Had things gone differently, Stephen K. Bannon might have celebrated the first anniversary of President Trump's inauguration at the White House, working as chief strategist to plan year two. Or he might have spent the day directing coverage at Breitbart News as executive chairman of the conservative website.
But having been pushed out of both jobs, Bannon was not even in Washington on Jan. 20 this year.
“I was in New York,” he told GQ in an interview published Wednesday, “and one of the reasons I went up there was that I wanted to see this.”
“This” was the Women's March — not exactly an event associated with Bannon's pro-Trump politics. Bannon hasn't suddenly morphed into a feminist or a liberal, but what he has been up to since leaving Breitbart in early January is not what you might expect. He has been studying the Time's Up movement, drawing lessons from President Barack Obama and even meeting with progressives who want to launch a left-wing answer to Breitbart.
Consider it reconnaissance for Bannon's next chapter, which he described vaguely to GQ's Ben Schreckinger as some kind of advocacy group starting in the spring or summer that is “going to be focused on the promulgation of ideas, the weaponizing of ideas, and building and binding together through affiliate groups.”
Bannon went on:
In the modern digital age — and [Obama chief strategist David] Axelrod saw this very early on, and we a little bit copied it — there's three things that are important: It's authenticity of candidate. The one thing the Internet has done is blown through phonies. Number two is the importance of actionable ideas. Obama had a series of actionable ideas. Donald Trump had a series of actionable ideas. It's the reason my office was called the war room. Number three is — and this is also an Obama and Trump [characteristic] — a volunteer army of dedicated people.
Just as he has learned from Obama and Axelrod, Bannon is looking for strategic insight in Time's Up. In his Q&A with Schreckinger, he marveled at a New York Times cover photo that showed what the newspaper described as “a movement's vast cadre of foot soldiers” at the Women's March in New York.
“I want to put together ‘a movement's vast cadre of foot soldiers,’ ” he said.
Liberals are seeking tips from Bannon, too.
“I've had so many guys come in and talk to me about starting a Breitbart on the left,” he said. “They understand now that they need — and do not have — an anti-establishment platform on the left.”
It is clear that Bannon does not plan to disappear from politics and that, in plotting his comeback, he is willing to hunt for winning tactics wherever he might find them — even in movements and politicians that he strongly opposes. Yet he still faces the dual challenges presented by his breakups with the billionaire Mercer family, part owner of Breitbart, and Trump, who has said that Bannon “lost his mind.”
Bannon said his new venture will promote the populist, nationalist, “America first” worldview embodied by Trump, but it could be harder to claim a piece of Trumpism after such a strong rebuke from the president — and harder to raise money without the Mercers. If Bannon succeeds, his next act might be his most impressive yet.