Sunday night, Stephen K. Bannon poked a stick in the eyes of the Republican Establishment and the media, recounted last October’s infamous Billy Bush Tape, and relived Election Night 2016. In his speech to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the once-centrist Zionist group founded by Louis Brandeis, but which now outflanks the mainline American Israel Public Affairs Committee and sits reliably on the hard-right, Bannon predictably praised Donald Trump, his ex-boss, and threw down the gauntlet at ISIS, Iran, and radical Islam. Suffice to say, the all pro-Israel, almost-all Orthodox Jewish crowd loved it.
Bannon did not reprise his Saturday rant, which he shared on Breitbart News Daily, in which he had compared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to a wounded and dying deer that was destined to bleed out; nor did he again call the Republican Establishment “scumbags.” Parenthetically, McConnell appears to have been uncowed as he returned the favor Monday by calling on Roy Moore, Bannon’s guy and the GOP candidate in the Alabama Senate race, to drop out.
Leaving those gory images at home, at least during dinner, Bannon, a Navy veteran with a West Point graduate daughter, reminded those assembled that he was a “fighter,” not a “moderate,” signaling just where he stood in Alabama’s special election and the 2018 midterms. Having already pocketed the political scalps of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, Bannon had no reason to hit the brakes, not even in the face of the Republican wipeouts in Virginia and high-end suburbia.
With Trump’s numbers persistently underwater, and large swaths of white Americans feeling aggrieved, it’s going to be back to blood and the base for Trump and Bannon, and the numbers tell a story. Nearly half of white Southerners feel under attack, according to a recent Winthrop University Poll, while over in Alabama, almost 40 percent of evangelical voters report being more likely to stick with Moore because of the charges of pedophilia that have been leveled against him in the Washington Post.
Had the story been first reported elsewhere or earlier, evangelical opinion may have been different. But in the Age of Trump, tribal politics conquers all, and religion looks ever more like a proxy for race, ethnicity and nationalism. These days, blood and soil comes in multiple flavors, and Scripture is its handmaiden.
Yet even amidst this din, Bannon’s speech tossed an olive branch of sorts to Jared Kushner, a man whom Bannon reportedly labeled as a “dope,” derided as “the air,” and dismissed as a part of celebrity twosome (Javanka), who if left to their own “naïve” political instincts, would come to alienate the President from his white working-class core. Describing the first round of exit polls and early results, Bannon spoke fondly of how he had spent those tense 5:00 p.m. Election Day moments with Kushner.
To be sure, Bannon could afford to be magnanimous. It was Jared, not Bannon, who urged that his father-in-law fire FBI Director James Comey. It was Jared, not Bannon, who also backed losing Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican primary. Of the two, it’s Bannon who knows how to read the political tea leaves, by far. Also, given the demographics of those assembled, petting Kushner’s head was a costless gesture.
Yet, there may have been more afoot. As reported by Katie Zavadski, my Daily Beast colleague, Kushner aide Ira Greenstein, a deputy assistant to the president, was hanging out with Sebastian Gorka, who had been sent packing from the White House in late August. Meanwhile, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, an exile from the National Security Council staff, an acolyte of Bannon and Kushner, and a deputy to Mike Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, was there too.
Sometimes the band gets back together. Sometimes, you even get to come home.
As a corollary, this reunion of past and present Trump loyalists raises the question of how long H.R. McMaster, the current national security advisor, can keep his job. Already back in May, Trump had branded McMaster as a “pain” for talking too much and possessing an inconvenient and unwelcome penchant for nuance. Recently, John Bolton, a possible McMaster replacement, has been caught on camera entering the White House, while the punditocracy has started bandying Bolton’s name about as a McMaster successor.
And make no mistake, Bannon and ZOA despise McMaster. This past August, ZOA backed Bannon in calling for McMaster’s ouster – even before Bannon himself had left the White House premises. Less than four months ago, Mort Klein, the head of ZOA, accused McMaster of betraying Trump and Israel, declaring, “General McMaster has appointed officials who are holdovers from the Obama administration, who favor the Iran nuclear deal and are hostile to Israel – officials who are diametrically opposed to President Trump’s policies.”
Still, the reality is that ZOA and its kindred spirits are very much part of Trump’s base. On Election Day 2016, Trump won less than a quarter of all Jewish votes, but that number understates the fact that in certain predominately Jewish precincts his performance looked like it was straight out of the Rust Belt or the Deep South. Just think of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood as Lafayette, Louisiana’s northern cousin.
Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Bannon appealed to the dinner’s guests to “work as partners” in his efforts to dethrone the Republican leadership. Bannon’s entreaties cannot be dismissed as wishful thinking. Unlike most of the Republican poohbahs, Bannon has repeatedly demonstrated a deep understanding of the GOP and its voters, electoral mechanics, and the power of political theatre. Bannon and his crew look and sound committed to storming the castle. In less than a year, they may actually succeed.