Steve Bannon is not thinking of running for president, according to sources close to Steve Bannon. But they have to say that, don’t they? The source of all tensions between Trump and Bannon is Trump’s irritation at Bannon for being a glory hound, getting credit from the media for the president’s victory, landing on the cover of Time as “The Great Manipulator,” etc. The presidential ego is as vast as the heavens and as fragile as an eggshell. If Trump thought Bannon was scheming to primary him it’d wreck their populist marriage of convenience.

In fact, though, Gabriel Sherman never claims that Bannon is considering challenging Trump. He claims that Bannon has told people he’d consider running if Trump doesn’t run again, whether because he gets bored with the job and decides one term is enough or because his cabinet ousts him under the 25th Amendment (which it won’t). Is it conceivable that Bannon would jump into a primary against Trump? Nah. It would pit Bannon against Trump’s cult of personality and force Breitbart fans to choose between the two, which isn’t likely to go well for him. Is it conceivable that Steve Bannon would jump into a primary against Mike Pence, though?

Yeah, actually. That’s quite possible, I think.

When he left the White House in August, Bannon said, “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.” In private, Bannon told people he was disillusioned with Trump’s shambolic governing style. Trump, in turn, sees Bannon as a self-promoter. “The president views Steve as just a guy who works for him,” a White House official said. “Especially in light of recent news, for the country, the president’s best decision was firing James Comey. His second best decision was firing Steve Bannon, bar none.”…

In October, Bannon called an adviser and said he would consider running for president if Trump doesn’t run for re-election in 2020. Which Bannon has told people is a realistic possibility. In private conversations since leaving the White House, Bannon said Trump only has a 30 percent chance of serving out his term, whether he’s impeached or removed by the Cabinet invoking the 25th amendment. That prospect seemed to become more likely in early December when special counsel Robert Mueller secured a plea deal from former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Bannon has also remarked on the toll the office has taken on Trump, telling advisers his former boss has “lost a step.” “He’s like an 11-year-old child,” Bannon joked to a friend in November.

It’s worth your time to read the entire piece, as Bannon is nothing if not extremely quotable. He calls Bush 41 a “pervert” for grabbing women’s asses and says of the White House, “The railhead of all bad decisions is the same railhead: Javanka.” Asked about Roy Moore, he replied in fine populist fashion, “This is Alabama. The age of consent is 16 for a reason.” (My favorite line is him describing the populist primary challengers he’s recruiting for next year: “I don’t want the Marco Rubios that have been in the R.N.C. since they were 9 years old with a briefcase.”) The idea of a Bannon presidential campaign is the highlight, though, probably because it jibes with his increasingly visible role as Mr Populism. He hit the campaign trail for Roy Moore; he’s hosting his radio show again; he’s doing appearances on Hannity; he has Breitbart promoting his every move. He’s building a profile as a major political figure well known to right-wingers chiefly through his media presence. How’d the current president do with that strategy?

The important thing to remember about Bannon, though, is that he’s a true believer in his ideology and that ideology isn’t well represented (almost completely unrepresented, in fact) among the GOP’s elite political class. Sure, Trumpism overlaps with nationalism and populism, but Trump’s too erratic and prone to being influenced by his advisors, most of whom are themselves far from populist or nationalist. Bannon himself allegedly called Trump an “imperfect vessel” for his political agenda in private conversations during last year’s campaign. Who would a perfect vessel be? Why, Steve Bannon, of course. It was absurd to think of him running for anything in 2015 as the semi-anonymous mastermind of Breitbart but two years later he’s become a right-wing folk hero of sorts, the guy who’ll never stop waging #WAR on the great betrayers of the left and right, beginning with Mitch McConnell. If Trump suddenly departed and left a vacuum in 2020, who’s going to fill that right-wing folk hero role?

Mike Pence? C’mon. An incumbent VP is a prohibitive favorite in a primary and Pence would have the enthusiastic backing of the Republican establishment, but that wouldn’t necessarily deter Bannon. If you believe Vanity Fair he reacted grimly to Pence’s selection as VP, emailing a friend, “This is the price we pay for cruzbots and #nevertrump movement . . . An unfortunate necessity.” Because Pence would be expected to win handily (and almost certainly would), primarying him would have little downside for Bannon. He’d get enough of the vote to raise his profile further, establishing himself as a right-wing politician with a national constituency in his own right. That would force Pence to take his populist concerns seriously in shaping the next Republican agenda. If Bannon were able to win a primary or caucus here or there, so much the better for him. He’d have Breitbart slamming away at Pence 24/7, helping to set the party line on the VP among grassroots righties and talk-radio opinion-makers, and he’d presumably have Mercer money behind him to bankroll some early-state campaigning. Why *shouldn’t* he run? Even if he pulled “only” 20 percent of the vote, doesn’t that give him more influence within the GOP than he has now?

There’s one other quote from the Vanity Fair piece worth highlighting. This is Bannon making the case for doubling down on Roy Moore after the allegations about teenaged girls came out last month. For him, it was never about Moore:

Bannon was eager to get Trump on the phone. He told me Trump’s presidency was at stake. His theory was that, if McConnell succeeded in forcing Moore out, it would open Trump up to having every sexual harassment and assault allegation against him relitigated in the court of public opinion. “It’s a firebreak,” he later said.

Breitbart EIC Alex Marlow made the same point in an interview with CNN:

“I think they want to create a standard where President Trump either from past or future accusations, will not be able to match whatever standard is now in place for who can be a United States senator,” he said. “Based off not any sort of conviction or any sort of admission of guilt, but based off of purely allegations.”

“I think that’s the playbook here,” he added. “And I think it’s part of the reason why it was so important for Breitbart to continue our coverage of the way we covered it … and for Steve in particular to hold the line the way he did for — I think part of it is because it’s not just about Judge Moore, it is not even just about establishment, anti-establishment. It’s about what’s coming next for President Trump.”

If accusations against Moore by eight women disqualify him from a Senate seat, presumably accusations against Trump by more than eight women disqualify him from the presidency. Bannon and Marlow are telling you here that the GOP is now on a voyage of the damned where they have no choice but to defend every Republican — and maybe
some Democrats — who’s accused of sexual misconduct purely in the interest of keeping the bar to holding office low for the president’s sake. It’ll be fun to see what happens to that logic if an establishmentarian loathed by Breitbart is suddenly hit by a wave of allegations. If tomorrow eight women accuse Mitch McConnell of chasing them when they were 16, is the correct populist approach to say, “MITCH MUST GO” or is it, “Uh, all eight women could be lying, just as those 15 women were undoubtedly lying about Trump”? Such are the questions when your judgment about sexual wrongdoing is purely politically expedient.