We already know Steve Bannon believes that politics is war. But during the course of his speech at an Alabama rally for Roy Moore this week, he gave the country an ugly lesson in what scorched-earth political warfare really entails. He was less interested in bashing Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, than in lashing out at Republicans like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
As far as the Breitbart CEO is concerned, it’s open season on all Republicans who are not enthusiastically backing the former judge who stands credibly accused of preying on multiple young girls. Just as Bannon was willing to do anything to defend Moore, including sending reporters to Alabama in what turned out to be a failed effort to discredit Moore’s accusers, he has no problem viciously attacking any Republican who disagrees.
So there he was, launching another salvo against his bête noire McConnell and a particularly nasty shot at Romney, in which he accused the devout Mormon of using “religion” to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War. Not satisfied with deriding Romney’s youthful stint as a Mormon missionary in France, Bannon went on to cite the fact that none of his five sons had served in the military. But while Bannon’s service in the peacetime Navy might allow him to preach on the subject, his claim that an accused sexual predator like Moore has more honor than the entire Romney clan was an egregious slander. Moore can’t hold a candle to Romney, who’s led an exemplary life of service to his church and the nation. More importantly, the same attack can be lodged against President Trump, whom Bannon’s war on the party establishment is intended to help. Trump used a medical deferment to dodge the draft during Vietnam and, like Romney’s progeny, none of his adult children chose to join the armed forces.
This establishes that there are no depths of hypocrisy or cynicism to which Bannon won’t sink in pursuit of another sympathetic GOP vote in the Senate. He seems to think that in this hyper-partisan era there are no costs to this sort of nastiness. He doesn’t care that an embrace of someone widely viewed by most Americans as a scoundrel cedes the moral high ground on sexual harassment to a Democratic party increasingly willing to toss its own sexual miscreants — e.g. John Conyers and Al Franken — overboard. He thinks such a rhetorical advantage is meaningless. He has no regard for the importance of virtue in politics, and he believes his all-out defense of Moore will carry no political costs.
In the short term, he’s probably right about that. If, despite his unsavory past and extremist views, Moore wins, the Breitbart wing of the GOP will be able to take credit for the victory even though just about any halfway normal Republican with a pulse would have had an easier time holding Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s former seat in deep-red Alabama. If Moore loses to the very liberal Jones, Bannon will blame it on the influence of McConnell, Romney, and everyone else who was uncomfortable letting a political albatross stain the GOP. The fault will really belong to Moore, Bannon, and Trump, but they are unlikely to take responsibility for it.
Still, despite all the fun he’s having attacking his favorite targets and boosting Moore, Bannon has to be aware that he isn’t winning his war on McConnell. Try as he might to deny it, he knows McConnell is now more important to Trump than the Breitbart attack machine is.
The Roy Moore campaign may well represent Bannon’s high-water mark.
It was McConnell’s successful maneuvering and negotiating that gave Trump his first big legislative victory last week. The hard-right base that looks to Breitbart for political guidance regards the majority leader, House speaker Paul Ryan, and many others who were essential to passing the tax bill as worse than liberal Democrats and fit for nothing but the dust pile of history. But if Trump wants any more such triumphs in the next year — and he’s going to need them — he will need the help of the same mainstream Republicans Bannon’s jihad aims to defeat.
Moreover, all the conservatives who are prepared to justify or rationalize all of Trump’s most outrageous conduct by pointing to Neil Gorsuch need to also realize that it is McConnell and his allies who are to thank for Gorsuch’s confirmation, and the historically quick confirmations of scores of conservative federal judges that followed.
It’s also true that, with the retirements of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, Bannon will probably fail to make good on his promise to use primary challenges to purge the House and Senate of everyone on his enemies list.
That means the Roy Moore campaign may well represent Bannon’s high-water mark. What follows in 2018 could leave him increasingly isolated as an administration looking for legislative wins becomes even more dependent on the establishment. And if things go as badly in next year’s midterms as Republican realists think they will, Trump will find himself even more dependent on McConnell in 2019. It will be the establishment, not Bannon, that has the power to defend the president against the impeachment charges that will likely be lodged if Nancy Pelosi returns to the speaker’s chair.
While Bannon will be free to vent his spleen all he likes and delight some elements of Trump’s base while doing so, his problem is that it really isn’t possible to blame the wicked GOP establishment for thwarting Trump when McConnell is the only reason anything is getting done on Capitol Hill. When the dust settles, if all Bannon has to show from the GOP civil war he is inciting is Roy Moore, even he may have to concede his scorched-earth campaign was a failure.