Steve Bannon’s core competency appears to be giving interviews that embarrass him and the causes he supports.
The self-styled prophet of populism was unceremoniously banished from the White House after he gave an antagonistic reporter an interview in which he explained how China was manipulating Trump and that the president’s North Korea strategy was a bluff. No longer able to advance the nationalist cause at home, Bannon entered self-imposed exile in Europe. There, he was last seen championing the proletarian cause of France’s far-right Marine Le Pen from the confines of a luxurious €8,000-per-night suite just steps from the Elysée Palace in Paris, sending Le Pen’s party scrambling away from their embarrassing ally.
Bannon is back in America this week, though his acumen as a rhetorician appears unchanged. In a recent interview with PBS, Trump’s former chief strategist issued what amounts to unconditional surrender in his asymmetric campaign against the Republican “establishment” and its unobtrusive suzerain in the Senate, Mitch McConnell.
“There’s nobody [with whom] I’ve had bigger disagreements than Mitch McConnell because, to me, he’s the epitome of the establishment,” Bannon began. “That being said, if you’re a conservative, he essentially saved the country.” Though he spent much of the interview crediting himself with the successes President Trump and the Republicans in Congress have enjoyed over the last two years, he acknowledged that some of the glory must be shared—particularly when it came to judicial confirmations. “The key of this is Don McGhan and Mitch McConnell—the deconstruction of the administrative state,” Bannon said. “That is the mantra of the Federalist Society.”
McGahn, the Trump administration’s former White House counsel (who joined the campaign well before Steve Bannon), was a George W. Bush administration appointee as well as a Federalist Society member. The Society, which is responsible for vetting and recommending so many of the vaunted judicial nominees of which the conservative moment is now so proud, is led by Leonard Leo, who worked in the Republican National Committee and on George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. Both men’s efforts on Trump’s behalf were described by Bannon as “absolutely brilliant.” There is no coherent definition of what constitutes “the Republican establishment” (I could stop there) that does not include the Federalist Society’s leadership and oeuvre.
It was not long ago that it was Bannon, not McConnell, who was thought to occupy the commanding heights of the political dialogue. The onus was supposedly on the Senate majority leader to effectively integrate the erratic behaviors and verbal ticks that constitute the populist agenda into the GOP’s governing program. McConnell won the war with Bannon—if the word accurately describes this one-sided engagement—by demonstrating the kind of competence in governance the populist wing of the GOP not only lacks but seems to resent.
Bannon’s about-face is no small matter. Even as McConnell was notching victory after victory for Trump’s judicial agenda, Bannon was still banging on about the anti-Trump usurpers in the Republican Party among whom the Senate majority leader was foremost. “The Republican establishment is trying to nullify the 2016 election,” Bannon told Charlie Rose in September 2017. “Mitch McConnell and this permanent political class is the most corrupt and incompetent group of individuals in this country,” he said later that month. “They have helped destroy this country,” he added. “They have perpetrated economic hate crimes against the good people of this country.”
He didn’t just talk, either. Trump’s former right-hand man acted on his antipathies, albeit in the most fruitless way imaginable. Bannon went to the mattresses for anti-Semites and Constitutional illiterates who lost. He insisted that the GOP would suffer dramatic losses in 2018 unless Trump transformed the race into a referendum on his border wall, which Trump did, and the GOP lost big anyway. The Sino-American trade war for which Bannon has long advocated is upon us, and it is spiraling out of control, forcing Washington to use taxpayer funds to compensate favored agricultural constituencies for suffering collateral damage in the crossfire.
There is, therefore, now a stink about the populist right’s permanent revolution. Insurgents rarely fare so well in government. But the conflict between these two poles within the Republican Party that spilled out into the open in September 2017 has now reached a definitive conclusion with the breaking of Bannon’s sword. The ideological clash between the GOP’s insurrectionary and governing wings predated their fight, and it will continue for years to come. But the momentum has shifted, and the advantage is clear.