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 Donald 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 Sens. 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:
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“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 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?
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? 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.