The most recent battle in Bannon’s war took place on Tuesday in Alabama. The day prior, at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Bannon framed the race as a referendum on Trump’s presidency.
“This is a national election tomorrow,” he said. “This is the Trump miracle versus the nullification project.” The “Trump miracle,” he explained, was threefold, including strong borders, fighting terrorism and, Bannon’s favorite, “economic nationalism,” the protectionist approach toward jobs and trade that Bannon has made a centerpiece of his sales pitch as he tries to dismantle the Republican establishment from the inside.
The “nullification project,” of course, was the elites’ efforts to stand in Trump’s way, as Bannon would formulate it.
The nullification project won.
This was supposed to be a litmus test for Bannon’s ability to hold the establishment to account. His track record coming into the Alabama special election campaign wasn’t very robust, electorally speaking. He attached himself to Moore after it was clear that Moore was likely to win the Republican primary. His only other victory was when Trump won the presidency — which, of course, included losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. A Moore triumph over Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama would be the first unqualified, wire-to-wire victory on Bannon’s résumé, especially after the race had drawn closer following the now-infamous accusations leveled against the Republican candidate.
But it didn’t happen. Bannon’s repeated threats about crippling the establishment were neutered as soon as the Associated Press called the race. Bannon had tried, even on Monday, to blame the establishment for Moore’s poor standing, arguing then that the race “would be an absolute blowout except the Republican establishment wouldn’t have it,” that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his elite allies were keeping Moore in check. Bannon is in the odd position, then, of dismissing the establishment as out of touch and detached from the electorate and also touting it as full of powerful electoral actors who can bend voters to their will.
For Republicans worried about next year’s primaries, the results in Alabama were a worst-case scenario. A hard-right conservative — even one with a sketchy track record — could easily snatch the nomination only to then be obliterated in a general election by a motivated Democratic base. And, as has no doubt been said thousands of times over the past 24 hours between candidates and their campaign managers, it could happen even in Alabama!
The situation is tricky for Republicans and probably worse for Bannon (who, on his radio show Wednesday morning, credited the win to the Democratic Party’s turnout efforts and claimed that his fight against the establishment could take years — as though a Republican winning in Alabama was a lofty aspiration). For Trump, the results in Alabama should be clarifying.
“Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country,” the Senate Leadership Fund said in a statement after Moore’s loss, “but he also dragged the President of the United States into his fiasco.” It was Bannon who “rescued” Moore’s foundering campaign, Bloomberg News’ Joshua Green wrote this week, including pressuring Trump to stand firm in support of the candidate. Bannon not only called the president, but he also helped assuage Fox News’ Sean Hannity, leading to advocacy from Hannity that the Fox-loving president no doubt saw.
In a sense, Bannon’s ability to turn Trump’s head also helped contribute to Moore’s loss. It’s Bannon who reportedly reinforced Trump’s unceasing focus on his core base of support — a focus that has meant abandoning most efforts at broadening his appeal and has therefore certainly helped keep his approval ratings in the doldrums. (Fully one-fifth of the country disapproves of Trump but says it might be open to changing its mind.)
In Alabama, most voters said that their vote for Jones or Moore had nothing to do with Trump, and more of the remaining voters said they were voting to show support for Trump than opposition, according to exit polling. Of those who approve of Trump, Moore won 89 percent of the vote.
But approval of Trump was split, with 48 percent of voters saying they approved and 48 percent saying they didn’t — again, in Alabama. If Trump’s approval had been at 51 percent instead of 48 percent and most of those who approved backed Moore, Moore would right now be senator-elect. But Trump’s approval ratings are low nationally and subpar among Alabama voters — and part of that is a function of the advice that Bannon offers.
Trump won the presidency with Bannon guiding his way. Trump’s insistent focus on white working-class voters was more than enough to power his aggregated 78,000-vote margin in the three blue-collar states that handed him the electoral college, aided by thousands of other factors including a deeply unpopular opponent. (A deeply unpopular opponent who still won more votes.)
Since then, Bannon’s work has led to several high-profile embarrassments and frustrations for the president. Owning Moore’s loss. Deep unpopularity. Constant agitation via Breitbart of the Republican senators whose votes he needs on every contentious vote.
Bannon’s claim of being able to hold the establishment to account took a bad hit in Alabama. It should also have revealed to Trump that Bannon’s ability to aid his presidency was also pretty iffy. Weirdly, aligning with Bannon in a war against the establishment doesn’t seem to be paying off for the guy in charge of that establishment.