What has Steven Bannon been doing since he left the White House in August? Newsweek senior editor Alexander Nazaryan followed the controversial figure town to town, listening to his fiscal sermons and calculated outreach to the black working class, as he wages his never-ending ideological battle for political influence.
Bannon is trying to build a network of supporters whose allegiance does not directly depend on his affiliation with Trump, and that requires convincing the American public that despite the direct quotes they’ve heard in the media, he isn’t a racist anti-Semite. He still sees himself as an outsider, a rebel, but now also fancies himself as a uniter capable of pulling conservative factions together to dethrone establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, and reaching across the aisle to show how he and the left share some fiscal ideology. His unifying principle: something he calls “economic nationalism.” It involves impenetrable borders, intellectual and economic protectionism, and less expensive foreign policy, and it supposedly aims to strengthen the American economy and benefit the working class. Will conservative voters get behind Bannon’s #MAGA vision? Two things are certain: Bannon is always scheming, and anyone who aligned himself so closely with Trump cannot be trusted.
Bannon’s understanding that class discontent would eclipse party affiliation in the 2016 election was prescient, and even his harshest critics concede that. Steve Schmidt, a top adviser on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, credits Bannon with seeing the shift to populism before many others did. But he calls Bannon’s economic nationalism movement “an absurdity” that will ruin the Republican Party unless McConnell and Ryan beat him down before the 2018 midterms. “The revolution he speaks of is a freak show,” Schmidt says of Bannon’s movement. “The only thing missing is someone in a Chewbacca costume next to him on a stage.”
Kuttner, too, is skeptical that Bannon can win converts from the left. “Hitler had a terrific interstate highway system,” he says. “Hitler also had a terrific welfare state. But that doesn’t mean progressives have anything in common with Hitler.” He says this not to compare Bannon to Hitler but to caution that “incidental overlap” shouldn’t be exaggerated into a bigger political confluence. Kuttner notes, like many others I spoke to, that Bannon has thus far failed to field a candidate who embraces his eclectic set of ideas. “Unless he’s planning to run for office himself, he’s mostly blowing smoke,” Kuttner says.