Breitbart News Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon was the subject of the New York Times podcast “The New Washington” with hosts Michael Barbaro and Jeremy Peters on Saturday. The segment was built from excerpts of a much longer interview Peters conducted with Bannon.
Peters set the stage by describing Bannon’s mission since leaving the White House as “building what he hopes will be a shadow party within the Republican Party that eventually becomes the new party.” He referenced Bannon’s Navy career and habit of speaking in military metaphors to describe a “war” against the Republican Establishment.
“Remember, this started with the Tea Party movement, really in the spring of 2009,” Bannon explained. “The permanent political class was just as much Republican as it was Democrat. And obviously the Democrats have a much more progressive agenda, a much more progressive social agenda, but the Republicans were the epitome of what the Swamp is.”
“I think one of the things that Breitbart was able to do was to really be a convening authority and somebody that could galvanize as a news service, to start to do stories that had never been done before, and put a spotlight on the Republican establishment,” he said.
“His aim is very clear: he wants to decimate the part of the Republican party that started out as NeverTrump and continues to resist, and criticize, and in some cases undermine the president’s agenda,” Peters interjected in the podcast.
Bannon himself declared that Phase Two of the project that began with President Trump’s election is a populist takeover of the Republican congressional caucus. “Mitch McConnell has to go,” he said, referring to the current Republican Senate Majority Leader.
Asked whether his war against the Republican Establishment might work to the political advantage of Democrats, Bannon cited the theory of “creative destruction.” Bannon said:
You’ve seen in the House, we had this rapprochement the other day. I can’t give you all the details, because there are a lot of groups that are talking and they’re going to do their own thing, but generally it was that the House is absolutely essential and must be held, right? Must be held. And so it will be in all likelihood, maybe one or two cases, three or four cases there will be people that are due challenges, but generally overall we understand that the key is, particularly for President Trump and his supporters’ agenda, the House must be held at all costs.
As for the Senate, Bannon looked back to the beginning of the Tea Party movement when “relatively unknown people were able to win primaries.”
“I’m of the big belief that a robust primary can make a better challenger,” he said. Peters summarized the rest of Bannon’s Senate strategy as forcing the GOP Establishment to spend money on races it might otherwise not have needed to invest resources in, without too much concern for the possibility that Democrats might recapture the majority, because shaking up the Republican leadership is more important to him than retaining control of the Senate.
“There are many cases where Steve Bannon would be perfectly happy having a Democrat there, rather than an Establishment Republican,” Peters postulated. “His goal is just to defeat these Establishment Republicans. What comes next can almost, at times, seem like an afterthought to Steve.”
Bannon recalled talking to then-Senator Jeff Sessions and his aide Stephen Miller in 2013 and attempting to convince him to run for president:
I said hey, you’re not going to win the primary and you’re not going to be President of the United States, but these issues of trade and illegal immigration – trade was not even a concept in Republican primaries or in the Republican Party. It was just, yeah, we’re free traders. Yeah, they passed a free trade deal. Hey, this Austrian school of economics, this is brilliant. Yeah, this is great, just do it. Heritage says it’s good, Cato says it’s good, AEI says it’s good. It’s not even questioned, okay? It was holy writ, never questioned.
“And in that I said, no, this is what’s destroyed the country. Sessions knew that. The agrarian populists knew that. So Sessions was going to be a vehicle for that. And Sessions says, ‘No, but we will start to get these issues out there. I will start to drive it from the Senate. We will force these issues out there, and our guy will show up,’” Bannon recollected.
Bannon said of the guy who did indeed show up as Sessions had prophesied:
I had been following Trump for a long time, and it was just natural. I saw these early small rallies that Dave Bossie would put on in Iowa and New Hampshire. I very famously said one time in New Hampshire, ‘Hey, Jeremy, I’m doing an interview on my SiriusXM with Donald Trump, are you going to interview Trump right afterwards?’ Of which Jeremy Peters, my good friend, said: ‘Donald Trump’s not a serious candidate!’
“I did,” Peters confirmed.
“You were like the other 90 guys I know in politics journalism. I respect all of them. They told me the same thing. A couple of guys said, ‘If I was caught interviewing him I’d be fired,’” Bannon said.
“Breitbart readers might fire you if they knew how much respect you’re saying you have for me right now,” Peters suggested drolly.
“You were the first guy to get Andrew from the mainstream media, and I think that says a lot,” Bannon complemented Peters, referring to Breitbart News’s late founder Andrew Breitbart. “We would not be here today were it not for his vision. I think you were one of the first guys to see that who was not a right-winger.”
Peters noted that it was Andrew Breitbart who introduced him to Steve Bannon at dinner one day. He expressed admiration for their mutual skills at “provocation,” as exemplified by a clip of Bannon recounting how he told Donald Trump to respond with confidence instead of the expected apologies and dejection after allegations of sexual misconduct broke against him at a pivotal moment in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“This is not what this election is about. It’s not about this. It’s about them,” Bannon remembered telling Trump. “And they understand that you represent them. All you have to do is reinforce that, and you’re going to win.” Peters said:
Steve has this idea that Donald Trump shared, that the trade pacts that the United States entered into, under leaders of both political parties, were detrimental to the working class of America and ship jobs overseas, and allow more foreign labor to come into the country, further weakening the American workforce. That’s what they mean when they talk about ‘American First.’ It sounds nativist, so a lot of people are alarmed at hearing that. What that means, if you’re Steve Bannon, is that jobs we have in this country should be for Americans first, not for people coming from overseas. He actually would – and this often gets lost in the conversation – he actually proposes and prefers reducing legal immigration, cutting it off, not just illegal immigration.
“Remember, the key to this movement is not the physical land of the United States – which is magnificent, if you’ve been throughout the world you realize how magnificent it is,” Bannon explained, continuing:
It’s not even the Constitution or the documents that have been transmitted down to us, and that these great Founders framed, this structure that is incredible and unique throughout the world. It’s not our capital or our wealth. If you go back in the history of the American people, the American people have always made the right decision, whether it was in the Revolution, whether it was in the Civil War, whether it was in World War Two or the Great Depression. When they have full information, they ultimately make the right decision. It’s the greatest natural resource. It’s had a more positive impact, the American people, on world history, on more people.
Peters described Bannon as a student of history and a “voracious reader,” recalling a story from one of Bannon’s colleagues about him lugging a duffel bag full of books, almost too heavy to lift, through an airport as his carry-on baggage.
“If you know Roman history, the Gracchi, right – Tiberius and I think Marcus Gracchi – were the leaders of the revolution for the plebeians that eventually started the civil war in Rome, and which finished a hundred years later, were part of the elite. Their family was one of the most elite families in town,” Bannon responded when told his corporate resume made him an unlikely populist revolutionary.
“Look, I come from a very blue-collar family. My dad was able to get us into the middle class, and he still lives in the same home we bought 65 years ago, I think, for eight thousand bucks. We were Kennedy Democrats. We were Democrats all the way, really, until President Nixon came on the scene with McGovern. We kind of left the Democratic Party because of the Vietnam War,” he said.
“I was very fortunate, and it’s not because my name is ‘George Bush,’” Bannon said. “Because I worked my way and got my way into Georgetown. I then worked my way and got my way into Harvard Business School. I did very well at Harvard. I got a job at Goldman Sachs. At the time the most elite part of Wall Street was Goldman Sachs’ merger department. I got a job there, had a tremendous experience.”
Peters completed the narrative by recalling that Bannon went from Goldman Sachs to Hollywood, a trajectory that meant he “inhabited all these worlds that he rails against politically, that he uses as his political adversaries.”
“Here’s what I was able to see: that the Party of Davos, the great consultants and intellectuals, and all these smart guys and bankers and government officials, all these guys – I’ve had the opportunity to be in the room, okay? And what I understand is that guys like my grandfather and my dad are not just smarter than these guys, that they’re more decent, and have the community’s well-being more than these guys,” Bannon said.
“Here’s the issue: the issue before us is the Party of Davos, this kind of global elite – and this is not some crank conspiracy theory, it’s in plain view – those people feel closer to the people in Paris, and people in Shanghai, and people in Milan than they are to people in Dubuque, Iowa. And they’ve left behind their countrymen,” he charged.
“Having gone to these elite institutions and working at the highest level, what dawned on me was that – and I mean this – I would rather be governed by the first hundred people that showed up to a Trump rally. I would rather be governed by those hundred than the top hundred partners of Goldman Sachs,” Bannon declared, in what Peters noted was a riff on William F. Buckley Jr.’s famed declaration that he would rather be governed by the first hundred names in the phone book than the Harvard faculty. Bannon contended:
You will have a more decent country. You will have a country that has more of a sense of community. And you will have a country that understands its place in the world, and is not trying to take its values and jam it down people’s throats, by letting those people that admire the values of the lived experience of this country and its people that want to take those values, let them take it. By the way, I learned a lot. I loved Harvard, and I loved Goldman Sachs, the old Goldman Sachs. I love the Navy. They put a huge stamp on me and made me who I am today.
Bannon explained that despite his anti-Establishment leanings, he immediately understood the Republican political establishment had to play a key role in establishing the Trump administration after Donald Trump won the 2016 election. He went on:
The whole reason the day after the campaign that I agreed Reince Priebus should be Chief of Staff is I know that President Trump, knowing he had to form a government, and I’m the CEO – I hadn’t shaved in a week, my hair was down to here, I had this combat jacket on, the same clothes. And I was the CEO, right? There was an Island of Misfit Toys. It had some really good people, but you can’t staff a government with that. You need the Establishment.
“I had met Reince Priebus, in my entire life, for two minutes at the Breitbart Embassy one time,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I called him up and I said, ‘We have to pull this together, we have to work together.’”
Peters suggested that Bannon sees his struggle against the Republican Establishment as part of a rebellion against “elite leadership across the globe,” or what Bannon refers to as the “Davos class,” after the Swiss location of the annual World Economic Forum.
Peters paraphrased Bannon to describe the Davos crew as “elite CEOs and politicians who have, in effect, rigged a system to benefit themselves and line their own pockets at the expense of the working class whose jobs they are more than happy to ship overseas.”
“Steve Bannon and other Republicans, like Trump, saw what was happening to voters in communities where jobs were leaving for overseas, and they felt that there wasn’t a voice in either political party to represent those people,” Peters elaborated. “It was that you had the factor of jobs being shipped overseas, and companies and lawmakers being too willing to allow immigrant labor into the country.”
Peters concluded that Bannon is “more inclined to be a conservative” than a Republican, “so the party that is supposed to represent conservative ideals to him would be the greatest offender in this.”
The podcast concluded by quoting Bannon’s comments about Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of improper behavior with an underage girl some 40 years ago: “It’s interesting the Bezos / Amazon / Washington Post that dropped that dime on Donald Trump is the same Bezos / Amazon / Washington Post that dropped a dime this afternoon on Judge Roy Moore. Now, is that a coincidence? That’s what I mean when I say ‘opposition party.’”