It’s difficult in the modern age of clickbait to bury a lede, but a recent piece about Steve Bannon in Vanity Fair managed to submerge one in an underground tomb. According to its last paragraph, a high-level staffer for Breitbart told reporter Gabriel Sherman: “We’re prepared to help Paul Ryan rally votes for impeachment.” That would be the impeachment of Donald Trump, the candidate Bannon’s former and now current website Breitbart went all-in to elect, at the hands of Paul Ryan, their least favorite politician on the planet except for maybe Hillary Clinton.
This sudden outburst of apostasy followed Bannon’s resignation last Friday, a staffing change long predicted but still jarring. Bannon was Trump’s ideological avatar. Of the motley crew brought into the new White House, he believed most fervently in the president’s economic nationalism. His ousting was read as an indication that Trump is moving away from whatever crayon-sketched principles he once held and toward (for lack of a better word) the center, meaning concentrated power in Washington and more boneheaded bombings in the Middle East.
Now Bannon is gone, which on Friday led one Breitbart editor to tweet simply: “#WAR.” Bannon himself echoed this in an interview with Bloomberg News, telling them: “I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media and in corporate America.” And then, to the Weekly Standard, came this bombshell: “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon said. “We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over.”
The happy warriors at Breitbart have reportedly accepted this news in stride, but still it’s a pretty dizzying climb down. Bannon’s unlikely ascendance to the White House happened because his news site turned itself into an 18th-century tabloid, flamboyantly backing Trump and sliming his enemies. For that same site to say only seven months in that their man had abandoned them — even if they mean it more as condemnation of his advisors rather than Trump himself — is a resounding statement. To assert further that they could stump for Trump’s impeachment is nothing short of shocking.
Part of this is the sort of overstatement typical of homecoming pep rallies for former quarterbacks. Part of it, too, likely has to do with Breitbart’s traffic, which is cratering and could use some revolutionary juice. But much of it, I suspect, is genuine dismay at the betrayals of the Trump administration, which has spent much of its existence tripping over the president’s legs rather than advancing a populist policy program. Much can be said about Bannon and the Breitbarbarians, but they’re nothing if not consistent, and from the perspective of a true-believing economic nationalist, this administration so far has failed to put up.
One of Donald Trump’s biggest strengths as a campaigner was that he was a Rorschach blot, able to absorb the myriad and often contradictory projections of his supporters and bring them with him into the White House — only to leave them crestfallen when it actually came time to govern. Thus the conservatives who saw him as a coarser Ronald Reagan have watched with dismay as Obamacare repeal failed. Realists who hoped he might rein in our bombs-away foreign policy have winced as he bombed Syria and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Now it’s Breitbart’s turn for letdown, as the reviled ‘globalists’ appear to be winning out over whatever nationalist promise Trump once held.
The reason for all this is that Trump’s true ideology isn’t conservatism or realism or nationalism; it’s his own personal advancement — hence his obsession with piddling nonsense like the size of his inauguration crowds and how he spends more time warring with CNN than with the Democratic Party. Those who believed he’d be a suitable vehicle for their cause have ended up ceding the driver’s seat to him, as he chases everyone who cuts him off and steers into every ditch available. Why should the Breitbart lads be any different? His self-regard is bigger than them, too.