After being given the boot from the White House, Stephen Bannon felt liberated, loosed from the strictures of rules and politeness and neckties, free to resume the Machiavellian machinations that give his life purpose. As he told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, he was a mere government employee on Pennsylvania Avenue, robbed of the freedom to be the "street fighter" he is at heart.
So newly unshackled, Bannon is devising a project to protect President Trump from the sniveling cowards that lurk around him in his own party. As Alex Isenstadt of Politico reports, Bannon is planning on punishing Republican lawmakers with primary challenges, to keep them fearful and in line:
Bannon has begun holding private meetings with insurgent challengers, vowing his support. He's coordinating with conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer, who is prepared to pour millions of dollars into attacks on GOP incumbents. Bannon has also installed a confidant at an outside group that is expected to target Republican lawmakers and push the Trump agenda. [Politico]
I'm sure Bannon will enjoy this project greatly. But politically speaking, it's an absolutely terrible idea.
There are some circumstances in which mounting primary challenges against squishy lawmakers might produce a more loyal senator or congressman, as the apostate is replaced with someone more reliably conservative. But as we saw when the Tea Party was purging moderates, that only works if the state or district is so firmly in Republican hands that any GOP nominee will win. And in those places, the incumbents are those least likely to stray in the first place. It's the places where a Democrat might have a chance — like in Arizona, where Sen. Jeff Flake (R) is Bannon's main target — where a primary challenge could easily produce a nutball Republican nominee who winds up losing what could have been a winnable race. That's what often happened during the Obama years with candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell. The latter, you may recall, felt compelled to air an ad making clear that she was not, in fact, a witch; neither was she to become a senator.
Not that there isn't a logic at work. Bannon no doubt looks at the experience of the Tea Party, which targeted moderate Republicans with primary challenges and caused the entire GOP to live in fear, as a smashing success. Though the sniffling elites might have seen them as radical bomb-throwers, and notwithstanding the occasional embarrassing loss, they did indeed help Republicans take back Congress and eventually saw their champion ascend to the White House.
The trouble is that the Tea Party executed an excellent strategy for an opposition party. It was a way of keeping people in line when the question was "How pure is your hatred of Barack Obama?" As a means of governing, it doesn't have quite the same effect.
Consider that with an exception here or there, like the three GOP senators who didn't support the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump is getting nearly perfect support from Republicans in Congress. The problem isn't that they're voting against him on key bills, it's that they haven't been able to get their act together enough to have bills to vote on. Most of the small acts of rebellion have come in mildly reproachful comments about the latest offensive Trump tweet or statement.
That no doubt burns Trump up, but it doesn't actually impede his agenda. But one gets the sense from Bannon that he's bored with something as mundane as policy when he has a clash of civilizations to fight. Perhaps that's why he always looked so uneasy in White House photographs, like he couldn't wait to get out of the room. Actual power, it turned out, was not what it was cracked up to be, at least not from where Bannon sat at Trump's side. The street fighter, who loves nothing more than intentionally flouting norms of propriety to make those with power disturbed and appalled, didn't find quite the satisfaction in being on the inside — not unlike his boss.
So now Bannon is back running Breitbart, the website that pours its bile over the political landscape to the glee of a huge audience of conservatives, while he plots the punishment and humiliation of the GOP's quislings. President Trump, who has an obsessive need to exact revenge on any who criticize him, will no doubt be delighted with Bannon's project. But its most likely result will be a few more seats in Democratic hands. And with a 2018 election that could deliver them the House, that may be all they need.