Donald Trump’s White House will have two bosses—one a longtime Republican operative with deep ties to the establishment, the other a nationalist, “alt-right” provocateur with an ax to grind.
It could be a historic team of rivals. Or it could be a nuclear-grade catastrophe.
Trump’s transition team announced late on Sunday afternoon that Stephen Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News who once described the site as “the platform for the Alt-Right”—a racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist movement—will team up with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus to head the White House. Priebus will be chief of staff, and Bannon’s title will be chief strategist and senior counselor.
The press release listed Bannon’s name first but said the two men will work “as equal partners.”
It’s difficult to imagine that these equal partners will work in harmony. Bannon has dedicated his life in right-wing media to undermining people exactly like Priebus—and, in some cases, to attacking Priebus himself.
Bannon is commonly described as a political “street fighter” and seems to relish his new image as a dangerous, white nationalist-supported bigwig. He is credited with engineering much of the extreme mud-slinging and stunts in the final stretch of Trump’s presidential run. But Priebus is no shrinking violet, either, with extensive experience building formidable political machines.
“I’ve known Reince a long time,” Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, told The Daily Beast. “This is exactly what Mr. Trump needs to move his agenda forward. This was an excellent choice.”
Operatives in Wisconsin give Priebus significant credit for the full Republican takeover of Badger State politics. Wisconsin used to be bluer than blue and is considered the birthplace of the modern progressive movement. But over the past 10 years or so, Republicans have made rapid and deep inroads in the state, taking over the governorship and both branches of the state legislature, as well as one of its U.S. Senate seats and five of its eight congressional seats. Scott Walker, the state’s governor, shepherded through the legislature a series of anti-union measures that dramatically weakened organized labor in the state.
Priebus chaired the Wisconsin Republican Party when that takeover was first getting off the ground, from 2007 to 2011. Since then, he and other Badger State Republicans have risen to some of the most powerful positions in the Republican Party—none more notable than Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House. Ryan and Priebus have known each other since the late ’90s, when Priebus was a Kenosha County activist and Ryan’s congressional career was just beginning. The pair’s political fortunes rose in tandem, and they’ve been friends for about two decades. Some Republican operatives credit Priebus for Trump’s never formally endorsing Ryan’s populist primary challenger—even when Ryan distanced himself from Trump, which clearly irritated the reality star-turned-president-elect.
And it’s that relationship that might be at the heart of the future problems between the two co-bosses.
Because while Priebus has always been Team Ryan, Bannon and Breitbart have doggedly worked to undercut the speaker of the House. In 2010, for instance, Breitbart author Dan Riehl criticized Priebus for using “stock phrases like diversity” and clerking for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Bannon himself ripped into the RNC in an interview with Bloomberg last August.
“Sean [Spicer] wanted us to partner up on one of the [Republican] primary debates for $350,000,” Bannon told Bloomberg. “I said, ‘Sean, I’m not paying you 350 grand to associate Breitbart News with a failed brand like the RNC.’”
And in a conversation on Breitbart’s SiriusXM radio show on Nov. 2, 2015, Bannon told fellow conservative talk radio host Mark Levin that he didn’t think Priebus was particularly tough.
“What kind of political party is so absurdly suicidal as this,” Levin said. “I’ll tell you what kind. It’s led by a man—I’ll just tell ya. You ever hear this guy talk?”
“Not impressive,” Bannon replied.
“I don’t think the consulting class and the donor class want that,” Bannon added later in the episode. “I think they want guys like Reince Priebus to take their orders. Reince Priebus is a fine gentleman but we’re talking about a heavy duty job.”
In private, Bannon is even more pointed in his criticism of Republican Party leadership.
“Leadership are all cunts,” he emailed one of his top deputies in December 2014.
Bannon’s backstory is also much stranger and much darker than his new Trump administration colleague Priebus. Bannon spent years in Hollywood pursuing his filmmaking and documentarian aspirations, fueled by a love for such artists as legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and the influential Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. (His time as a raging conservative in the vast liberal stronghold of Hollywood included co-writing a Shakespearean hip-hop musical about the 1992 L.A. riots.)
But over the past year as the head of Breitbart, Bannon and his team have turned the popular right-wing website into a haven for relentlessly pro-Trump propaganda and coverage. Breitbart was so loyal to Trump during the election that it even took the campaign’s side when then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski lied about bruising Michelle Fields, then a Breitbart reporter.
And Bannon has long bragged privately about his influence in the Trump presidential campaign, even before officially hopping aboard late this year in the final big campaign shakeup.
“I’m Trump’s campaign manager,” Bannon wrote to a friend on Aug. 30, 2015 in emails leaked to The Daily Beast. “Don’t u ever read breitbart—its trump central.” (Bannon went on to tell his friend why he liked Trump so much: “Trump is a nationalist who embraces [Sen. Jeff Sessions’s] immigration plan.”)
And as Bannon, who has previously branded himself an anti-establishment “Leninist,” prepares to begin his new job in the Trump White House, he is also poised to serve as Trump’s direct line to the European ultra-right wing.
The ex-Breitbart honcho has a particular affinity for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands (PVV), all of which have earned glowing coverage on Breitbart.
“[Steve] has long wanted to work with all of those [far-right] parties, but that was only in promoting them with Breitbart,” a source close to Bannon told The Daily Beast. “Now he has the power of the White House to do it.”
When Donald J. Trump becomes leader of the free world in January, one of his closest advisers will be a man who for years has acted as the ringleader for the racist alt-right and has long desired to help craft a populist, right-wing takeover worldwide.
And to make things even more alarming, Bannon wants to obliterate the Republican Party—at least, the Republican Party as we know it.
It’s just that now he gets to do it while working in the Executive Branch.
“We [at Breitbart] don’t really don’t believe there is a functional conservative party in this country,” he said at a National Press Club conference in 2013. “We certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that.”
—with additional reporting by Gideon Resnick