(CNN)Steve Bannon left the White House in late August, about seven months after President Donald Trump arrived. But even at a distance from power, his words remain a constant source of frustration and angst for Democrats and, perhaps more often, Republicans.
Steve Bannon, troll-in-chief
When rumors of a bust-up with Trump began to spread, Bannon pushed back, telling Bloomberg News his departure was a faithful one, and that he was "going to war for Trump against his opponents -- on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America," r
Since then, Bannon has mostly focused on electing a band of candidates less identifiable for any shared ideology than a collective promise to rile the party establishment — and keep his own name in the headlines. It made perfect sense then, as the Washington GOP worked (unsuccessfully) to ward off Roy Moore's primary challenge to Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama, that Bannon dug in and got busy campaigning for Moore.
Republican leaders "think you're a pack of morons," Bannon told Moore's supporters in September. "They think you're nothing but rubes." A few days later, the former judge defeated Strange by nearly 10 points.
On Tuesday night, Bannon reprised that line and some other old standards during a return performance, a week ahead of Moore's special election contest with Democrat Doug Jones.
Performance is an important word here, because Bannon is an undeniably talented political performer. His remarks in Fairhope lit up social media, as partisans and other observers tracked (and tweeted) his every utterance. The loudest responses were typically angry or disbelieving. It was, in his dark way, a masterclass.
Bannon's capacity for triggering opponents and befuddling neutral observers with slickly argued but intellectually disingenuous rhetoric is now, in his capacity as a kind of glorified freelance political operative, the most effective element of his act. Does he want to burn down the Republican establishment, sowing internal divisions while directing donor cash toward his preferred candidates? Very much so. But it is his trolling -- the wind-ups, the insults -- that separates him from so many others who'd try to do the same.
His attachment to Trump -- who has since the firing kept close to Bannon's rhetoric, if not his economic populist policy ideas -- helps too. Targeting Sen. Jeff Flake, even before the Arizona Republican announced plans to retire rather than seek re-election in 2018, by backing Kelli Ward, said more about Flake and Trump's (bad) relationship than Ward's prospects (also bad). Rep. Dan Donovan in New York, hardly a boldface GOP establishment figure, is also in the Breitbart man's crosshairs. Bannon is supporting Michael Grimm, a felon trying to win back the seat he gave up in disgrace, in that primary. Why? Well, given the challenger's priors, it's certainly going to attract attention.
In Alabama on Tuesday, the game was on display in its purest form. In the space of about 30 minutes, Bannon took repeated shots at the media, joking at one point that a heckler in the crowd was a "CNN producer."
"We got 'em all here," he said. "By the way, they're all here today. All of 'em. The Financial Times of London. The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. Now, why they down here in Alabama? In Fairhope on a rainy night. You know why?"
Bannon, a longtime media executive, surely did. He understands the narrative. Like his old boss, he adores the media. With a vote coming, reporters there wanted to hear what he would say -- and from there, read into how the Trump wing of the party might be viewing the race. But that, of course, is not what Bannon said. He's a performer, after all, and he delivered a crowd-pleaser in reply.
"They understand that you're the power," he told the audience. "The real power behind the greatest nation on earth." Reporting on allegations that Moore had sexually abused teenage girls decades ago -- or efforts to "destroy" him, as Bannon put it -- meant "they can destroy you."
He was only beginning. Before ceding the stage, Bannon would sashay into an extended riff on Arizona's Flake. Earlier in the day, Flake, a Trump critic, had tweeted a photo of a check he'd cut to Doug Jones. It was for $100. Flake wrote, in the memo field, "Country over party."
Bannon could barely contain himself.
"C'mon, brother," he said, "if you're going to write a check, write a check." Bannon then explained, probably accurately, that Flake's decision to retire was set off by less high-minded realities than the senator tends to highlight. Specifically, that Flake would have lost the GOP primary by "25 to 27 points." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would get his too -- "Mitch," Bannon said, "you owe your job to Donald J. Trump."
But it was Mitt Romney who came in for the harshest and, going by the look on Bannon's face, most personally pleasing round of abuse.
"Let's talk about another beauty: Willard 'Mitt' Romney," he began, noting at the top that Romney had "started it" with a Monday tweet that said Moore's election "would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation."
After reminding the crowd of Moore's service in Vietnam, Bannon circled back to Romney, a Mormon, who did not.
"You hid behind your religion. You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam. Do not talk to me about honor and integrity," Bannon said. At that, he paused and walked the stage a bit, then began again, as if addressing Romney directly: "And now I'm gonna get personal. You ran for commander-in-chief, you had five sons. Not one day of service in Afghanistan and Iraq. ... Judge Roy Moore has more honor and integrity in that pinkie finger than your entire family has in its whole DNA."
It's no secret that Trump, Bannon's former employer and sometimes ally, never went to Vietnam -- that he received five deferments, four for education and the most famous one for bone spurs in his heels. That this was a fairly obvious bit of hypocrisy was not a bug, but an inciting feature.
Bannon delights, perhaps more than anything else, in raising the hackles of those who would know this about Trump's history and so be galled by his statements about Romney. He knows that the tribalism animating American politics today dictates that angering your opponents is, for many, a victory in its own right.
So by the time he moved on to Jones and, naturally, Hillary Clinton, Bannon's purposes were clear.
"A vote for Doug Jones is a vote for the Clinton agenda," he said. "And that's what the people in Alabama ought to be focused on -- not this politics of personal destruction."
The latter was a phrase he'd already used at the beginning of the talk, but in context here it felt more pointed. It was the Clintons who, during the scandals of the late 1990s, most memorably deployed the phrase.
As cheeky provocations go, it was executed without flaw. If Bannon thought you ripe for angering, odds are you'd have been made angry watching him in Alabama. Whether his act helped Roy Moore or not we'll never precisely know. But more importantly -- our agonizing over it is pretty much the point.