Almost every struggling campaign goes through the stages of grief gripping Donald Trump’s presidential effort. Question the polls? Check. Blame the media? Check. Shuffle its leadership? Now Trump has ticked that box for the second time.
With less than three months before Election Day, Trump announced early Wednesday that he was overhauling his inner circle, bringing on Stephen Bannon, the pugilistic impresario of the right-wing website Breitbart News, as his new campaign CEO, and promoting senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager. Paul Manafort, who presided over the futile effort to professionalize Trump’s campaign, remains in his post as chairman but has lost much of his control of the operation.
Staff shake-ups are often a way for a faltering campaign to make a cosmetic fix, especially when the real problem is the candidate. Manafort’s ascension just eight weeks ago was a case in point: it carried the promise of a stylistic pivot that never arrived. The hiring of Bannon suggests the pivot to a broadly appealing, conventional campaign will never happen. It may also herald the final rupture of the uneasy alliance between the Republican nominee and a party that could never quite tame or embrace him.
“It’s a bad joke that keeps getting worse,” says an influential member of the Republican National Committee, who has long been skeptical of Trump’s strategy. “For the long-term good of the Republican Party, Reince Priebus and the RNC should cut ties with Trump and focus on U.S. Senate races.”
The new campaign CEO has held a lot of jobs — naval officer, investment banker, entertainment baron — but it’s Bannon’s role at Breitbart that signals the direction Trump could be headed. Breitbart News, which Republicans once relied on to incite the Tea Party grassroots, has become the house organ for the populist wing that has temporarily taken command of the party. It produces a crude mix of nativist agitprop, antiliberal stories and broadsides against the party establishment.
Conway, a veteran operative who has advised Trump’s running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, has been a fixture in Trump’s circle for years. She was initially approached to join Trump’s campaign before it began, but turned him down to help run a pro–Ted Cruz super PAC during the Republican primaries. The pollster formally joined the Trump effort in June, and has been a stabilizing force in a turbulent campaign. Her stock in Trump Tower rose as she emerged as one of its most effective surrogates on cable television, where she regularly used polling to make the case that Trump’s rhetoric could resonate in the fall. But like Bannon, she has no experience running a national effort in a general election.
While Conway’s elevation might cheer Trump’s Republican allies, Bannon’s hiring concerns them. Under his leadership Breitbart has become a destination for the so-called alt-right, a movement composed of hard-right ideologues and white nationalists who scorn traditional conservatism. Breitbart has been both a champion and a beneficiary of Trump’s campaign. The American dystopia that Trump described in his convention acceptance speech — a vision of crime-racked cities, lurking terrorists and violent illegal immigrants — was plucked straight from the pages of his new campaign chief’s website.
Bannon, a campaign novice, will try to bring the same approach to the top of Trump’s operation. His installation, according to Trump aides briefed on the moves, is a clear indication that the candidate is about to return to his roots.
“I am listening to so-called experts to ease up the rhetoric and so far, I’m liking the way I ran in the primaries better,” Trump told TIME in a phone interview last week. “I can always revert to that if I want. It was more of an attacking style, which perhaps is a more natural style for me.”
This is definitely not what Republican insiders want. During Trump’s three-week skid, a drumbeat of GOP critics have urged him to move toward the center and stay on message against Hillary Clinton. Trump tried, at least in fitful spurts. He agreed to a series of scripted policy speeches and made plans to finally begin airing general-election TV ads. But his impulse was always to attack.
The alliance between Trump and Breitbart has been one of the story lines behind his improbable rise. Almost immediately after Trump launched his campaign, the website embraced a role as the unlikely candidate’s conservative-media champion. Bannon has held frequent conversations with Trump behind the scenes, according to campaign aides, and the billionaire New Yorker began to project the website’s worries on the campaign trail and bring its favorite players into the fold.
Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a fierce anti-immigration crusader, was Trump’s first major endorsement. His former communications aide, Stephen Miller, became Trump’s national policy director. Bannon has even sacrificed his own employees to defend Trump. When former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of battery by Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, whose arm Lewandowski had grabbed, the website accused Fields of lying. Fields quit, along with a handful of other staffers, citing objections to the site’s persistent defense of Trump. The criminal charge against Lewandowski was dropped.
Under Bannon’s direction, Breitbart waged an unsuccessful crusade to defeat GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, trumpeting his primary challenger and cranking out a steady stream of stories that cast Ryan as “Congress’ greatest advocate for the donor class’ open borders, trade and immigration agenda.” Its scrutiny of Ryan was magnified by his delayed embrace of Trump. And Ryan is hardly alone; every Republican leader has been a target of Breitbart, from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to former House Speaker John Boehner.
The personnel moves come at a crucial moment for Trump, and not only because he is running out of time to turn his poll numbers around. Before early voting begins in September, Republican officials have to decide whether to shift resources from his floundering campaign to vulnerable Senate and House candidates. Two Republican National Committee members told TIME that Bannon’s hiring could make it easier to cut bait on the party’s presidential nominee, though they are still waiting to see how the new arrangement works.
— With reporting by Zeke J. Miller