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The Afterlife of Steve Bannon

Reports of his political death have been greatly exaggerated.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Steve Bannon’s political foes are eager to write his obituary now that he’s feuding with his former boss, President Donald Trump. The immediate cause of the divorce wasn’t over ideas, but a more personal betrayal: Bannon’s assertion that members of the president’s inner circle, include son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner, were guilty of “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” acts by meeting with Russian officials during the campaign. These words, revealed in reporter Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury, led the president to issue a statement saying Bannon had “lost his mind.” On Twitter, Trump even came up with a derisive nickname for his estranged former adviser:

Many Republicans were eager to echo and amplify the president’s words. On Fox News on Wednesday night, longtime GOP strategist Ed Rollins said Bannon had “set himself on fire in the middle of the South Lawn and the president ran over him with a tank, then he put it in reverse and backed over him again.” Rollins added, “I think it’s the end of Bannon.” Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant, mocked the idea that Bannon, who some say might run for president, could forge a political career separate from Trump. Bannon “looks like he’s robbing hobos for his clothing,” Stone observed on Alex Jones’s Infowars show. “He seems to not be familiar with soap and water nor a good razor. He is not in any way a viable candidate. He’s a political operative and an amateur one.”

Although Stone expressed himself more pungently than most, he was articulating what is now the conventional wisdom on Bannon: that he is an incompetent political operator who got lucky by backing Trump in 2016, and has now committed political suicide by disparaging the president. Bannon, the argument goes, had a reputation as a kingmaker, but is now revealed to be a Wizard of Oz who impressed the credulous but possessed no real magic. “Even if he worms his way back into Trump’s good graces at some point, Bannon has been exposed,” Bill Scher argued in Politico. “He holds no special insight. He leads no army of supporters. He’s just a guy who enjoys throwing punches, so don’t be too impressed when they occasionally land.”

Many of Bannon’s erstwhile allies, forced to choose between the political operative and the president, are starting to abandon Bannon. As The Washington Post reports, “Candidates who once embraced Bannon distanced themselves from his efforts, groups aligned with his views sought separation, and his most important financial backer, the billionaire Mercer family, which has championed him for years, announced that it was severing ties.” The loss of the Mercer’s support could also imperil Bannon’s current position. “Breitbart stakeholder and billionaire Republican donor Rebekah Mercer is weighing whether to insist that the board vote to force Bannon out as executive chairman of Breitbart,” according to ABC News.

The obituaries of Bannon are premature, though, because the man’s chief significance wasn’t as a political adviser who had the ear of the president, but as one of the Republican Party’s most creative and influential thinkers. In an age where most Republicans are still running on the fumes of Reaganism (tax cuts, a more assertive foreign policy), Bannon crafted a coherent new right-wing ideology that in 2016 excited Republican voters more than the establishment’s tired bromides. Bannon, the political operative and media executive, has a murky future, but if he does resurface, it’ll be due to the potency and resiliency of his ideas, which are likely to have a life quite apart from Bannon.

Bannonism is a modernized version of the paleo-conservative politics that Pat Buchanan espoused in the 1980s and 1990s. Rejecting the sunny free-market dogmas of Reaganism, Buchanan argued that the American working class was being eroded by free trade and open immigration, while the nation as a whole was weakened by military overreach that no longer made sense after the demise of Soviet Union. Bannon would revive all of these themes in the Obama era, fusing them with an overarching message of racial grievance. On the website Breitbart and elsewhere, Bannon painted a picture of white working class Americans under siege from a globalist elite, cunning foreigners, and a restless non-white underclass.

Trump won both the GOP nomination and the presidency by talking like a Bannonist. He promised to build a wall on the Mexican border, to get tough with China, and to “rip up” trade agreements like NAFTA. In his inaugural address, he painted a dark picture of “American carnage” and advanced nationalism as the cure. “The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world,” Trump declared. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

But Trump hasn’t governed like a Bannonist. While he has initiated an immigration crackdown and waged several culture wars—criticizing NFL players who kneel to protest racism, for instance, and declaring that he saved “Merry Christmas”—on many issues he sides with the GOP establishment. He’s handed over economic policy to House Speaker Paul Ryan, and foreign policy to national security adviser H. R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. The triumph of the establishment was almost inevitable, given that the Bannon wing has no real institutional foothold in the think tanks that supply Republican administrations with personnel. As Bannon himself said at a private dinner a year ago, according to Wolff, “When you take out all the Never Trump guys who signed all those letters and all the neocons who got us in all these wars … it’s not a deep bench.” The result has been plutocratic tax cuts and a neoconservative foreign policy, with no infrastructure spending or drawback of American interventionism.

Bannon’s feud with Trump, therefore, is not just about a disgruntled former employee, but a genuine policy disagreement rooted in competing visions of the future of the Republican Party. It’s true that Bannon has had a mixed record in taking on the GOP establishment. He helped Roy Moore win the Republican nomination in the Alabama Senate race, but couldn’t get the scandal-ridden candidate elected. Then again, the Republican establishment is also having trouble in this new political environment. In Virginia, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie combined his establishment resume with Trumpian rhetoric, and lost handily to Democrat Ralph Northam.

The Republican divide is not just between Bannonism, the ideas that captivated the party’s base last year, and the GOP establishment, which has institutional control. It’s a three-way split that includes Trump himself, who has no coherent ideology but a personality cult, such that his followers will support his every erratic move.

So far, Trump has governed by combining his personality cult with the policies of Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. While Trump has remained a broadly unpopular president, this alliance accomplished a major tax cut for the rich and the confirmation of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. But the fusion of Trumpism with the GOP political establishment will come under much greater stress in the expected Republican wipeout in this year’s midterm elections, which will set the stage for the 2020 presidential campaign.

Facing a much more hostile political terrain, Trump will have to confront the fact that the agenda of establishment Republicans like Ryan and McConnell, with its emphasis on regressive tax cuts and threats to slash widely-supported programs like Medicare, is deeply unpopular. It won’t take much for Trump to see that Ryan and McConnell are dragging down his presidency. That realization is likely to force Trump to return to the Bannonist themes that first got him elected. And in returning to Bannonism, Trump won’t find a better political operative who understands how to frame arguments than Bannon himself.

Given their current spat, a Bannon/Trump reunion might seem unlikely. But Trump often feuds with advisers, yet rarely cuts them off completely. He still continues to maintain contact with Roger Stone and Corey Lewandowski, both of whom he had supposedly fired. Speaking about Bannon on Thursday, Trump offered a mixed message. He denied on Thursday that he still talks to Bannon, but did welcome reports that Bannon called him “a great man.” Flattery might be Bannon’s path back into Trump’s good graces.

And even if Bannon remains forever exiled from Trump’s White House and permanently shunned by Republican leaders, Bannonism won’t go quietly. Trump’s electoral victory demonstrated that there is a genuine appetite among Republican voters for white nationalist policies that promise economic redress and to restore the perceived loss of racial status. Trump has so far only kept half the deal, by governing as the avatar of white resentment. That might be enough to keep his fans loyal, but will it draw enough of them to the voting booths to overcome turnout from those whom he has demonized? And yet, facing reelection, that might be Trump’s best chance of winning. Otherwise, he’d have to run as the leader of an unpopular GOP establishment and its plutocratic economic agenda.

The rising strength of the Democratic Party, on display in last year’s special elections, will force Trump and many other Republicans to return to right-wing populism. Which means they will seek out Bannon’s counsel, or at least espouse his ideas. Bannonism has displayed far more electoral vitality than mainstream Republicanism. It’s not going away anytime soon.