A Steve Bannon–backed candidate turns out to have some serious baggage. Who could have seen that coming?
Roy Moore is just the latest in a line of flawed candidates whom Bannon has zealously elevated, only to cry “Establishment!” when their flaws are laid bare. Moore, Paul Nehlen, Kelli Ward: All satisfy the thumb-in-their-eye wing of the conservative movement on the way to embarrassing defeats.
Nehlen challenged House speaker Paul Ryan in the 2016 primary, but is quickly becoming a perennial candidate. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a few of the words that describe this picture might be: grit, determination, and leadership,” reads a particularly poetic caption on Nehlen’s campaign website.
Add hubris to the list. Nehlen is confident he’ll do what he couldn’t last year, when he had the enthusiastic fan-fiction penned by Bannon’s Breitbart on his side. “Paul Nehlen killed the Trans Pacific Partnership,” Matthew Boyle wrote last August, adding that the first-time candidate “singlehandedly put a dagger through the heart of [Ryan’s] and [Barack Obama’s] biggest globalist agenda item.” It wasn’t just the TPP, though. “Ryan has been forced by Republican businessman Paul Nehlen — his primary challenger — to kiss the ring of nationalist populism in order to fight for his political career,” Boyle wrote. Just hours after that piece was published, Nehlen lost to the tune of 84–16.
Kelli Ward, another candidate pushed by Breitbart, didn’t fare much better. One of the nicest things one can say about Ward, an osteopath and state senator who challenged John McCain in 2016, is that the rumor that she believes in the chemtrail conspiracy is overstated.
Ward channeled legitimate frustrations with McCain into a resounding defeat. She tried, and failed, to make McCain’s old age into an issue during the campaign. “I’m a doctor. The life expectancy of the American male is not 86. It’s less,” Ward said three months before Election Day. Clinically, of course, Ward is not wrong. But after losing the election, when McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, she showed her diagnosis to be nothing more than cynical opportunism, quickly calling upon him to step aside, with the obvious implication being that she could take the reins. Ward’s fervor was not dampened by her loss in the primary: She now has her eyes on the soon-to-be-vacant seat of Jeff Flake.
Bannon didn’t invent the GOP protest candidate. In 2010, Sharron Angle filled that role in the Nevada senatorial race, running for the seat held by Harry Reid. Angle was a flawed choice, having a poor reputation and being prone to making outlandish statements. In the same year, Christine O’Donnell defeated Mike Castle in the Republican primary for the seat formerly held by Joe Biden. Her upset excited tea-party members and outsiders alike, but their enthusiasm was less intense when Democratic candidate Chris Coons skated to an easy victory. Along the way, O’Donnell found herself mired in mistakes of her own making: Most notorious was her need to inform the electorate that she was “not a witch.” These candidates’ failed runs happened before Bannon took the helm of Breitbart — and apparently, he wasn’t paying attention. Bannon’s new dream, to wage “war” against sitting Republicans this primary season, would result in the same disappointment.
Obviously, Bannon-backed protest candidates don’t always lose. But the perception that he is a brilliant tactician is wrong. As Rich Lowry argues, “The genius in the Trump operation wasn’t Bannon; it was Trump, whose power as a communicator, gut-level political instincts, and celebrity overcame his manifest failings in a race against a Democratic opponent who proved one of the worst candidates in modern presidential history.”
And even when Bannon wins, he loses. He purports to be a populist, a nationalist, someone who understands that the Republican coalition has shifted and that its politicians are serving up stale policy. But he couldn’t secure anything of consequence when he had Trump’s ear, and since Bannon’s unceremonious exit, Trumpian populism has been supplanted by GOP orthodoxy leavened by cynical culture-war fights.
Roy Moore is just the latest in a line of flawed candidates Bannon has elevated.
Bannon is destined to fail, but that doesn’t mean there’s no constituency for nationalist politics without the prefix “ethno-.” He is too unserious to develop his intuitions into a political project, and his judgment is too poor to find candidates who can be part of one. Steve Bannon–backed candidates will always have serious baggage, and as long as he has influence, expect the embarrassments to keep piling up.