Depending on your perspective, they’re insiders’ outsiders or outsiders’ insiders.
Nearly every morning—working weekends would seem an afterthought for this set—during this frigid Washington winter, Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s notorious ex-guru; Raheem Kassam, longtime consigliere to Bannon and Brexit mastermind Nigel Farage; and Jason Miller, chief spox on Trump’s 2016 campaign, gather in Bannon’s bunker. It’s the basement of an equally notorious Capitol Hill row house rented by Bannon, “the embassy,” formerly the headquarters of Breitbart News.
The trio have started a radio show and podcast, “The War Room,” named for the opposition research hub featured in most modern campaigns, and lifting from the “#WAR” mentality Bannon made famous at Breitbart. That Bannon’s newest venture—the podcast, assorted websites, and a confusing web of radio shows, co-hosted with and filled in for old allies—mixes what still passes for journalism with the gloss of a modern campaign is no accident. I’ve visited the show twice since it launched in the fall, and it’s developed speed, reasonably well-watched, well-attended, and well-financed. Its architect certainly has, as the ever-caffeinated Bannon is raring to go by 9 a.m.
On a recent visit, Bannon regaled his motley crew, including Virginia political kingmaker John Fredericks and the veteran operative Jack Maxey, with stories about how it’s antebellum politics all over again. The pre-Civil War era clearly weighs on the strategist’s mind. Revolutionary moments, generally, are an idee fixe. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon infamously once told historian Ronald Radosh at a party in Washington. The Baby Boomers—its leadership class, at least—are the worst generation in American history, Bannon has said to me.
For the assembled, the project is nothing less than a political beachhead. For “The War Room,” it’s the best of times and it’s the worst. The core troika—Bannon, Kassam, and Miller—delivered Trump to power four short years ago, but they are not, officially at least, in power themselves. Miller missed out on becoming White House communications director in the midst of a brutal personal scandal with fellow Trump campaign official A.J. Delgado, with whom he fathered a child. Kassam, a British national, is ineligible for government service, but nonetheless departed Breitbart in recent years after his own clashes with the post-Bannon leadership. He also had a short-lived tenure helming the rebooted Human Events. And Bannon’s complicated relationship with Trump—he was labeled “Trump’s brain,” to the president’s obvious displeasure—is the stuff of legend.
Yet on any given day, the radio show still attracts a king’s court of Republicans: Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney; Mark Meadows, the House Freedom Caucus frontman; Representative Matt Gaetz. Counterfactuals are for suckers, but to argue that a Trump decoupled from Bannon’s populist-nationalist vision, Kassam’s cross-pollination with Brexit Britain, and Miller’s moxie, would have triumphed, I think, is to truly miss the moment. Celebrity alone didn’t allow Trump, for good and ill, to transform American society. It was his operative set that utilized asymmetric warfare to take out the country’s two leading dynasties, first the Bush brahmins, and then clan Clinton.
The continued paucity of intellectual and operational architecture on the Right is demonstrated by the continued necessity of admittedly slapdash outfits like Bannon’s. A couple of guys in a basement can seem more effective than the whole of Republicans in Congress.
That Trump alone was able to channel a message of immigration restrictionism, in tandem with trade protectionism and foreign policy restraint—social conservatism, of a sort, mixed with economic nationalism—is, in retrospect, astonishing. But as former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld told filmmaker Errol Morris (who also profiled Bannon), “Everything’s amazing in retrospect.”
As Darren J. Beattie, formerly of the White House and now an aide to Gaetz, notes, in 2016, Donald Trump found a thousand dollar bill on the ground and picked it up. A ruling class that dismisses his ascent as a Russian racket, or a celebrity carnival, risks repeat business, as Bernie Sanders’ current stampede through the Democratic ranks illustrates. If Sanders, as Beattie notes, leverages a brewing generational war, he will also have the opportunity to pick up a ten thousand dollar bill.
That is, of course, the long-term question with Bannon: is he, whether you approve or disapprove, still on the bleeding edge of American politics?
When Trump took power, Bannon inherited the mantle of Dick Cheney, the malevolent mastermind behind it all in the mind of liberal America. From Cambridge Analytica to the Russian fanatic Alexander Dugin to a budding dark web with nationalists in the old country, no association was too outlandish, no dot connected implausible. A personality cult developed, especially in the journo-political class around Washington, which had just completely missed the boat.
The view was, simply: it had been Bannon, not Trump, all along.
No official, not James “Mad Dog” Mattis, not the mustached madman John Bolton, not the oil baron Rex Tillerson, not the scandalous Anthony Scaramucci, summited the peaks Bannon did in the public’s imagination; it would also be his downfall in the White House. It’s Bannon’s greatest asset and greatest weakness in what is effectively his post-Trump life. Having seen the chaos of the White House up close and in person, Bannon flirted with the most pessimistic interpretations of the Trump trajectory. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, was going to “crack Don Jr.,” the president’s son, “like an egg.”
Impeachment was the crucible. Unlike most of conservative media, this set bought in hard on the idea that the congressional Democrats’ crusade actually mattered. On Trump’s re-election chances, Bannon told me before the Senate vote that he couldn’t honestly assess them until he’d seen how an acquittal would shake out. Fair enough. But now that the acquittal has come to pass, the question is what to do. The Trump movement, generally, suffers from an almost schizophrenic oscillation between a desire to be normalized and a need for continued revolt. How the movement handles an increasingly plausible Sanders ascension will be telling. There are different ideas about where to go.
Bannon lent cover to Fox News foreign policy realist Tucker Carlson in a recent New York Times report on how the Right was reacting to the fallout from the recent American assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. While Bannon was not exactly against the strike, he’s been clear he thinks outright war with Iran would spoil everything.
For some, this is rich. After all, Bannon greased the wheels, as I’ve reported, for the rise of John Bolton, an Iran hawk par excellence, in Trump’s orbit. But the alliance is clearly at ebb, with even Bannon buddy Fred Fleitz, the former Bolton chief of staff, breaking with his mentor.
Still, Bannon, and many on the Right, viewed Bolton’s rise as necessary, even a necessary evil—better a nationalist than a neoconservative. The venom directed toward Bolton, even now, pales in comparison to the rightist attacks lobbed at his predecessor H.R. McMaster. The Trump movement at its least creative can take on the air of the dog that caught the car.
Kassam, unlike Bannon, was a zealous advocate of the strike that slew Soleimani. Come a year from now, Trump will either be a past president or on his way to being a lame duck.
The interesting ideological questions are already, in some ways, post-Trump.
How Bannon, “The War Room,” and the contradictory impulses of the modern Right all cohere, or fail to cohere, will tell us all we need to know about the future.