Roy Moore’s controversial political career ended last night after his stunning defeat to Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s special Senate election. But another person’s controversial political career may also have been fatally wounded by yesterday’s debacle: Steve Bannon’s.
Bannon has stayed in the news since he left the White House in August by actively promoting the idea that he would recruit and back primary challengers to sitting Republican Senators in a bid to smash the McConnell-led GOP establishment. At the outset, many observers wondered how powerful Bannon and the forces he claimed to represent were. Did Trump’s stunning victories mean the center of GOP gravity was really with what Bannon called “the economic nationalist populist” movement? Last night’s defeat clearly showed to all who have eyes to see that it is not – at least on the basis of how Bannon and Trump are currently organising that movement.
Bannon did not create Moore, but he jumped on board the Moore bandwagon to actively campaign and support him. In doing so, he made Moore the clear example of both the type of person he wanted to back and the grounds upon which he would campaign. The persona Bannon wanted was an uncompromising, unrelentingly oppositional character, someone more dedicated to tearing down than to building up. The campaign Bannon wanted to run was similarly oppositional and personal. Backing the President was the touchstone of the campaign; opposing the current Senate its leitmotif. Why, exactly, one should back the President or oppose the leadership was left undefined: on what issues do Trump and McConnell disagree, and what aspects of “the Trump agenda” are being thwarted by the supposedly recalcitrant leadership? Those points went unanswered in favour of personal scorched earth attacks that reached their nadir when Bannon attacked television host Joe Scarbrough for not going to a “good” university like Harvard or Georgetown. Scarborough attended Alabama’s flagship state university, the University of Alabama, leaving many people scratching their heads, wondering why Bannon would attack an out-of-state figure for attending the most popular and prestigious school in the state in which he was campaigning.
Bannon has now been revealed as the blowhard behind the curtain, the “humbug from Nebraska” who isn’t the all-powerful Wizard of Oz that many feared. He did not bring Moore significant campaign expertise or money, and his personal appearances on behalf of Moore attracted as much opprobrium and adulation. Potential challengers who might have sought his backing before last night surely as having second thoughts this morning.
Bannon’s strategy has always been flawed because he, like many self-styled GOP revolutionaries, presume that the current GOP leadership has no significant voting base. But they do. Depending on the state, between a third and two-third of the Republican Party’s voters are the sort of business-friendly soft conservatives or moderates who frown on making anger and resentment the centre-piece of the party’s appeal. Trump won despite losing many of these voters because enough stayed with him to propel him to a narrow victory. Bannon’s strategy has always ignored that fact and his tactics have always been of a sort to drive out these voters from the GOP coalition. The Jones win showed that this is a recipe for defeat even in strongly Republican Alabama.
That doesn’t mean a smarter version of a populist challenge wouldn’t work. Bannon and Trump have abandoned the economic populism that undergirded the 2016 effort. Trump rarely talks about trade and his statements on immigration focus exclusively on building the wall. He has signed over the economic agenda to the GOP establishment who are now crafting a tax bill that gives hard-pressed working-class voters nothing. They are now signalling their 2018 priority is to cut spending on pensions and state-financed medical insurance, the complete opposite of what Trump campaigned on. Why should someone who wants a fair deal in a tough economy back Trump or his party today? If these voters wanted Romney-Ryanism, they would have voted for Romney-Ryan in 2012. But they did not because they do not.
Bannon’s recent statements have tended to abandon the “economic” part of his economic nationalism in favour of the “nationalism” portion. And in Bannon’s hands, that nationalism is not an inspiring call to a common American citizenship but a negative, nativist appeal to rally the wagons and build the laager to keep the enemy at bay. When that fails to generate enthusiasm – turnout in rural, Republican Alabama was much lower than expected – even in a state long known for its nativism, it shows that this is just a losing hand.
Bannon isn’t going to go away, but the question is whether his former boss will see that the Breitbart strategy is doomed. If he does, then maybe we’ll start to see a different Trump in the new year, one less focused on tweeting the culture war and more focused on building the new America that he promised his fans he was going to create. Whether the famous builder starts to build or continues to tear down is perhaps the most important unanswered political question of 2018.