The former White House chief strategist and chairman of Breitbart News has pledged to purge the GOP of its “squishy” establishment members—a delineation that he said extends to everyone in the Senate, save Ted Cruz. So far this cycle, even his critics concede that he’s encountered light pushback.
“Steve Bannon is like ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP strategist who counts himself among those trying to stop the Breitbart CEO’s growing political influence. “He's funded by billionaires, he has a shallow, catchy message that appeals to marginally-educated fanatics, and until the good guys start dropping JDAMs on his people, his skill at asymmetric warfare seems formidable. Right now, the good guys are grounded from fear and inertia.”
The war over the character and makeup of the Republican Party has the potential to radically remake one of America’s two major political parties and upend the ideas and policies that emanate from it. Which is why Wilson and others are so despondent over how lopsided the fight has been to date. Already, the extent of Bannon’s triumph has prompted Republicans to wonder aloud whether it would be better to simply rid the GOP of Trump critics and fully embrace his vision.
“After what I saw and witnessed yesterday, the overwhelming loud approval and support for the president that we had yesterday at the lunch,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), referring to a Senate GOP policy luncheon with Trump on Tuesday, told reporters on Capitol Hill, “I got to thinking, you know, maybe we do better by having some of the people who just don’t like him leave, and replace them with somebody else. And I think that’s what’s happening.”
The surest signs that that is indeed happening have come with the retirements of Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Corker, initially a Trump booster, said last month that he will not seek reelection, and has since hammered the president publicly for deviations from democratic norms. He’s also warned that Trump could be ushering the U.S. towards WWIII. Flake had similar complaints when he announced on Tuesday that he would withdraw from his 2018 reelection race.
Trump himself and Bannon’s political network celebrated both announcements as vindication of their political visions. Fox News host and Trump adviser (and Bannon ally) Sean Hannity told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that Flake’s departure was a “win for Trump” who, he noted, “went after Flake and tweeted out on behalf of Kelli Ward,” Flake’s hard-right GOP challenger.
Bannon, meanwhile, has been “jubilant” this week, according to those close to him. And even his critics concede he’s justified to peacock.
“There's a war for the future of the GOP and the only person who seems to be fighting it is Steve Bannon. Its really dispiriting,” [sic] Tim Miller, a Never-Trumper who served as comms director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, tweeted on Tuesday. “Going to wake up one day and have Chris McDaniel, Chemtrail Kelli [Ward], Sheriff Joe [Arpaio], and Roy Moore as nominees & still nobody will fire a shot.”
Not everyone fighting the Bannon takeover shares this dour take. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) allies argued that Flake’s retirement allowed for an establishment-minded candidate (and one without Flake’s poor numbers) to run against Ward.
“[Flake] provided the opportunity for another candidate to ensure chemtrail Kelly doesn't further incapacitate the party,” Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff and longtime political adviser, told The Daily Beast. “Class move in my view.”
And those close to Flake concede that he knew he would lose his election and didn’t want to endure—and force his family and staff to endure—another year of futile campaigning.
“Steve Bannon did not scare him out of the race. Donald Trump did not scare him out of the race,” a source familiar with Flake’s thinking told The Daily Beast.
But while some corners of McConnell land waxed optimistically, others did little to conceal their concerns about Bannon’s ascension. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super-PAC allied with the Majority Leader, tead off on Bannon Wednesday. In a series of tweets it called the Breitbart chair out by name, revived allegations of anti-Semitism against him, and attacked two of his preferred candidates: Ward and Nevada’s Danny Tarkanian.
It was a highly personal attack. But one with a limited bite. The Senate Leadership Fund twitter account had just 298 followers as of Wednesday afternoon.
Bannon himself seems to be revelling in the villain status being bestowed upon him. As one source close to him put it, he simply “loves trolling Mitch McConnell.” He also has zero intention of disarming. In recent weeks, McConnell and Bannon have publicly aired their mutual hatred for each other, with Bannon calling McConnell the target of his “war” and McConnell saying that Trump’s former chief strategist is a “specialist in nominating people who lose.”
The animus came bursting out during a conference call Bannon convened last Monday with friends and political allies, including Breitbart editor Matt Boyle, former Trump aide Sam Nunberg, Bannon’s political consigliere Andrew Surabian, GOP operative Arthur Schwartz, and Bannon’s comms czar Alexandra Preate. During the call, one participant suddenly noticed that the president was about to hold an impromptu news conference in the White House Rose Garden with McConnell. The group switched on their TVs to watch.
When Trump and the Majority Leader stressed that they were longtime “friends” who are now “closer than ever,” the call erupted into laughter, loud jeering, and insults. Bannon and his cohorts started yelling at their screens, according to three people on the call. “Oh, my god, this is amazing, we got ’em running scared!” Bannon said, before calling McConnell a “schmendrick,” Bannon’s preferred Yiddish insult for a foolish or feckless person.
“We are living rent-free in this guy’s head, mother fucker!” one of the people on the call giddily shouted, referring to the Majority Leader. And when McConnell proclaimed that "winners make policy and losers go home," Bannon and his friends began heckling the Republican leader, exclaiming “Tell that to Luther Strange!” (Strange, backed by Trump and McConnell, was defeated in the Alabama primary where he ran against Roy Moore, a far-right challenger supported by Bannon and other “anti-establishment” types.)
One of the sources, describing the entire call to The Daily Beast, called it “a poetic moment.” The Breitbart chairman, as well as several others, referred to the presser footage as a “hostage video” with McConnell playing the role of detainee. Though two White House sources told The Daily Beast that the president had pressured McConnell into staging this press conference, McConnell’s spokesman Don Stewart —who actually spoke on the record—scoffed at that notion.
“Neither the President nor Sen. McConnell pressured anyone to join the press conference,” he emailed. “They had both discussed the press coverage of the meeting and decided to go out and address the press. Sorry, but your sources weren’t even in the room (it was a principals-only meeting). Which is probably why they will only talk to you as anonymous.”
A few days after the press conference, McConnell hosted Trump on Capitol Hill where he led his caucus in numerous standing ovations of the president. That flattery impressed Trump, who referred back to it multiple times on Wednesday. And yet, McConnell remains very much behind Bannon in the presidential pecking order.
Trump and his former top adviser appear as tight as ever. Despite finding themselves at odds in the Alabama Senate race, they kept open and amiable lines of communication. A White House official described Trump and Bannon as “friendly opponents” during the race, and according to multiple sources, the frequency of calls has increased in the weeks since that primary ended.
Trump, in the end, appreciated something that Bannon could provide and McConnell couldn’t: a win. The president didn’t like being attached to Strange’s loss. To him, post Alabama, the Bannon wing of the party looks like a safer bet. Increasingly, it appears, McConnell’s allies do too. On Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the number two Republican in the chamber, threw his support behind Moore, after having previously trashed his credentials.