Breitbart.com executive chairman Steve Bannon says that there’s still time for Republican senators to avoid being targeted for electoral extinction in a primary. All it will cost them is their dignity.
At this weekend’s Values Voter Summit, Bannon reinforced the GOP’s current state as a cult of personality and proposed using the willingness of GOP senators to publicly praise President Donald Trump and condemn his critics as a litmus test for determining whether the Breitbart boss would support Republican primary candidates.
In his Saturday morning speech, Bannon called out Sens. John Barasso (R-WY), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Dean Heller (R-NV) by name, questioning why they had not criticized retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) after Corker said this week that Trump’s erratic behavior and reckless foreign policy puts the U.S. “on the path to World War III.” (Corker added that all but a handful of senators agreed with him.)
Since leaving his post as White House chief strategist and returning to Breitbart in August, Bannon has sought to position himself as the head of a supposedly anti-establishment, pro-Trump right-wing movement targeting insufficiently loyal members of the Republican Party.
Bannon’s plan apparently includes directing political spending from his longtime patrons, Breitbart part-owners Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, along with the editorial support of Breitbart itself, to take down GOP members of Congress whom Bannon considers insufficiently loyal to the president.
Bannon and Breitbart took largely undeserved credit for the results of last month’s Alabama primary election, in which extremist Judge Roy Moore defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who was endorsed by both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Strange’s weakness, in turn, set off fears from establishment Republicans that their base could revolt and purge incumbents, and coincided with Corker’s announcement that he will not seek reelection.
Speaking this morning before the conservative activists of the Values Voter Summit, a convention overseen by an organization that the Southern Policy Law Center (SPLC) calls an anti-gay “hate group,” Bannon made clear that even Republican senators who vote for the president’s agenda will still be targeted for elimination if they are unwilling to publicly support the president.
After noting that some critics ask why he’s targeting “all these guys that vote the right way,” Bannon pointed to Corker’s recent comments, saying, “You know, as Bob Corker has trashed the commander-in-chief of our armed forces while we have young men and women in harm’s way, when he said he’s leading him on a path to World War III, that he is not stable, that people have to keep him moderated, that it’s an adult center and they took the morning shift off, while some U.S. senator in a position of that authority for the first time in the history of the Republic has mocked and ridiculed a commander-in-chief when we have kids in the field.”
Bannon attacked Barrasso, Fischer, and Heller for not publicly “condemn[ing]” Corker’s remarks, adding, “And let me give a warning to you, nobody can run and hide on this one. These folks are coming for you. The day of taking a few nice conservative votes and hiding is over.”
Bannon’s claim that it is inappropriate to criticize “the commander-in-chief of our armed forces while we have young men and women in harm’s way” is absurdly hypocritical given his support for Trump, who spent weeks publicly pushing birther conspiracy theories against President Barack Obama while U.S. forces were deployed in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The notion that no senator had ever criticized a president with troops in the field is obviously false; the idea that no one should is frighteningly authoritarian.
Bannon returned to his critique later in the speech, saying that “there’s time for a mea culpa” from GOP senators concerned they will face competitive primaries. But what they need to do, Bannon claimed, is to publicly “condemn Senator Corker.”
A key aspect of Trump’s presidency has been his constant, public humiliations of those who try to work with him. He demands public affirmations of his greatness from appointees, regularly berates his staff, undercuts those who support him, and trashes everyone on Twitter. Just last week, in the wake of a report that he had privately called the president a “moron,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came before the press to deliver a statement praising Trump that resembled a hostage video.
If GOP senators had hoped to avoid the Tillerson treatment by virtue of the fact that they represent a coequal branch of government, Bannon is making clear that he has no intention of allowing them that thin reed of self-respect. They will be required to praise the president’s intellect and temperament and decry those who make the obviously true statement that the president is unfit for office. Their first loyalty must be to Trump
If they don’t like that new reality as members of Trump’s cheering section, Bannon is letting them know: they can quit like Corker did.