Stephen K. Bannon, current Breitbart News CEO and former White House strategist, is everywhere these days, it seems—on your TV, college campuses, and smack in the middle of the midterm congressional elections.
The day his blustery interview with Charlie Rose aired on the September 10 edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes, word spread of Bannon’s intervention in campaigns for upcoming U.S. Senate campaigns; he’s backing primary challengers to sitting Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, Luther Strange of Alabama, and Dean Heller of Nevada. It’s not his own money he’s spending, of course. For this project, as for most recent Bannon escapades, the money is coming from Robert Mercer, the reclusive hedge-fund billionaire, according to Alex Isenstadt of Politico. Also under consideration for the Bannon treatment, Politico reports, is Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Their sin? Insufficient loyalty to President Donald J. Trump.
As Republican leaders fret over a possible loss of control of the Senate due to Bannon’s actions, they fail to notice that Bannon is not playing a short-term game for GOP majorities in Congress. Bannon’s game is one for control of the Republican Party writ large.
It’s clear that Mercer has no small amount of envy for the Koch brothers, the billionaire siblings whose will has largely shaped the GOP agenda as the party became ever more dependent on the political infrastructure built by the Kochs and the donor network they have cultivated over the course of decades. No longer insurgents, the Kochs and their political beneficiaries have become part of the GOP establishment. House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose career got a mighty boost from the Koch-founded Americans For Prosperity (AFP), is a case in point. Ryan, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are now tasked with the realities of governing, which often leads them to make decisions that are at odds with the president’s whims. And that makes them, and some of the incumbents they hope to re-elect, the focus of right-wing ire.
Bannon and his patron Mercer, it seems, are willing to take their chances on the possible loss of the GOP’s narrow Senate majority if the gambit places Mercer in the kingmaker’s seat, supplanting the Koch brothers in that role. But there’s a fly in that ointment, for nearly all Republican lawmakers depend on the Koch brothers’ political apparatus in order to win re-election, especially the get-out-the-vote operations of Americans For Prosperity, and the data firm i360. Bannon seems to be betting that AFP will turn out the vote for any Republican who runs for the Senate, including the neo-theocrat Roy Moore, whom Bannon is backing against Strange in the Alabama Republican primary.
Then again, Bannon may night mind seeing the GOP lose the Senate, seeing how that would deprive McConnell, as special target of Bannon’s opprobrium, of what power he currently holds. Both Ryan and McConnell, Bannon charged in his 60 Minutes interview, seek “to nullify the 2016 election.”
He added: “They do not want Donald Trump's populist, economic nationalist agenda to be implemented. It's very obvious.”
The Republican leaders won’t help Trump, Bannon said, unless they’re “put on notice” via the war he’s planning to wage on them.
Given Bannon’s longstanding contempt for McConnell and Ryan, it would be easy to take these statements at face value. But there’s something far deeper going on. This is not about a battle for the soul of the party. It’s about which billionaires get to control the levers of power. And Mercer clearly thinks it should be him.
During the presidential campaign, the Koch brothers made a show of not backing Donald Trump for the party’s nomination, and later saying they wouldn’t put money into the presidential contest. But that was more posture than pledge, since all of AFP’s voter-turnout efforts surely redounded to Trump’s benefit, since most who came to a voting booth to select a Republican for Congress likely marked the box next to Trump’s line among the choices for president. Like many Republicans, Koch operations like to play the race card without naming it as such. Calls for ending Obamacare or shrinking the food stamp program: This is the kind of code employed in Kochian rhetoric. Trump’s crime was his coarse and obvious embrace of haters of all stripes.
Mercer, however, doesn’t stand on ceremony. He’s poured some $10 million into Breitbart.com, the website Bannon proudly dubbed “the platform of the alt-right,” where Islamophobia and racism shape false narratives about terrorism and crime, and misogyny abounds. Mercer money also fueled the nonprofit Government Accountability Institute founded by Bannon, which generated false narratives about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, producing the since-discredited book, Clinton Cash, whose claims were picked up by The New York Times. Mercer also gave Bannon a top post at his for-profit political data firm, Cambridge Analytica, which uses Facebook profiles to determine voter preferences. (Bannon resigned as Cambridge Analytica’s vice president when he won his White House appointment.)
Democrats may rub their hands in glee at the specter of Mercer battle against the Kochs for the GOP. But ultimately, Bannon’s gambit is bad for democracy. A Republican Party pushed to embrace Trump’s neo-fascism will still remain one of the nation’s two major political parties—which means they will sometimes win. And when a battle between would-be oligarchs stands to shape the whole of American politics, you have to wonder if there’s even a democracy at present.
Bannon’s scorched-earth tactics may harm the Republican Party in the short run, but could wound the nation for generations to come.