Stephen Bannon is on a tear. Liberated from the White House and its workplace requirements of feigned politeness and tie-wearing, the former chief strategist to the president is waging an unapologetic war against that president's party, a righteous and glorious crusade to bring down the GOP and replace it with ... well, with something else.
But what, exactly? If Bannon's side wins this civil war, what does the Republican Party become, and what will it do?
For the moment, the point seems mostly to instill fear in the ever-contemptible Republican "establishment," those milquetoast elitists who are insufficiently enthusiastic about President Trump and who look down their noses at the rage-and-resentment-based politics he embodies. When Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) recently announced that he wouldn't seek re-election with a stinging speech denouncing Trump, Bannon reacted by saying, "Another day, another scalp." Backed by the billionaire GOP megadonor Robert Mercer, Bannon plans to support primary challenges against almost every Republican incumbent in the Senate, and who knows how many in the House.
Like Flake, most of those incumbents have not stood in Trump's way on any policy issue. But when the president charged that Flake couldn't win re-election, Flake acknowledged that he was right. "It is clear at this moment," he said in his speech, "that a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party."
Other than immigration, though, those issues aren't really the point. This rift isn't about "limited government and free markets," it's about a certain style of politics: the Trump style.
Give Bannon and Trump credit for one thing: While there was a consensus in the party in 2016 that demographic changes meant that Republicans could no longer win the White House with only the votes of white people, they said, "Oh yeah? Just watch." Their insight was that you couldn't do it if you pretended to care about inclusiveness and paid lip service to diversity. The only way was to make an explicitly white nationalist appeal; then you'd excite enough angry white people to make up for the minorities you'd lose, and even Republicans who weren't so forthrightly nativist would still vote for you. And it worked.
There's almost no gas left in that tank, since every year the electorate moves in the Democrats' direction as more diverse generations of young people become voters and older conservative whites die off. But for now, the GOP has become the Party of Trump. As remarkable as Flake's speech was — we haven't heard a senator critique a president from his own party like that since at least Watergate — he won't be leading any anti-Trump resistance. He'll be retiring, because there's just no market for his brand of politics in the Republican Party anymore. He said publicly what a lot of his colleagues say privately, but the only ones who go public, like Flake and Bob Corker, are those who have already decided to depart.
So let's say it's 2018, and Bannon's purge has succeeded. What will the GOP do then? It will probably pursue pretty much the same course it's on. All the nods to populism notwithstanding, Republicans are still advancing policies that warm the hearts of the elite — just this week they passed a measure making sure that banks that defraud their customers face no legal accountability. There might be more efforts to undermine trade deals that the party has traditionally supported, but that's about the only area where you'd see a significant departure from what they'd be doing if the Oval Office was inhabited by a different Republican. Everything else — slashing regulations for corporations, undermining the safety net, cutting taxes for the wealthy — is still supported by nearly every Republican, establishment or insurgent.
The handy thing about Bannon/Trump-style politics is that you don't have to provide anything concrete to your voters. The outrageous statements, the fights Trump starts, the endless complaints about the media — these are ends in themselves, the whole purpose of the enterprise. When Trump blasts NFL players protesting police brutality, or tweets about saving "our great [Confederate] statues/heritage," or gets into a fight with the widow of a fallen soldier and her congresswoman, he's delivering exactly what his voters want. He's making himself a vehicle for their anger and resentment, which is why they flocked to him in the first place.
But a Republican Party that puts up one Trumpian candidate after another would be weaker at the ballot box than it might otherwise be; we've seen it before when Republicans nominated nutballs for important seats in Congress simply because they were the most extreme candidates, and ended up losing winnable races. That would improve Democrats' chances of taking back Congress and make the party even more toxic to minorities and young voters.
Which is why Mitch McConnell, who is the main target of Bannon's vituperation (he wants candidates to pledge that they won't support McConnell as majority leader), is fighting back. A super PAC allied with McConnell is planning to "boost candidates with traditional GOP profiles and excoriate those tied to Bannon, with plans to spend millions and launch a heavy social media presence in some states." To give you a sense of how friendly it all is, McConnell's allies have taken to referring to the Bannon-endorsed state senator Kelli Ward, who could win the Republican nomination to replace Flake in Arizona, as "Chemtrail Kelli" (here's the story on that).
Saying that a candidate you want to defeat is a nut, and giving her a mean nickname to boot? Why that's positively Trumpian. Maybe the battle for the soul of the Republican Party is already over.