Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon eviscerated George W. Bush at the California Republican Party convention on Friday in a fiery speech that underscored his agenda to remold the GOP’s worldview.
Before a crowd packed with hundreds of Republican delegates, Bannon — perhaps the nation’s most influential advocate for Donald Trump’s America First worldview outside the White House — argued that Bush’s speech on Thursday criticizing Trump without naming him was a farce.
"President Bush, to me, embarrassed himself," Bannon said. “The speechwriter wrote a highfalutin speech; it’s clear [Bush] didn’t understand anything he was talking about.”
“He has no earthly idea whether he’s coming or going, just like it was when he was president of the United States," Bannon added.
His remarks received enthusiastic applause from the crowd, as did another much more serious charge: “There has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s."
After making that claim, Bannon cited Bush’s (and Bill Clinton’s) failure to properly reckon with the threat posed by “the rise of China” during his presidency. And as a staunch critic of nation building in foreign policy, Bannon was likely also alluding to Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Bannon versus Bush is a fight for the soul of the GOP
On Thursday, Bush delivered a speech in New York denouncing the rise of nationalism and decay in American political culture that was unambiguously targeted at Trump, even though he never mentioned Trump’s name.
“Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” Bush said (in a line rich with irony in light of Bush’s dishonest push for the Iraq War and his 9/11-related ethnic profiling programs).
Bush also warned against campaigns to “wish globalization away.”
But on Friday, Bannon, who was ousted from the White House in August, defended the idea of economic nationalism — the idea that the domestic economy will be stronger if it’s protected by trade barriers like border taxes — as a key concept for Republicans to embrace.
Bannon also took a swipe at Sen. John McCain as “just another senator from Arizona” and heaped scorn on the “lords of technology” who rule Silicon Valley.
The timing and location of Bannon’s speech is essential to understanding what’s at play here. Bannon was speaking before the GOP in California — a state where they’re a minority party and face long odds in local and statewide office, as well as in their ability to deliver Electoral College votes to the Republican candidate for the presidency. And he was arguing that in order to succeed, they need to buck the establishment and embrace the rebellion that he and Trump began in 2016.
“We have a problem with understanding how to win. Nothing else matters,” Bannon said.
He reportedly received a standing ovation when he finished his speech.
Bannon has no problem bluntly communicating that his agenda is at odds with the GOP establishment. He’s previously called for an “open revolt” against Republicans who don’t line up with Trump’s vision, and plans to back primary challengers against nearly every Republican senator up for reelection in 2018. He also provided a boost to Roy Moore, the anti-establishment firebrand who defied expectations in September by securing the Republican nomination to replace the Senate seat in Alabama vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
A source told Vanity Fair recently that Bannon believes Trump has a 30 percent chance of completing a full term in office. It’s unclear what fate he thinks will befall Trump, but he likely views the president as vulnerable to scandal.
Bannon’s mission is to make sure that even if Trump leaves office quickly, the America First worldview doesn’t.