Before Stephen Bannon was masterminding Donald Trump’s way into the White House, he tried to put Sarah Palin there.
The parallels between Palin and Trump—explicit populist appeal, contempt for the D.C. media, and a fast-and-loose approach to facts—point to Bannon’s overarching political strategy: empowering right-wing diehards willing to burn it all down.
And by the time Trump caught fire, Bannon was ready to go. He’d already tested out his playbook on Palin.
On July 11, 2011, Bannon went on a podcast hosted by Red State editor Ben Howe to promote one of his many documentaries, The Undefeated, a film about Palin featuring Mark Levin, Tammy Bruce, and other conservative pundits. In that previously unreported audio, Bannon—now Trump’s most powerful adviser—praised Palin for pushing the “death panels” lie about the Affordable Care Act and argued she was a viable, credible 2012 presidential contender.
He made the documentary as part of an effort to rehabilitate Palin’s damaged reputation in hopes she would run for president in 2012.
Palin’s return to Alaska after McCain/Palin’s 2008 loss to the Obama/Biden ticket hadn’t gone well. About six months after her return, she stepped down from the governorship before completing her term amid a blizzard of ethics complaints. But Bannon argued the political damage was only temporary.
“We have got to push back and we have got to take control of our own narrative,” he said on the podcast.
Palin’s resignation didn’t bother him. And it certainly didn’t deter her Tea Party fans. She became one of the most adored speakers on the conservative circuit, as anti-Obama candidates found momentum in the lead-up to the 2010 midterms. But Republican establishment leaders still detested her, and former John McCain staffers did little to defend her reputation. That’s where Bannon came in. He designed the documentary, as he explained to Howe on the podcast, to persuade disillusioned conservatives and independents that Palin had the experience and gravitas to lead the free world, and that the “lamestream” media’s depiction of her was just plain wrong.
“We allowed this woman to be trashed,” Bannon told Howe on the podcast, voice thick with remorse. “Nobody came to her defense.”
“Lesson learned,” he added. “It’s never going to happen again.”
The establishment, he argued, neglected to defend Palin because they feared her ability to fight the special interests they love.
“The Republican establishment is just a slow walk to the same endpoint of statism,” Bannon said. “And we’re radically opposed to that.”
And one of the best ways to stave off statism would be getting Palin to run for president. Bannon said that Palin deserved as much credibility as a 2012 contender as Mitt Romney did. He proudly took credit for a favorable Newsweek cover story about Palin that ran right before the theatrical release of the documentary. The cover showed Palin looking like a normal person—a rarity for magazine covers featuring her—with the headline “I Can Win.”
“It basically is the establishment ordaining that she is now part of the conversation,” he said of the cover, “and I think the film did that.”
And, he continued, Palin would have the guts to radically shrink the federal government, including shuttering several agencies.
“Forget waste, corruption, and abuse, that’s all marginal stuff,” Bannon said. “This is about going through, shutting down entire agencies. This is about closing entire departments. This is about taking the HUD and closing it.”
Palin wasn’t just qualified for the presidency because she was tough enough to roll back federal housing programs. Another of her selling points, according to Bannon, was her willingness to push myths about the Affordable Care Act.
“She was the first one to get on the death panels,” Bannon said. “And the first one to really get the town halls rockin’ and rollin’.
“It’s a pretty long track record here,” he added.
The Affordable Care Act didn’t include death panels. But that didn’t stop Palin from telling those rockin’ and rollin’ Tea Party crowds that Obamacare could be lethal. It was nonsense, and it won her PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year award. (To be fair, it wasn’t the only ACA-related lie that won that honor; Obama himself took it home for promising that Obamacare wouldn’t force people off health care plans they liked.)
There’s no evidence Bannon himself pushed the lie that the Affordable Care Act would result in secret panels making life-or-death decisions about Americans’ medical care. But suggesting that it was good to spread that lie highlights his comfort with using fact-free nonsense to try to get his people in power.
Palin’s lie didn’t just win her plaudits from Bannon, it also helped galvanize Tea Party activists willing to believe anything about the problems with the Affordable Care Act. And though it was divorced from reality, it was also politically potent. As PolitiFact detailed, the phrase “death panels” racked up thousands of media mentions. And anti-Obamacare fervor—which Palin helped stoke—played a major role in Republicans’ takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010.
And while Palin 2012 didn’t exactly pan out, Bannon still got what he wanted.
“I think he just really thought Palin was going to be the populist vehicle that Trump ultimately ended up being,” said Ben Howe, who interviewed Bannon on the podcast and has since become a vocal critic of him and Trump. “And it makes me realize how long he has been working this particular avenue to power. Hard to not be impressed that it worked.”