On May 29, 2012, conservative filmmaker Ben Howe emailed Steve Bannon a video he was planning to debut that day on Breitbart TV. The stylized web ad featured Andrew Breitbart — the site's piratical founder who had died unexpectedly earlier that year — delivering a speech in which he urged conservatives to rally around the Republican nominee to "fight the progressive left."
"I will march behind whoever our candidate is, because if we don't we lose!" Breitbart was shown preaching to an audience of activists.
Bannon, the inheritor of Breitbart's web empire and appointed keeper of his legacy, hated Howe's video — and he told him so in a series of heated emails that were recently obtained by BuzzFeed News.
"Couldn't disagree more," Bannon wrote. "Romney has gone out of his way to show complete contempt for the tea party...and u r acting like a bootlick."
"Are we not going to push for an Obama defeat?" Howe asked in response.
"No Ben," Bannon shot back. "I'm pushing for conservatives to have a fucking place at the table ... What don't u get about the running gun battle we have had with the republican establishment over the last 3 months[?}" In a later email he added, "This is about power Ben, and who is going to exert it."
Four years later, there's little doubt about who has the power now in the Republican Party. If Donald Trump's nomination this year marked the overthrow of the GOP's old guard, Bannon's ascent to the top of the campaign is an announcement of the new regime. Long viewed by Republican leaders as a fringey sideshow act devoid of any real influence, Trump, Bannon, and their Breitbartian allies are now unmistakably in charge. And their coup was no accident.
Breitbart News has long presented itself as a scrappy band of populist crusaders waging a guerrilla #WAR against the Washington elite — championing their conservative audience, holding elected leaders to account, lobbing bombs from outside the gates. But people who have worked closely with Bannon said he was never motivated by such idealistic notions. He wasn't content with taking down the crooked insiders of the ruling class — he wanted to become one himself.
"This has been the plan all along," said Howe, who said he first met Bannon in 2010. "He once told me he had designed Breitbart News to be a weapon, and he was going to wield it against the establishment ... He wanted to be a kingmaker."
Three people close to Bannon said he produced his hagiographic 2011 documentary about Sarah Palin, Undefeated, largely as an attempt to ensure himself a spot in her inner-circle.
"He really thought Palin was going to run for president," said Howe. "Instead, it turned out to be Trump. But his goal has always been to use the influence of Breitbart to attach himself to a candidate and become the ultimate White House insider."
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But it's been no secret that Bannon has used his perch at Breitbart to cultivate a relationship with the candidate. For years, the two men have kept in close touch, with Trump frequently phoning Bannon to pitch stories about himself (and his enemies). Some of the site's staffers became so frustrated and baffled by the pro-Trump editorial edicts that they became convinced the billionaire must be paying for favorable coverage.
Of course, Breitbart News has fawned over other conservative politicians, too, but their preference for Trump became increasingly conspicuous throughout the 2016 primaries. Whereas Andrew Breitbart was most famous for executing provocative stunts targeting liberals and Democrats, the Bannon-era site has become best known for its outlandish attacks against other Republicans — from John Boehner, to Paul Ryan, to Marco Rubio. Along the way, it has remade itself in the image of Trumpism: avowedly nationalist, fervently anti-immigrant, and more concerned with white identity politics than small government.
Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart News editor and outspoken Trump critic who resigned earlier this year, said the site shed its founding ideals long ago and has since become "a massive Death Star of ideological confusion and stupidity that's threatening the galaxy."
Still, Shapiro said, Bannon deserves some credit for the way he got exactly what he wanted out of the Breitbart empire he was bequeathed.
"He made a big bet on Trump and it paid off," Shapiro said. "I'm sure you'll see Bannon still pushing this narrative that they're the outsiders ... But [RNC chairman] Reince [Priebus] is going to be licking Bannon's boots from now on."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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