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How Bannon turned on Trump … and where the nationalist right goes next

Steve Bannon listens as Donald Trump speaks to the press in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Steve Bannon listens as Donald Trump speaks to the press in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

A snow shower had left Washington speckled in white. Steve Bannon, known for his shabby dress code, entered the five-star Hay-Adams hotel, a short walk from the White House, and delivered a speech to what one observer later dismissively called “swamp denizens”.

Despite a recent falling out that made headlines around the world, the former White House chief strategist repeatedly praised Donald Trump and spoke of “the everyman” in America who believes “the world is stacked against them”. He received a warm response and engaged in a back-and-forth with questioners. He did not act like a man on political death row.

Steve Bannon is a former White House strategist and chairman of Breitbart News who had a messy break with Trump – and with influential Republican donors – in early 2018. 

The immediate cause of the split was incendiary observations Bannon made to journalist Michael Wolff about Donald Trump Jr’s Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives. Bannon called the meeting “treasonous” and “unpatriotic”, Wolff reported, and Bannon concluded: “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”

Bannon’s comments resulted in a subpoena from the special counsel and a date with congressional investigators. As a primary mover in the Trump campaign and White House insider, Bannon could have valuable information to share about the nature and intent of Trump’s Russia contacts. 

But in his first meeting with the House intelligence committee in January 2018, Bannon declined to answer questions, in an extraordinary scene in which his lawyer consulted with the White House in real time and asserted executive privilege to escape replying. 

The move angered congressional investigators, who vowed to obtain Bannon’s cooperation one way or another. By Tom McCarthy

But soon on that frigid Tuesday afternoon, it would be announced that Bannon was on his way out of Breitbart News, which he once called the platform for the so-called alt-right, a group including neo-Nazis, white supremacists and antisemites that espouses tougher immigration laws and trade deals. It was the final blow after a head-spinning week. He had been excommunicated by the president, the White House, his billionaire patron and now his own company.

“The guy loves history,” the website Axios noted. “Well, this political suicide is historic. Bannon still thinks of himself as a revolutionary. That self-perception won’t change. It’s just that now he has no vehicle, no staff, no platform, and no major donors funding his ambitions.”

A giant of the populist base that helped propel Trump to victory has been toppled, raising questions about the movement he left behind. Is the alt-right leaderless and destined for irrelevance? Is it a “movement” at all? Has the establishment all but won the Republican civil war?

By the week’s end, one thing was certain. Trump, meeting senators to discuss immigration, reportedly asked in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” It confirmed every suspicion and every fear about where his instincts lie. Bannon may be gone but the biggest nativist of all is still in the Oval Office.

‘Mr Bannon has shot himself in the foot’

It was a year ago that Trump succeeded Barack Obama as president. His inaugural address went down in the first draft of history for two phrases: “America First” and “American carnage”. Both were reportedly the work of Bannon and Stephen Miller, who is still White House senior policy adviser.

Having led the Trump campaign in its final months, and kept faith in the candidate when others were ready desert him, Bannon seemed an all-powerful consigliere. Soon he was adorning magazine covers and there were whispers of “President Bannon”. He had, it transpired, flown too close to the sun; he was ousted from the National Security Council and marginalised. By August, having lost a power struggle with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, he was out.

Copies of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House are seen at the Book Culture book store in New York.
Copies of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House are seen at the Book Culture book store in New York. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Far from humbled, Bannon returned to Breitbart as executive chairman and became more politically active. He declared war on the Republican establishment and made stump speeches on behalf of Christian fundamentalist Roy Moore. The plan backfired when Moore, facing allegations of sexual misconduct with girls and women, lost one of the safest Republican seats in the country.

Then came Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, which quoted Bannon at length lambasting Trump and his family – he called Donald Trump Jr’s decision to meet Russians during the election campaign “treasonous”. Bannon claimed he had been referring to then campaign manager Paul Manafort, but Trump issued a lengthy statement saying Bannon had “lost his mind”, told the Wall Street Journal he felt “betrayed” and applied the now familiar kiss of death, a nickname: “Sloppy Steve.”

The Republican mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, who owns a stake in Breitbart, issued a rare statement, distancing herself from Bannon. Then it was announced that he was stepping down from Breitbart and losing his radio show SiriusXM. The Guardian understands Bannon was given an ultimatum by the company’s board. He could either be active in politics, endorsing candidates and stumping the country in his trademark Barbour jacket, or he could stick to running the website. Bannon took the first option.

For Trump supporters, the ugly break-up left a dilemma: Bannon or Trump? Benjamin Marchi, a healthcare service franchise owner from St Michael’s, Maryland, said: “It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with.

“But it seems Mr Bannon’s personal ego got in the way. Mr Bannon has shot himself in the foot. He placed personal gain above personal loyalty and he’s left the White House in shame.”

Marchi, 39, did not think Bannon’s departure would create a leadership vacuum. “He was to a degree the face of some of the movement. But no one knew what he was before he came on the scene. Everyone knows Trump. It was Trump who was and who is now the face of the movement for the forgotten people of America.”

‘The last actual Trump supporter’

In the choice between Trump and Bannon is only one winner, and it was not the former naval officer, investment banker and film producer fond of quoting Thucydides.

Roger Stone, a political operative and longtime Trump adviser, said: “The movement is built around Trump; it’s not built around Bannon. This is an inside-the-beltway story. People don’t vote because of a political operative they’ve never heard of. Trump will have a greater impact on the fate of the movement than Bannon. As long as he keeps faith, the movement will continue to thrive.”

Stone, who worked on Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign, criticised Bannon for failing to recruit kindred spirits to the White House when he had the chance, leaving Trump surrounded by Democrats such as Kushner and national economic adviser Gary Cohn.

Stone said: “It was always about him; it was always about Steve. Stephen Miller is the last actual Trump supporter left standing. It would be hard to point to anyone on the White House staff who actually voted for Trump. If his agenda doesn’t get implemented successfully, it will be because of the people he appointed.”

Miller, 32, has emerged as the keeper of the nationalist flame. He is a hardliner on immigration and a key architect of the controversial travel ban. Like Trump and Bannon, he also revels in verbal combat. Last Sunday he clashed with CNN host Jake Tapper who abruptly ended the interview, saying: “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time.”

Stephen Miller appears on CNN.

According to CNN, Miller then refused to leave and had to be escorted out by security. Soon after, Trump tweeted: “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller of the Trump Administration. Watch the hatred and unfairness of this CNN flunky!”

Trump’s faith in Miller should come as no surprise. The president has a long history of words and actions consistent with white nationalism.

In the 1970s he discriminated against offering housing for African Americans. In 2015 he launched his election campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and promising to build a border wall. His first presidential pardon was of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had targeted Latino people. He referred to white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people”, and criticised black NFL players who “take the knee” in protest at racial injustice. He backed Moore, who mused that America was great during the time of slavery. He now has no African Americans on his senior staff.

Then came Thursday’s tirade about “shithole” countries, which provoked a worldwide outcry. But many on the right turned a blind eye or even endorsed the comments, providing a glimpse of the stark polarisation in America and some potential heirs to Bannon’s crown. Fox News host Tucker Carlson told viewers Trump’s point was “something that almost every single person in America actually agrees with”. Ann Coulter tweeted: “He’s trying to win me back.”

As for the post-Bannon Breitbart, it made its allegiance clear. After all, Breitbart is still run by Bannon protégés. Matt Boyle, its Washington editor, has long been close to Bannon and is shaping its political coverage. Alex Marlow, a longtime stalwart of the website, is still its top editor and former Nigel Farage aide Raheem Kassam is still its London editor. One source close to Bannon said: “Nothing is changing in terms of the coverage and what it does is allow him to focus on the actual issues.”

Even so, the site faces a struggle to remain relevant. Kurt Bardella, a political commentator and former Breitbart spokesman, said: “What made Breitbart a must-read was the idea that by reading it you’re getting insight into the president. That’s gone now and there’s no one at Breitbart that will have proximity to the president in the way Bannon did. They are a platform without any obvious political relevance or proximity to the president.”

‘Two stars in the same orbit’

Bannon’s next move will be watched intensely. He is still living in the so-called “Breitbart embassy”, a Capitol Hill townhouse long used as the unofficial headquarters of the site. In the divorce, he is getting the real estate. His departure has freed him from having to work with Breitbart’s owners: Larry Solov, its chief executive, and Mercer. A source close to Bannon said: “If you look at his career, every six or seven years, he does the same thing. He’s very aggressive and likes to do things his own way.”

Donald Trump gestures as he boards Air Force One.
Donald Trump gestures as he boards Air Force One. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Some suspect that there will eventually be rapprochement with Trump. Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “You saw two stars that came into the same orbit and fed off each other. Now you’re seeing the separation. I don’t buy that separation completely.

“Those two still need each other. Trump has the base; Bannon has the messaging. I suspect by the summer you’ll see stories that they’re talking to each other; I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they’re in contact now.”

Bannon will be free to launch a nonprofit organisation as well as push his economic nationalist ideas. It remains to be seen whether, without the Mercer millions, he is able to press ahead with plans to support a slate of “America first” challengers to Republican incumbents . A Quinnipiac poll this week showed Democrats with a 17-point advantage. Sensing which way the wind is blowing, more than 30 Republicans in the House and Senate have announced that they will leave Congress.

Steele, expressing frustration at the party’s failure to expand its ideas and diversity, said: “The Republicans are borderline toast. It’s borderline over. We’re on the verge of witnessing a massive reversal for the Republican brand, the Republican party.”

Steele, who is African American, questioned whether Trump and Bannon’s followers should be classified as a “movement”.

“A lot of it was misogyny, racism,” he said. “There is at its core something a lot of people don’t want to touch, a sign that there are, I have to say, a growing number of white Americans who are afraid of and do not want to see the browning of America.

“They have a a picture-perfect, 1950s view of mother wearing an apron as dad in a hat goes off to work. It looks a lot more like them that it does me, but America is starting to look at lot more like me than it is them. But what gets forgotten is the ideal that they have, what Ronald Reagan called the shining city on the hill, is just as important to me as it is to them. That’s what they fundamentally miss.”

This article titled "How Bannon turned on Trump … and where the nationalist right goes next" was written by David Smith and Ben Jacobs in Washington, for theguardian.com on Saturday 13 January 2018 03.43pm

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