Of all of today’s smart postmortems about the Republican Party’s shocking Senate loss in Alabama, the passage that perhaps best sums up the state of political affairs in the United States is in Atlantic reporter Rosie Gray’s piece about Roy Moore’s last campaign rally on Monday:
A VIP area was set up in an upstairs loft, where those down below could see Bannon, Sheriff David Clarke, and others mingling. Also in attendance were Paul Ryan’s nationalist challenger Paul Nehlen, who recently appeared on the alt-right podcast Fash the Nation, and Corey Stewart, the former Trump Virginia state chair who nearly beat Ed Gillespie in that state’s gubernatorial primary this year.
That’s Bannon as in Steve Bannon, the white supremacist–friendly Breitbart publisher and former White House adviser who backed Moore’s candidacy with the full force of his status as the godfather of the alt-right. Many pundits and operatives have fallen for Bannon’s faux-intellectual schtick, and he’s been described with all the words that are always thrown at a campaign manager who’s just won a big election: Genius, mastermind, guru, etc. In the Alabama race, Bannon appeared at multiple events on Moore’s behalf and reportedly convinced Fox News’ Sean Hannity—perhaps the only individual who has as much power over the Republican “base” as Bannon and Donald Trump do—not to bail on Moore’s candidacy amid the various reports that he’d behaved inappropriately with minors.
Now let’s review who Bannon’s fellow VIPs were:
• David Clarke is a right-wing TV personality who quit his job as the sheriff of Milwaukee County in hopes of taking a Trump administration job that he didn’t get.
• Paul Nelhen is a white-grievance crank from Wisconsin who is best-known for having lost to Paul Ryan by 70 points in a 2016 Republican primary.
• Corey Stewart is a Duluth, Minnesota, native who ran unsuccessfully for governor in Virginia on a platform that involved comparing the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces to ISIS war crimes. After Stewart lost to Ed Gillespie in the Republican primary, Bannon told the Washington Post that Gillespie would win the general election because he’d been forced to adopt Stewart’s positions to appeal to the GOP electorate. “Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” Bannon said, before Gillespie lost by 9 points.
As my colleague Jamelle Bouie pointed out after the Virginia election , what Republicans have been testing around the country in 2017 is Trumpism—hysterical rhetoric about Muslims and Latinos (and, in Moore’s case, trans bathroom predators ruining the Army) delivered by jerks—without Trump on the ballot. No one has been more enthusiastic about that strategy than Bannon, but as his entourage of underemployed provocateurs (which now includes Roy Moore) indicates, it hasn’t been a successful one. Anti-Trump Democratic turnout is way up, while Republicans are hemorrhaging voters (as GOP operatives Kristen Soltis Anderson and Patrick Ruffini document in detail today). Meanwhile, the president who Bannon advised for eight months earlier this year has a historically low approval rating.
Steve Bannon is not necessarily an idiot; Breitbart is a popular and influential media force, for better or worse. (Worse.) But as a political mastermind, it’s beginning to seem like his practice of jumping on the bandwagon of the loudest, dumbest asshole in the room—however well it may have worked in November 2016—does have some downsides.