Just about two weeks ago, a newly fired Steve Bannon was “jacked up,” feeling “free,” excited to have his “hands back on [his] weapons” – meaning Breitbart, where he chaired an editorial meeting just a few hours after losing his job. “Someone said, ‘it’s Bannon the Barbarian,'” Bannon recalled to the conservative Weekly Standard. “I am definitely going to crush the opposition. There’s no doubt. I built a fucking machine at Breitbart … and we’re about to rev that machine up.”
Throughout his tenure as Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon was credited as the “keeper of the base” – the “defender” of their interests inside the White House. Part of why he survived as long as he did in the Trump administration was, at least according to reports published before his ouster, out of fear he would do exactly what he seemed to be threatening: use his influence at Breitbart against Trump, further thinning what little support the president had left.
In interviews and emails obtained last week by a Bannon impersonator, Breitbart’s editors indicated they were ready to use the site to do “dirty work” on Bannon’s behalf. “#WAR,” one editor tweeted shortly after the news of Bannon’s firing broke. Another told Vanity Fair Bannon wanted to “beat … into submission” his White House rivals’ ideas. The same article included an even more explicit threat from an unnamed high-level staffer: “we’re prepared to help Paul Ryan rally votes for impeachment” if Trump strays too far from the Bannon-era Breitbart ideals that put him in office, the person said.
But for all of the bluster that accompanied Bannon’s triumphant return to Breitbart, he may have oversold his ability to marshal Breitbart readers into an army ready to go to #war with his rivals over old grudges. So far, at least, they don’t seem to be biting.
Breitbart readers are fiercely defensive of Trump – they do engage with stories about aides who have failed or disparaged him – but in the past two weeks the site hasn’t seemed to have much success getting readers to care about some of Bannon’s private grievances. His campaigns to undermine Jared Kushner and Rex Tillerson, for example, and his dashed plans to privatize the war in Afghanistan have gained little traction.
Since August 19th, when Bannon was fired, Breitbart has published 27 stories about Trump son-in-law and Bannon rival Jared Kushner – 18 with a negative or critical bent, and nine that a positive or neutral in tone. Most have focused on Kushner’s effort to broker a peace deal in the Middle East, and expectations it will collapse, like, “EXCLUSIVE – Hamas, Palestinian Front Leaders: Jared Kushner’s Mideast Peace Efforts Will Fail” (August 28th), and “Fatah Official: Jared Kushner’s Mideast Peace Mission Is a ‘Delusion'” (August 27th). These stories have very low engagement by Breitbart’s standards, an indication that readers don’t really care about the axe that’s being ground. The most outwardly critical stories, “Jared Kushner’s White House Policy Portfolio ‘Speaks of Hubris,’ Not ‘Smarts or Wisdom,'” which quotes Government Accountability Institute president and close Bannon associate Peter Schweizer, has a grand total of six comments – only three of which appear to agree with the story’s premise.
On Monday, Breitbart published three separate stories about Rex Tillerson’s appearance on Fox News Sunday, including one that appeared intended to deepen the reported divide between the president and the secretary of state: “Tillerson Declines to Say If Trump Defends American Values — ‘The President Speaks for Himself’.” (Trump has reportedly grown frustrated with the secretary of state, whom Bannon was at odds with just before his firing.) Readers, though, didn’t seem to be taking the Tillerson bait. Instead, the most popular comments on the stories were ones that criticized the media, and Fox News host Chris Wallace: “The @POTUS reflects my American Values – BUT – they are probably not the same as Chris Wallace!” one popular comment said. Another commenter chimed in, “That’s because … he’s a registered DEM!!!”
Several of the most popular comments expressed support for Tillerson, pushing back against the stories’ framing. “Tillerson is RIGHT. Trump recent announced action in Afghanistan is TOTALLY in line with his campaign commitments to crush ISIS,” one reader wrote. Another said, “Tillerson was clearly being set-up for more direct and confrontational questions had he answered any other way. Good for him to recognize this!”
One of the projects Bannon was championing before he was booted from the White House was a plan to dramatically increase the number of independent contractors in Afghanistan, effectively privatizing the war. He’s enlisted Blackwater founder Erik Prince to draw up the particulars, and Prince was prepared to outline the proposal at a Camp David huddle days after Bannon was fired. When Bannon was fired, Prince’s invitation to the meeting was rescinded too.
The following Monday, as Trump was preparing to deliver a prime time address detailing his plans for Afghanistan, Breitbart ran a trio of stories preemptively dismissing the strategy Trump would outline that night, including one that seemed designed to bait the president: “Erik Prince: Trump Will ‘Roll Over and Accept Same Failed’ Strategy on Afghanistan.” After the speech, Breitbart blasted the president for flip-flopping and warned the president’s base was “unhappy” with the new strategy.
The story highlighted tweets from a handful of disappointed Trump supporters with high profiles like Ann Coulter and Fox News personality Todd Starnes, but a large share of comments on the story expressed support for Trump. The most popular comment, up-voted 223 times, was from a reader who observed: “I’m just the 4th commenter here, so it doesn’t look like his base is all that upset. I consider myself his ‘base’ but if he kills terrorists and future terrorists, I’m all for it, no matter how he gets it done or whether it’s labeled a ‘flip flop.'”
Steve Bannon isn’t a man who likes to waste time – a fact evinced by just how little time he let elapse before mouthing off to reporters, threatening to use his media empire to settle personal scores with his former colleagues in the White House. Two weeks isn’t a lot of time to judge just how successful his campaigns will ultimately be, but the available information suggests Bannon was more effective convincing Trump that he controlled the Breitbart audience than he is at actually influencing them.