race on the opposite side of Trump, who endorsed Luther Strange in the primary, the two both ended up supporting Moore.
The loss appears to have stuck in Trump’s craw. He mentioned it in his statement slamming Bannon: “Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country. Yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans.”
“Steve doesn’t represent my base—he’s only in it for himself,” Trump said. His falling-out with his former chief strategist will test the extent to which that is true.