Steve Bannon is no snowflake. He’s a grown man, has serious ideas, and is used to laughing off incoming rhetorical fire. But it’s surprising that so many seem to believe his propaganda line that he attaches to himself, “Honey badger don’t give a $%^t.” He does care, and President Donald Trump’s contention Wednesday that Bannon has “lost his mind” and had “very little to do” with his election are not only false statements, but they will come back to haunt the president. Because now he is going to war with perhaps his most critical conduit – other than himself, of course – to the populist Republican base that put him in office. And if he gets too violently at odds with Bannon and his own base, Trump could find himself with a primary challenge from the populist right in 2020.
It’s not that Trump can’t win a “war” with Bannon. He can. If Bannon is a rock star among the conservative populist base, Trump is still the king. But if the president is Elvis to Bannon’s Ozzy Osborne, well, Ozzy still has his fans. That is, given the closeness of the 2016 election, Bannon doesn’t have to convince all of Trump’s legions of supporters to abandon him. Trump may think he won the popular vote, but he didn’t, and just a few ten thousand votes changed in this state or that, and Trump would have lost the Electoral College. Bannon just has to damage him with the base, not kill all his support. And Bannon and his mega-traffic website, Breitbart, are perfectly capable of doing just that, at the very least.
I assure you, Bannon is, to use a term Bannon favors, “pissed.” The Bannon I interviewed for 10 hours for my book, “Bannon, Always the Rebel,” was deeply proud of his role as chief executive of Trump’s general election campaign and of his work at the White House. While not the type to go sulking tearfully off to his room in response to criticism or slights, he is not immune to such things either. “Senior counselor and chief strategist to the president,” he corrected me during a Breitbart Facebook live discussion we had after my book was published. I had inartfully called him a “former senior White House aide.”
Trump heaped on Bannon the incredible disrespect of a presidential “statement” deriding an individual, something I’ve never seen in 20 years covering the White House, with the exception perhaps of Osama Bin Laden. Trump essentially excommunicated from Trumpdom the man who was instrumental in helping Trump win election and who was a key player in many of his early decisions as president.
Trump was responding with understandable anger to what I think is an unforced error, likely made out of pique, by Bannon, who reportedly told author Michael Wolff in an interview for an upcoming book that a meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer arranged by Donald Trump Jr. was “treasonous.” Bannon, who has often belittled Ivanka Trump and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, had finally gone too far for Trump, who values family above all.
But there is more behind Trump’s anger at Bannon, and part of it is ideological. There are signs that Bannon already was beginning to harbor suspicions about Trump’s commitment to populism—witness his statement on leaving the White House that the Trump presidency he knew was “over.” Since Breitbart has been producing articles warning that a Trump deal on DACA, which would allow illegal immigrants who came to the United States at a young age to stay, could be viewed as a sellout. The Republican tax cut, Trump’s only major legislative achievement, was more than anything a gift to corporate America, not something that can stir much enthusiasm in the soul of Bannon, whose ideology is focused on the working class and who lobbied for higher marginal rates on top earners.
Far worse than any personal wound he might feel would be a conclusion by Bannon that his populist revolution is in jeopardy and that Trump is no longer the tool to enact it. Bannon is not, contrary to popular belief, simply onstage to blow out the amplifiers. He has a plan, it is centered on preserving the middle and working class in this country, and he intends to see it through. If Trump becomes too captive to establishment Republicans within the White House and on Capitol Hill who do not share Bannon’s populism, then I have no doubt Bannon will support a primary challenge to Trump in 2020. Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford would tell you if they could, and Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush would tell you if you asked: Primary challenges are a ticket to a one-term presidency.
For now, Bannon is sticking with Trump and trying to take the high road, responding Wednesday night to Trump’s attack by calling the president a “great man” whom he supports “day in and day out.” Trump has been offered an olive branch, and he may be wise to seize it. In a sign Bannon is watching Trump’s allegiance to populism closely, Breitbart Wednesday was demanding Trump ignore a supposed “deadline” for a DACA “amnesty.”
Excommunicated from the White House, and with suggestions that the megadonor Rebekah Mercer may be withdrawing her support, Bannon seems finished to many. But take it from someone who’s gotten to know him well: Even after betting on a losing horse in Alabama—failed, scandal-plagued GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore—Steve Bannon is far from done. Washington pundits tend to look at currents, see a low tide, and think that’s where the waterline will always be. Bannon, steeped in history, thinks with a much broader, long-term perspective, and not only does he know that he will be back, he believes passionately in his mission and won’t easily give it up.
In fact, by responding to Bannon with such ferocity, Trump has helped resurrect Bannon’s prospects. Fleas are swatted away, not nuked with presidential statements. Bannon is a big personality, a big player, and Trump is mistaken if thinks he is going to crush him or even wound him without consequence.