At Goldman Sachs, Steve Bannon’s job was to defend companies against hostile takeovers by junk bond raiders from Drexel Burnham and First Boston. This morning Bannon himself completed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, when it was announced that he would move from his post as chairman of Breitbart.com to become CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Beyond its enthusiastic cheerleading for the GOP presidential nominee, Breitbart, since its namesake’s passing, has represented a formulation of conservatism identical to that which drove Trump’s campaign to victory in the Republican primary. While lacking the ideological consistency of most political movements, it is a blend of right-wing populism, Saul Alinsky’s tactics and Sun Tzu’s strategies. It is jingoistic, angry and anti-institutional.
For years the Republican Party used dog whistles to avoid accusations of racism. (The strategy was famously explained by former RNC Chair Lee Atwater.) The Trump/Breitbart ideology now unflinchingly promotes racism, while openly courting the support of bigots. Former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro noted this in a post this morning that under Bannon’s leadership “Breitbart has become the alt-right go-to website, with [Milo] Yiannopoulos pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist meme makers.”
It is a thin-skinned ideology, consistently positioning those who adhere to it as victims of the liberal media, progressive college professors (and even students), and institutional Republicans, that relies on a constant stream of conspiracies theories about government institutions out to get white conservatives.
Those who adopt the Trump/Breitbart ideology ignore any evidence that does not conform to their worldview and live their lives in a completely binary world. One is either a friend or an enemy with no in between. This means that even those who are ideological allies are targets for their enmity, including members of the political elite such as John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who, by not showing 100 percent fealty, have committed some crime against the movement. The movement’s enemies list also includes conservative media figures who don’t necessarily toe the line and former employees who are no longer viewed as loyal.
The Trump/Breitbart ideology is defined not by any coherent set of conservative beliefs but instead by rabid anti-liberalism. For the past eight years that has meant standing in opposition to the Obama administration, even when it took stances that more traditional conservatives would have been happy to adopt, and now translates into unquestioning opposition to the Clinton campaign.
Trump’s campaign has demonstrated the extent of the support for this anti-liberal ideology among Republican Party voters. Yet for the past few weeks, Trump’s poll numbers have flagged as promised resets, marked by teleprompter-driven policy speeches, are undercut, often in less than 24 hours, when the candidate’s often racist gaffes step on his own news cycle.
In July, the ousting of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowsky and the elevation of campaign chairman Paul Manafort signaled an attempt to bring Trump back into the Republican fold. This has clearly failed.
While Bannon’s elevation marks the completion of the takeover, it in fact began long ago.
For eight years, Fox News served as a megaphone, promoting anger among the base of the Republican Party. It promoted and fueled the Tea Party in the spring of 2009 and the angry town halls that members of Congress came home to that summer. These voters became a dominant force in the party, leading to Republican victories, most notably taking back the House of Representatives in 2010. The rise of the Tea Party also led to embarrassments, such as the nomination of Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell, that year in the Delaware Senate race.
Looking back just 24 hours, yesterday’s New York Times report that former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is now assisting the Trump campaign with debate prep is even less surprising.
Republicans who claim that Trump and Breitbart do not represent their movement now face a new reality: Warriors for an ideology they claim not to support are now on their way to gaining full control of the institutions of their party.
Steve Bannon, in business and politics, has shown himself to be a crafty merger artist. While arranging the sale of Castle Rock, in lieu of a fee he accepted the rights to several television shows, among them “Seinfeld,” which had not yet become the dominant cultural force of the 1990s, leading to an untold financial windfall.
Now, by force, he and Trump have taken over the Republican Party. They control their own media platform and have demonstrated influence over a base far larger than any other in the party. Most of all, Trump and Bannon are fighters, unafraid to get in the mud, and they are unlikely to surrender the institutions they now control without open warfare.