Mr. Bannon took a significant gamble by betting on Mr. Moore — though Mr. Moore was not his first choice in the primary race to defeat Senator Luther Strange, the Alabama Republican who became a target of Mr. Bannon and other anti-establishment conservatives. Mr. Moore could end up being what every establishment Republican warned of: a renegade conservative who won the primary only to lose the general election and deliver a seat to the Democrats.
Battling with McConnell
PETERS: So was that like a Fort Sumter in your civil war? You’ve got Jeff Flake on the run?
BANNON: No. It’s not Fort Sumter, but we did — look, what’s happened here recently is you — is you see that those politicians that really don’t understand the Trump movement or haven’t been supportive of the president. And we had, you know, Big Luther in Alabama. We had Corker in Tennessee, and we had Flake in Arizona, and there’ll be more. There’ll be more. Don’t think that — don’t think that you know not one of these senators has run out there and said publicly and said, “I want the endorsement of Mitch McConnell.” Yet they’re all coming to us.
PETERS: Do you think Mitch McConnell will be majority leader at this time next year?
BANNON: I absolutely do not think he will be majority leader.
PETERS: Is that your personal mission to make that not happen?
BANNON: It’s not my personal mission, but it is an objective that I — I have an objective that Mitch McConnell will not be majority leader, and I believe will be done before this time next year.
Conservatives like Mr. Bannon want to make the 2018 Senate elections, in large part, a referendum on Mr. McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader. In his meetings with potential Senate candidates, Mr. Bannon has been asking them to make a pledge not to support Mr. McConnell for another term as leader.
A major factor determining whether this insurgent conservative movement succeeds will be how angry Republican voters are at incumbents. Right now, that anger is running hot. Mr. McConnell is the most unpopular national political figure, according to a recent Harvard poll. But if Republicans start looking more politically competent — by passing, for example, a tax cut — voters may be less likely to turn on them.
Forcing Republicans to take sides
BANNON: Now, who did Gillespie campaign with? He campaigned with George Bush and Marco Rubio. And I think Condi Rice. Right? He — did he have — he had George Bush standing next to him. Did he have Donald Trump standing next to him? No, he did not.
People are going to have to get over their differences on the right. And I’ve said this — Breitbart was very active in this — in this campaign at the end doing lots of stories, doing lots of profiles. Breitbart radio. And the reason is — is that, hey, Gillespie’s not a guy that’s particularly, you know, excites me.
Will the Republican Party be the Bush/Rubio party or the Trump Party? That is the question that Mr. Bannon sees as defining this looming battle between conservatives. Bush/Rubio is shorthand for the establishment that Mr. Bannon loathes — the party that favors a softer, more inclusive approach toward immigration laws and a more active role for America in the global community. The Trump Party rejects those premises entirely.
The establishment wing of the party considered these debates settled. What Mr. Trump did — and what Mr. Bannon helped draw out in Mr. Trump — was to force these issues and make Republicans take sides. We know what side won 2016. We don’t know yet which will prevail in 2018 and beyond.
Graphing versus embracing
BANNON: And by the way, the Gillespie campaign never really coordinated, never really reached out. The whole thing on the Trump stuff was a little bit graphed on.
Now, some of the issues of MS-13 and — and sanctuary cities certainly came up. I do believe that — that Gillespie was a little halfhearted. It wasn’t embracing the core parts of the Trump agenda and driving and making it every day. The Trump agenda will win, and I understand how the —
PETERS: I wonder if it was something of a problem of Gillespie himself because he was seen by conservatives as a creature of the swamp, so to speak, or of the establishment.
BANNON: 100 percent. But even with the Trump people, this is the thing — I — I tried in — in the — the stories of Breitbart, in the other stories that came out on the other con — far-right news services. Is that even with the Trump people — and that’s with the Corey Stewart. You — if you lose in a primary, you got to get over it. The only way this thing’s going to work is to keep this coalition together.
Even if Ed Gillespie had sold himself as a cloned Donald Trump, it still would not have been enough to win in Virginia, illustrating the challenges of the Bannon/Trump model in swing states like Virginia with large, highly educated suburban populations.
That model works well in rural states, in the South and central Plains. It worked — but just barely — in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where less than 80,000 votes delivered the White House to Mr. Trump. Whether it can work there again is Mr. Bannon’s crucible.
On the white nationalist appeal
PETERS: So there’s no doubt though that that message of President Trump’s has appeal with white nationalists. Is that an unfortunate reality, an unintended consequence?
BANNON: I think it’s, I think it’s, I think it’s nonsense. I think it’s nonsense.
PETERS: You don’t think he appeals to them at all?
BANNON: I think these guys grab on to anything they can. No, the message is one of, this guy is the least racist guy I’ve ever met. And nothing in the campaign, and nothing that he’s done to date. That’s all that’s all left wing. That’s MSNBC nonsense. And by the way, you can’t help with a couple of, these guys are marginalia to marginalia. Right? So they’ll grab onto anything — and by the way, every time they say Trump’s name, MSNBC has got a camera on it and The New York Times has an article on it, right? Because you’re obsessed with it.
PETERS: You’re saying it’s a media fabrication.
BANNON: Absolutely, a hundred percent it’s a hundred percent media fabrication. And, by the way, because they realize that they think the only way they can run is by smearing you to be a nativist, a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe. Just go down the line.
This is a question that will continue to dog Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon and the politicians who wrap themselves in their agenda. Mr. Bannon has denounced and rejected white nationalism publicly, as has Mr. Trump.
But they always try to shift the blame from the racist far right to their enemies — the radical left and the news media. This makes it seem as if they can never truly accept that there are racists and xenophobes who see something to admire in Mr. Trump and his beliefs. And it leaves the impression that they might be trying to signal something subtly to these people.