It is a testament to America’s near limitless tolerance for failure that Steve Bannon manages to secure a platform in the political press seemingly whenever he wants one.
A member of Donald Trump’s orbit for almost exactly one year, Bannon continues to dine out on his brief experience in American politics despite his unceremonious exile. Bannon and the wing of the GOP he represents spent their time in the White House convincing the president to cast doubt on America’s willingness to defend its allies, crafting lazy executive orders that inflamed the opposition and couldn’t survive judicial scrutiny, and carelessly strong-arming Republican lawmakers. When his Great Sino-American Trade War stalled, Bannon went behind the president’s back to a liberal journalist in an attempt to sabotage joint U.S.-Chinese efforts to isolate North Korea—an offense that resulted in his termination.
Outside the White House, Bannon tried to keep the fires lit under his populist rebellion by backing flawed candidates like Paul Nehlen, a raving anti-Semite, and Roy Moore, who managed to cost the GOP a U.S. Senate seat in ruby red Alabama. The aura of victory gone, Bannon shuttled off to Europe, where he currently champions racially anxious illiberal nationalism wherever he perceives the lessons of the 20th century to have been sufficiently forgotten. Despite all this, Bannon has no trouble finding a mainstream media microphone to, for example, attack the Koch Brothers’ vastly more successful record of influencing U.S. public policy and getting like minds elected.
Bannon’s latest foray into American politics says a lot more about him than about anything else. In an interview with the Associated Press, Trump’s former senior strategist warns that the GOP could lose up to 40 seats if the election were held today and all because it’s failed to file behind Donald Trump. He praised the president’s economic antagonism toward China, dismissed his habit of weighing in on divisive and ephemeral cultural conflicts, and said that Trump and the GOP would benefit from a pre-election government shutdown. A stalemated fight over a border wall, he said, would “galvanize the populist right,” and Bannon believes the only way to steal victory from what seems like certain defeat is to mobilize the Republican base. “This is not about persuasion,” he said. “It’s too late to persuade anybody.”
If you are uniquely bad at being persuasive, damning persuasion as the defunct preoccupation of the unenlightened is a nifty trick. It gives you license to ignore your critics, and Bannon has no shortage of those. The president’s former campaign guru is, however, partially correct. A midterm election in which the voters seem prepared to render a negative verdict on the president naturally becomes an exercise in base mobilization for the party on defense. The question is, which base are you mobilizing? For congressmen like Carlos Curbelo, who is defending a key GOP-held seat in a district that Hillary Clinton won, his base is not the same crowd that shows up for a Trump rally clad in their finest #MAGA gear. And despite his frequent criticism of Donald Trump, Curbelo is holding back the Democratic tide.
If Republicans manage to hold the line in November, it will be a result of members like Curbelo who defended districts like his: reasonably affluent, educated, and suburban. In other words, the GOP base in a time before Trump.
Bannon has every reason to complain about the Republican Party’s failure to toe Trump’s line. Contrary to the widespread belief that the GOP is entirely subordinate to this president, a significant number of Republican candidates are not advertising their relationship with Trump. “Of all the House Republican challengers so far, 37 percent have made positive mentions of the president while 53 percent have not mentioned him at all!” the authors of a recent Brookings Institution study wrote. “After that, those mentioning him positively win at a rate of 33 percent.”
The GOP’s performance in special and off-year elections in the Trump era has been dismal, particularly in districts that once formed the backbone of the Republican Party’s House majority. And that leads us to conclude that Bannon’s aim here is not to give anyone advice that they’re most likely to ignore anyway. His goal is to establish a narrative for the GOP’s impending loss that absolves Trump (and himself, of course) of any blame for that outcome. With that in mind, Bannon’s interview reads more like a self-affirmation spoken into a mirror than a revelation from a genuine newsmaker. Why he secured a stage as grand as the Associated Press just to advertise his insecurities remains a mystery.
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