Why Stephen Bannon Doesn’t Scare Washington Anymore

4 minute read
Bannon speaks to supporters in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington
Bannon speaks to supporters in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside WashingtonT.J. Kirkpatrick—Redux

For a media baron who trafficks in bombast, Stephen Bannon has always seemed more comfortable backstage. As Donald Trump’s campaign CEO and then as his chief White House strategist, he liked to work in the shadows, always felt but seldom heard. Bannon fancied himself the battlefield general for the Trump agenda, the ruthless commander of a right-wing army that made liberals recoil and Republicans quiver. When he was caricatured as an all-powerful evil force in the White House, he didn’t exactly discourage the misperception.

But since leaving the White House last month, Bannon has sought the spotlight in new ways. In his first-ever major television interview, which aired Sept. 10 on 60 Minutes, the pugnacious boss of Breitbart News told Charlie Rose that he was eager to take the fight to Trump’s enemies. “I’m a street fighter,” he declared. “I’m going to be his wingman outside.”

Liberated from his White House shackles, Bannon threw punches in every direction: at the “pearl-clutching” media, at Hillary Clinton (“Not very bright”), at Bush-era bigwigs (“I hold these people in contempt”) and disloyal Trump advisers (“If you don’t like what he’s doing,” Bannon said, “you have an obligation to resign”).

But it was his threats against Republican members of Congress that drew much of the attention. “They’re going to be held accountable if they do not support the President of the United States,” Bannon promised. People close to Bannon are spreading word that he is preparing to launch primary challengers against a slate of Republican Senate incumbents, including frequent Trump critics like Arizona’s Jeff Flake, vulnerable swing-state Senators like Nevada’s Dean Heller and even Tennessee’s Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

With Breitbart’s megaphone and Robert Mercer’s money, Bannon has the power to cause headaches for the GOP. In a year when Republicans should be on offense in Senate contests–they are defending a mere eight seats, mostly in red states, compared with the Democrats’ 25–a slew of populist primary challenges would drain the party’s coffers and force Senate boss Mitch McConnell to defend his colleagues instead of battling the Democrats. McConnell has committed to protecting incumbent Republicans against upstart challengers, even if it costs precious cash. Spending money on defense could limit Republicans’ ability to dump dollars into races where they hope to pick up seats, such as the Senate contests in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And primaries can dampen party morale, discouraging voters who favored a vanquished challenger.

And yet Bannon’s boasts ring a bit hollow. For starters, Breitbart doesn’t pack the punch it once did. Traffic is down, according to some media metrics. (Breitbart disputes those reports.) Advertisers have fled amid organized boycotts. The site, suffering from a string of outrageous stories and inflammatory remarks by far-right staffers, has struggled to adapt its outsider, guerrilla tactics to the Trump presidency and unified Republican control of Washington. Now that Bannon has broken cover, he doesn’t seem quite as menacing. Most important, Republican leaders have shown that Bannon and his ilk can be beaten. Over the last three election cycles, mainstream Republicans, buoyed by their own big donors, have regularly trounced Tea Party–style insurgents in GOP primaries. In 2014 and ’16, McConnell and his allies went to war with the Bannonites often–and won almost every time. In one race Breitbart hyped, the website waged war against House Speaker Paul Ryan, writing a steady stream of negative stories–more than 30 in a single week–to boost an obscure primary challenger named Paul Nehlen. In the end Nehlen still lost by 68 points.

Even at the White House, Bannon’s act has worn thin. “Steve always likes to speak in kind of the most extreme measures,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. Which helps explain why, for the most part, Republican insiders shrugged off Bannon’s bombast. By now they know his power never quite lives up to his myth.


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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com