Steve Bannon’s Endgame

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Steve Bannon called it on January 5, 2021, when he announced that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” Bannon knew what was coming on the eve of President Donald Trump’s violent coup attempt. And he knows what’s coming now as he promotes a “populist revolt” that he predicts will see an army of partisans flooding polling places this November to usher in a new era of right-wing extremism.

What Trump’s coconspirator is talking about is very different from the normal politics of a midterm election year. Bannon is plotting a “precinct strategy” takeover of the electoral infrastructure of the nation—by inserting MAGA supporters in key election oversight positions and by creating chaos where necessary—to ensure Republicans get control of Congress and statehouses in 2022 and of the White House in 2024. From there, the plan is for a re-empowered Trump to assert his authority as never before.

While most media coverage of Bannon these days is focused on his contempt of Congress convictions for disregarding a subpoena from the House committee investigating the January 6 attack, the more consequential story is that of his plot to upend the political process in order to return his former boss to the Oval Office as an angrier and more authoritarian president.

“We control this country. We’ve got to start acting like it,” Bannon declared in October, as he outlined plans to “deconstruct” the federal government and turn it into a hyper-politicized agency for Trump to exact revenge on those who are investigating him for conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Reveling in the details of a recent Axios report on how Trumpers “are preparing to radically reshape the federal government if he is re-elected, purging potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to him and his ‘America First’ ideology,” Bannon is issuing new calls to action.

He wants people “stepping forward and say[ing], ‘Hey, I want to be one of those 4,000 shock troops,’” he said on his popular podcast, Bannon’s War Room.

Bannon won’t just be one of those shock troops; he intends to lead them. Indeed, he’s already doing so—with none-too-subtle encouragement from the former president, who for the better part of a decade has turned to Bannon as a theorist, strategist, and political hit man. Even though the pair have occasionally fallen out, Bannon has leveraged his connection with Trump to become a major player in GOP politics. Now, as Republicans believe they are poised for midterm success, candidates for Senate seats, governorships, and secretary of state positions stumble over one another to join his podcast, which CNN describes as a “six-days-a-week alternate reality.”

Bannon used the podcast to rally the troops on January 6, 2021, and he is still doing so—with a disdain for the truth and for democracy that is increasingly embraced by his No. 1 listener. Wherever Trump crosses the line from political buffoonery to protofascism, you’ll find Bannon. Trump has always been the vehicle; Bannon has always been the driver. And now, even as he faces legal scrutiny, Bannon is plotting the trajectory of Trump’s political project and of the party it dominates.

If Republicans take charge of Congress and statehouses this fall, they will follow a playbook outlined by Bannon and promoted by Trump. Bannon is already talking about impeaching Joe Biden and investigating the members of the January 6 committee. Last December on his podcast, he announced, “We’re going to hit the beach with the landing teams and the beachhead teams, and all that nomenclature they use, when President Trump wins in 2024—or before.”

The “or before” is an ominous reminder that Bannon is no newcomer to authoritarian politics. The extraordinary hearings of the January 6 committee confirmed that Bannon continues to serve as Trump’s savviest—and most Machiavellian—coconspirator. Officially, Bannon has been off the payroll since he exited the Trump White House in August 2017, after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., focused attention on the white nationalist views that the president and the man who served as his “White House chief strategist” so obviously shared.

But Bannon didn’t disappear from Trump’s orbit. He decamped to Europe and joined far-right partisans in building the infrastructure for the “global populist movement,” hailed Hungary’s Viktor Orbán as “the most significant guy on the scene right now,” and sought to establish a “gladiator school for culture warriors” in a former Italian monastery. Back home, he allegedly sought to defraud Trump supporters who wanted to help pay for the president’s border wall.

But the side hustles were just distractions from the real project: remaking the United States as an “America First” enclave where racism and xenophobia are normalized and where Trump and his minions utilize the authoritarian power of government to punish their enemies and reward themselves.

When pundits talk about the 2022 and 2024 elections, they need to recognize—as Bannon does—that the results will determine whether an already battered republic will be handed over to the far-right political project of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.