Steve Bannon used to be a political outsider, relegated to the sidelines of the conservative movement. Now, he is the movement.
When he was head of the renegade right-wing website Breitbart, Bannon hosted a party for those not invited to speak at the high-profile annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC. On Thursday he had a highly anticipated appearance at the four-day event and an audience cheering his words.
Bannon punched his ticket to the inner chambers of power by taking over Donald Trump’s struggling presidential campaign in August. Although he largely operated behind the scenes, he is credited with giving focus to Mr Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric and turning his proposals and off-the-cuff remarks into a cohesive political ideology.
He seems destined to follow in the footsteps of Karl Rove, the political consultant hailed by some as President George W Bush’s “brain” – but who also served as lightning-rod for critics. Derisive “President Bannon” signs have become a staple at anti-Trump rallies.
If Bannon, now the “chief strategist” in the White House, is a source of liberal ire, he seems to welcome it and be itching for a fight. He told the CPAC audience that he planned to create nothing short of a “new political order” centred around economic nationalism and the dismantling of what he called the “administrative state”.
“The centre core of what we believe is that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” Bannon said. “And I think that is what unites us, and I think that is what is going to unite this movement going forward.”
The president’s plan, he continued, is sure to face determined resistance by a “corporatist, globalist media”, the progressive left and even those on his own side who preach moderation.
“If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken,” he said. “Every day – every day – it is going to be a fight.”
One of those reported voices of moderation, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, sat on the stage next to Bannon during Thursday’s event – and the contrast couldn’t have been more marked.
Priebus, the former head of the Republican National Committee, sounded less like a revolutionary and more like a party functionary – a guy who keeps the trains running, as Bannon described him when prompted for words of praise for his counterpart.
Asked about the new administration’s greatest accomplishment, Priebus cited the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court – a process Priebus reportedly spearheaded. Gorsuch is viewed as a promise kept to the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which wanted an ideological purebred to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
He also spoke warmly of Ronald Reagan and voiced support for traditional Republican priorities, like tax-cutting and defence spending.
For Bannon, the greatest accomplishment was the president’s scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a trade deal that only recently had significant Republican support but was a central part of Mr Trump’s economic nationalist campaign message.
So the conservative establishment got a Supreme Court justice. The nationalist insurgents within the Republican Party are setting about claiming everything else.
The odd-couple appearance by the suit-clad Priebus and the open-collared Bannon at CPAC was billed as an opportunity for the Trump team to dispel rumours of internal White House strife and factionalisation, as the Bannon-led true believers reportedly waged war with the Priebus Republican party hands.
The fight had been waged in a series of media reports, as the two key players were targeted by unnamed White House opponents with axes to grind. Bannon was blamed for the chaotic rollout of Mr Trump’s travel-ban order. Priebus was described as “under-competent” by one critic and thoroughly savaged by Bannon’s former colleagues at Breitbart.
On Thursday, the two men said all the right things. They claimed media reports of their disputes were unfounded and that they were co-operating and communicating to advance the president’s agenda.
Outside the main conference hall, however, the rank-and-file at CPAC – who tend to be a mix of young libertarians and conservative movement die-hards – still expressed some unease at Bannon’s brand of revolutionary politics.
“It’s very unexpected to see someone like Steve Bannon in there,” said Jacob Crouse, a student at Elon University in North Carolina. “It’s a very uncertain situation for me, personally.”
He added that he’d only be comfortable with Bannon if he proves that he can co-operate with people like Priebus and not push his own agenda around them.
Others thought the talk of rival factions was overblown.
“I tend to want to keep an open mind about people,” said Anne Karston. “I think it’s definitely a red flag when the media peg people as being controversial or saying there’s personal issues out there. Bannon’s actions will speak for themselves.”
Words can illuminate actions, however, and time and again on Thursday it was clear whose views and energy form the ideological driving force in this White House. At one point Bannon noted that his office has a “war room”, while Priebus’s suite has comfy couches and a fireplace.
And if there was any doubt, when Donald Trump took the same stage on Friday morning, his speech was all Bannon and little Priebus. There was no mention of the Gorsuch nomination whatsoever. No warm words for conservative patron saint Reagan.
The president once again bashed the “fake news” media, which Bannon had referred to as the “opposition party”. He touted the key tenets of Bannon’s economic nationalism – scrapping major trade deals, curtailing immigration and building a Mexican border wall. And, perhaps most notably, the president bashed a broken political system of “blood-sucking consultants” who peddle government influence – a system people like Priebus have inhabited their entire careers.
Priebus may have the fireplace, but Bannon has the fire – and it’s reflected in the president’s views and deeds.