Does Steve Bannon want an establishment president? Because this is exactly how we get an establishment president. By burning his old boss so publicly, the populist Bannon not only made himself persona non grata, but also drove the president into the arms of the establishment he had campaigned against.
After Trump broke it off with Bannon through an official White House statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s social media team tweeted a GIF of the majority leader smirking. The message was obvious: the president has made his choice in the ongoing feud between the Republican establishment and the Breitbart populists. Trump is McConnell’s bae now.
From the beginning, it was clear that Bannon and McConnell wanted different things from this administration. Trump just wanted to win. Only one of those two men has delivered. Post-campaign, the majority leader has given the president a Supreme Court justice and a historic tax reform package. And Bannon? Chaos in the West Wing. Criticism of the first family. An embarrassing Senate loss in Alabama.
By now Trump has forgotten all the “mean” things that McConnell and company said about him during the campaign. All that matters now is showing that he knew Bannon was trouble the moment he walked in the door.
“Steve was a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination by defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled in the Republican party,” Trump wrote before comparing records. “Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look.”
Whatever truth there is to that statement, it begins in Alabama. When Trump backed the incumbent Republican, Sen. Luther Strange, Bannon elevated a wannabe cowboy with a checkered past that the electorate proved unable to accept. “We did not come here to defy Donald Trump,” Bannon said at the time, “we came here to praise and honor him.” Even the president eventually bought that line after the GOP primary, trusting his old strategist and supporting Judge Roy Moore ahead of his disastrous loss to Democrat Doug Jones.
For whatever reason, Bannon thought he could win back the president by embarrassing his old boss in an inflammatory interview. Oddly enough, that has been good for the Bannon brand — the press suddenly loves him again. But it’s bad for the crop of Senate candidates Bannon assembled in an effort to oust McConnell.
Consider West Virginia, a state Trump easily won and a Senate seat the GOP should easily win back. While McConnell has endorsed Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins for the seat, Bannon has rallied to state attorney general Patrick Morrisey. Clearly, Morrisey is the more conservative of the two. But because of Bannon, it just got that much harder for Morrisey to get a presidential endorsement.
Morrisey isn’t alone and West Virginia isn’t unique. Because of the breakup, Senate hopefuls like Kelli Ward in Arizona, Kevin Nicholson in Wisconsin, and Josh Mandel in Ohio are already facing awkward questions about their allegiance to the fiery Breitbart CEO.
All of this makes it more likely that McConnell wins the custody battle for the Republican Party. Bannon has no one to blame but himself. His actions explain precisely how populists got an establishment president.