Steve Bannon — the Political Right's Benjamin Linus
On Sunday, Politico's Alex Isenstadt reported that President Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is leading an effort to remove a number of sitting senators in the 2018 election. Notably, the politicians he's targeting aren't Democrats. They're Republicans, and his plan is to take them out during the primaries, and replace them with candidates perceived to be more loyal to the Trump agenda (whatever that happens to be on any given day). Right-leaning hedge-fund tycoon and mega-donor, Robert Mercer, is said to be on-board with the operation, and is prepared to invest millions of dollars in attacking Republican incumbents.
As you can imagine, senior Republicans aren't at all that excited about the idea. The GOP currently holds only a four-seat majority in the senate. An expensive effort to attack and diminish those up for re-election could help the Democrats regain some of those seats.
Former Mitch McConnell chief of staff, Josh Holmes, who is quoted in Isenstadt's piece, frames the argument this way: "The issue is: Do you invest your time and energy in attacking people who are carrying this president’s water in Congress to the benefit of people who are trying to impeach him? That seems like an incredibly short-sighted strategy."
Now, Trump fans would probably scoff at the notion that elected GOP representatives are "carrying the president's water," but the truth is that nearly every Republican senator has voted with Trump over 90% of the time since inauguration day. This includes Arizona's Jeff Flake and Nebraska's Ben Sasse, who've both been outspoken critics of the president. Conversely, the Democrats have opposed most Trump-backed initiatives, the average Democratic senator having supported the president less than 30% of the time.
Still, Bannon made it clear in his recent 60 Minutes interview that he has far more contempt for "establishment Republicans" than he does the Democrats. His declaration of "war" wasn't against people like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. It was against the GOP. And one gets the sense that Bannon would be more than fine with Republicans losing their majorities in congress...if it meant teaching the party a lesson. Pragmatically, Bannon might even view such a scenario as beneficial, being that the Democrats may be more receptive (as Trump was) to his nationalistic views on the economy and foreign policy.
Still, Bannon's more immediate goal (as it was when he was in the White House) is commanding party loyalty to Donald Trump, through whatever convoluted means he deems necessary. In this sense, he's similar to the Benjamin Linus character from the television show, Lost.
Linus (played brilliantly by actor Michael Emerson) was the manipulative leader of The Others — a dedicated tribe of island natives committed to securing the homeland and carrying out, without question, the abstruse will (or at least what Linus presented as the will) of the island's mystical supreme leader, Jacob.
Linus's motivations, however, weren't always pure. He secretly wanted Jacob's power, and he concocted self-serving schemes to get it. This involved forming odd but strategic alliances — some of them negotiated at gunpoint. Yet, he managed to justify every sinister act he carried out by claiming it was done in service and loyalty to Jacob, the tribe's leader and island's protector.
And for most his followers, that was enough...because Linus was convincing and Jacob was divine.
Over the past year, Bannon has been undeniably influential — far beyond anything he had previously achieved at Breitbart. He managed a successful presidential campaign, authored much of the president's messaging (including his inauguration speech), and served as a top-level advisor in the White House. A ride like that would leave anyone with a strong sense of validation and purpose. And Bannon clearly feels compelled to continue the fight, despite being vanquished from the island. He wants to be relevant again, and he has found a new vehicle.
Unfortunately for the "GOP establishment," Bannon views them (not liberals or the Democratic party) as the primary enemy. They're his Dharma Initiative — a highly organized and well-funded group of overstepping infidels that must be dealt with, because the two groups can't co-exist in the long term. And as fans of Lost can tell you, that conflict didn't end particularly well for the Dharma folks.
Remarkably, a good chunk of the modern Right seems to agree with Bannon about the GOP. A lot of Republican voters now hold a deeper disdain for people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan than they do for liberal Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. We saw proof of this when Trump threw congressional Republicans (and parts of his own agenda) under the bus to needlessly hand "Chuck and Nancy" everything they wanted on the debt-ceiling deal. Trump fans didn't just like it...they loved it!
The sentiment (as echoed by media-Trumpkins like Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, and Laura Ingraham) was that as long as the agreement made the Republicans in congress look foolish (just as congress had made Trump look foolish by failing to pass a healthcare bill), the deal was a good thing. In other words, Trumpers would rather punish McConnell and Ryan — by handing the Democratic party needless victories (and granting them political leverage they wouldn't have otherwise had) — than let the GOP make headway on important objectives like tax reform.
This mindset only makes sense to those more interested in catering to the whims of a tribe leader than pursuing any kind of political agenda. But that's where we're at in 2017 — a mere two years after John Boehner was ousted from his speakership for being too accommodating to the Democrats (and Boehner never capitulated as spectacularly as Trump just did).
Bannon understands that the culture has changed, and that when people put more faith in personas than they put in ideas and principles, they are more easily manipulated. Thus, he's banking on there being enough Trump support left in November of 2018 to continue to punish the GOP establishment, regardless of the results.
Will Bannon succeed? It's very doubtful. With the important exception of the presidency, primary battles between traditional Republicans and Trump acolytes have gone quite well for the traditional candidates. Look up a guy named Paul Nehlen if you need an example.
Still, just like with Benjamin Linus, you can't count Steve Bannon out. It's easier to destroy something than it is to fix it, and Bannon's aim is clearly to destroy.