Stephen Bannon, the CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential team, has kept a low public profile, even if his fingerprints are all over Trump’s attacks on Bill Clinton’s sex scandals and the Clinton Foundation. Unlike campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, or her predecessor Corey Lewandowski, Bannon is not on cable news all the time. The job of surrogacy he leaves not just to Conway and Lewandowski but figures like Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, and Rudy Giuliani. He has only given two interviews and one was to the safest of outlets: the Breitbart.com radio podcast that he himself started a year ago when he was CEO of Breitbart.com (a position he says he’ll resume at the end of the election). Speaking on the show on Wednesday, Bannon said, “Regardless of the outcome, there has been a sea change in American politics. This movement, as I keep saying, is just at the top of the first inning.”
Bannon’s use of the word “movement” is revealing. He’s one of the few genuine ideologues in the Trump circle. He has a very clear and coherent idea of what Trumpism is, perhaps more so than the candidate himself. For Bannon, “the movement” isn’t just about electing one man, but a worldwide revolt of different nationalist groups opposing a globalist elite. “This whole movement has a global aspect to it,” Bannon noted on the Breitbart.com podcast. “People want more control of their country. And they are very proud of their countries. They want borders. They want sovereignty. It’s not just a thing that is happening in any one geographic space. You can see it happening in Asia, you can see it happening in Europe, you can see it happening in the Middle East, and you’re seeing it happen in the United States.”
Aside from Bannon and paleoconservative speech writer Stephen Miller, most of the people in the Trump campaign seem to have cynical motives. They are Republican Party careerists (Conway), partisan hatchet-men for hire (Roger Stone), goonish underlings (Lewandowski), servile cronies (Hope Hicks), scandal-ravaged former political operatives (Roger Ailes) or washed-up politicians for whom Trump is one last chance to stay relevant (Christie, Gingrich, Giuliani).
Compared to this unsavory lot, Bannon and Miller stand out as at least having an ethos. Of the two, Bannon is in a much better position to keep the flames of Trumpism alive after the election.
There’s been much dispute about whether Trumpism is a passing fad or will have staying power. Trump himself is a senior citizen and has, at best, one more presidential run in him. It’s not clear whether any of his children have the political charisma needed to take over the movement, or whether other politicians (Tom Cotton? Ted Cruz?) would be prepared to remake themselves in Trump’s image.
But there is ample reason to think that Trumpism will continue to be a powerful force in the Republican Party simply because Stephen Bannon will be around to promote it. Over the last two years, Bannon has proven himself to be a formidable figure on the right, with both the means and the ambition to alter the political landscape.
Independently wealthy thanks to his background as a Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood executive (he still collects Seinfeld royalties), bolstered by ties to hedge fund billionaires like Robert Mercer, and the head of a cutting-edge right-wing media empire, Bannon has already been instrumental in creating Trumpism. Under Bannon’s guidance, Breitbart.com has played the same role in relationship to Trump that National Review played in the rise of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, or Rush Limbaugh played in the 1990s in the rise of Newt Gingrich, or Fox News played in the rise of George W. Bush. Breitbart.com has been the essential media herald that has both anticipated and amplified Trump’s main platform of right-wing nationalism with a xenophobic bent.
As Joshua Green noted in an exceptionally shrewd profile of Bannon that ran in Bloomberg Businessweek in October of 2015, Breitbart represented only one arrow in Bannon’s political quiver. Breitbart is useful for stirring up the right-wing masses, but Bannon also realized he had to influence centrist elites. To that end, he created the nonprofit Government Accountability Institute (GAI), which has already had a massive influence on the election by giving Peter Schweizer, president of the institute, the resources to write Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich.
The goal of the GAI is to collect plausible opposition research on politicians Bannon opposes (which includes not just Hillary Clinton but Republicans like Jeb Bush). This oppo is explicitly designed to be so plausible it can be taken up by mainstream publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
As Bannon told Green, “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs. You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.” By pre-packing reportage that is ready to run, Green noted, Bannon has figured out “how conservatives can hack the mainstream media,” adding that “‘weaponizing’ a story onto the front page of The New York Times (‘the Left’) is infinitely more valuable than publishing it on Breitbart.com.”
Clinton Cash has been one of Bannon’s great successes. Although later subject to devastating criticism, the book made its initial splash in the Times and shaped the idea that the Clinton Foundation is corrupt. Indeed, Clinton Cash is still causing trouble: the Post reported on Thursday that FBI agents in New York relied heavily on the book in an investigation of the Clinton Foundation that the Department of Justice ended up shutting down for lack of sufficient evidence.
Stephen Bannon has everything he needs to keep Trumpism alive even if Trump himself loses the election on Tuesday. Bannon has the ideological passion, the financial resources, the media connections, and a shrewd sense of how American politics works. All that Bannon really needs is a puppet politician to take the place of Trump. That won’t be so difficult to find.