Former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon is threatening to blow up the Republican Party
Former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon is planning to escalate his war with the GOP establishment, by promoting primary challengers who will run against GOP incumbents on a platform that is fully faithful to Trumpism, multiple news organizations are reporting Monday.
This is a good raw political development for Democrats, as NBC's First Read crew notes, because it could deepen divisions among Republicans and potentially replace incumbents with weaker GOP candidates in general elections.
But it's also a good development for people who value reality-based political discourse. That's because if these Bannon-backed challenges actually materialize, it will provide an important test of whether there actually is such a thing as a Trumpist agenda - and if so, how much political potency it has, now that President Trump is actually in the White House.
Politico reports that Bannon, allied with mega-donor and hedge-funder Robert Mercer, is working behind the scenes to engineer primary challenges to Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and is fully behind religious right candidate Roy Moore's Alabama GOP primary challenge to Luther Strange, who is backed by GOP leaders. Bannon's Breitbart will no doubt function as the central propaganda outlet in this effort. Here is the upshot of what this all means:
"The anti-incumbent effort could dramatically reshape the 2018 primary landscape if it materializes. It would pit a group of pro-Trump primary challengers against sitting lawmakers who are perceived as more mainstream."
Bannon has privately argued that the Sept. 26 runoff between Moore and Strange is (in the words of Politico) a "defining battle between the conservative base and GOP establishment" and that defeating Strange would "open the floodgates" to more Trumpist candidates to challenge Republicans in other primaries.
But here's the question: What will these Trumpist challengers actually run on? Obviously one possibility is that they will campaign on things we know Bannon (and Trump) support, such as more protectionist trade deals; tighter restrictions on legal immigration; a demand that congressional Republicans fund Trump's wall on the southern border; and a deportation dragnet that is expanded well beyond its current reach under Trump.
Indeed, Bannon provided an important clue along these lines in an interview with Charlie Rose, in which Bannon criticized the handling of the "dreamers" by Republicans and Trump as too soft. Trump has canceled protections for hundreds of thousands of people brought here illegally as children, which will drive them out of jobs and possibly subject them to deportation. Republicans are talking about a legislative solution for the dreamers, and Trump has both hinted openness to signing such a measure, or if one does not materialize, to renewing executive protections for them.
But Bannon told Rose that, if Republicans or Trump take action such as this, it will prompt a "civil war inside the Republican Party." And Bannon flatly stated that we should deny the dreamers work permits so that they "self deport." This would seem to mean, then, that Bannon-backed GOP primary challengers will campaign on an uncompromising insistence against protecting the dreamers, so that their lives are thrown into such chaos that they leave the United States, with many going back to countries they never knew.
Fine - let them do this. If so, we'll see how GOP incumbents respond, and what GOP primary voters really think of it. And beyond this, what sort of Trumpist economic agenda will these Bannon-backed challengers run on?
Following the political conversation right now is a bit like being trapped in a hall of mirrors. Ever since Trump cut a short-term debt limit and government funding deal with Democrats, we have been told endlessly that this might signal Trump's political and ideological independence from the GOP. The idea is supposed to be that there is a yawning gap between Trump's ideological goals and those of the Republican Party, and if Republicans won't help realize them, well, maybe Trump will make deals with Democrats to get them done.
But basic realities can't seem to penetrate this discussion. Trump fully embraced the GOP agenda on multiple fronts. Trump campaigned on a vow to protect the safety net and spend bigly on infrastructure - both of which were said to be important parts of Trump's agenda of what Bannon likes to call "populist economic nationalism." But then Trump went all in with Paul Ryan's health plan and its hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicaid cuts to finance massive tax cuts for the rich. The vow of robust public spending on infrastructure - a Bannon obsession - quietly disappeared. The pro-worker trade deals have not materialized. If Trump is really ideologically independent of the GOP, where is the evidence of this in policy terms?
Bannon basically copped to this in his interview with Rose, admitting that "the original sin of the administration" was that it "embraced the establishment." But if Bannon-backed challengers to GOP incumbents really do materialize, perhaps this will offer an occasion for them to run on this Trump agenda that Bannon claims was abandoned. Which means that, in addition to more draconian immigration policies, they will campaign on protecting the safety net, large public infrastructure expenditures and fully fleshed-out protectionist policies that finally explain how these would benefit working people, right?
I'm only partly joking here. You'd think this would finally provide a chance for Bannon and his allies in the economic nationalist movement he keeps touting to show us what a full Trumpist agenda actually looks like. If it exists at all.
* TRUMP QUIETLY PUSHES CONSERVATIVE AGENDA: The New York Times has a good report on how the Trump administration is pushing through conservative priorities on many fronts via regulatory action:
"The aggressive regulatory effort, which runs counter to the Trump administration's less-is-more credo about government meddling, has led to policy changes related to gun ownership, gay rights, reproductive choices, immigration and other divisive political issues . . . The turnabout stems in part from lobbying by evangelical Christians and other conservative groups. In interviews, these groups said they have regular discussions on domestic and foreign policy with the administration."
You'd think this sort of thing, which is designed to keep his constituencies happy, would silence all the chatter about how Trump is now proving his ideological and political independence.
* REPUBLICANS FACE REALITY THAT THEY'RE GETTING NOTHING DONE: Politico takes stock of the GOP's performance thus far and delivers this stark assessment, citing a previous prediction by House Speaker Paul Ryan:
"Ryan predicted in January that tax reform, Obamacare repeal and a border wall would all be done by now. Instead, Obamacare repeal may be completely dead at month's end, there are just broad strokes on tax reform, and many Republicans oppose the border wall being pushed by their own president. Now GOP lawmakers across the party's ideological spectrum are agonizing about the party's stark lack of achievements after getting rolled by Democrats in debt ceiling negotiations this week."
So much for all the dreams about what Republicans would accomplish if only they could recapture unified control of the White House and Congress.
* GET READY FOR THE NEXT IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN: CNN's Tal Kopan reports that after rescinding protections for the "dreamers," the Trump administration is weighing a crackdown on another class of immigrants:
"At issue is "temporary protected status," a provision of immigration law that allows the government to grant temporary work authorizations and protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants from certain countries where life remains dangerous. . . . In the next six months, the Trump administration will weigh whether to extend the status for several countries whose immigrants have lived in the United States for as long as 20 years - with a decision to end that status potentially upending their lives.'
Just as he did with the dreamers, Trump will no doubt promise to treat these people (there are around 440,000 of them) with "heart" before scrapping their protections.
* TRUMP IS LYING ABOUT HIS BIG, BEAUTIFUL WALL: Trump loves to say that we need a wall on the Mexican border to stop drugs from entering the country. Post fact checker Nicole Lewis takes apart the claim with help from a 2016 Drug Enforcement Administration report:
"The majority of the illicit drugs enter the United States through legal ports of entry . . .. Many drugs are also smuggled through elaborately built subterranean tunnels that start in Mexico and end inside of stash houses in the United States . . . Traffickers are also turning to advanced technology and flying drugs over the border using unmanned drones . . . A wall, no matter how well built, does not address drugs entering the United States via these routes."
Yes, but building a wall will make Trump voters feel as though he's really tough and strong on drugs and immigration, which is what really matters.
* TRUMP ADMINISTRATION IS OVERRUN BY CLIMATE DENIERS: Paul Krugman in The New York Times makes an important point about all the punditry of late arguing that Trump might be, at long last, pivoting:
"Thanks to Trump's electoral victory, know-nothing, anti-science conservatives are now running the U.S. government. When you read news analyses claiming that Trump's deal with Democrats to keep the government running for a few months has somehow made him a moderate independent, remember that's it not just [EPA chief Scott] Pruitt: Almost every senior figure in the Trump administration dealing with the environment or energy is both an establishment Republican and a denier of climate change and of scientific evidence in general."
Indeed. The constant hunt for shards of evidence of Trump's "moderation" and "independence" is even more puzzling when you consider that the evidence to the contrary continues to be ignored.
* BANNON: COMEY FIRING WAS AN ENORMOUS SCREW-UP: In his interview with Charlie Rose, Bannon also said that Trump's firing of former FBI director James Comey was the biggest mistake in modern political history. He added:
"'I don't think there's any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, then we would not have a special counsel . . . We would not have the Mueller investigation. We would not have the Mueller investigation in the breadth that clearly Mr. Mueller is going.'"
Trump himself appears unable to grasp that his own actions are what led directly to Robert S. Mueller III's probe. But perhaps he'll take Bannon's word for it now.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.