On Jan. 7, a few days after he’d been brutally excommunicated by President Donald Trump for his indiscretions with author Michael Wolff, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon sat down to watch the Golden Globe Awards in the back room of the townhouse he lives in near Capitol Hill. As Oprah Winfrey and a parade of black-clad actresses turned the awards ceremony into a national platform for #MeToo activism, Bannon became more and more agitated. What bothered him was the political threat that the women’s movement poses to Trump and Republicans—a concern newly relevant, given the spousal-abuse scandal that’s seized the White House for days and is certain to intensify the problem Bannon identified back in January.
Whatever his flaws, Bannon is a shrewd analyst of American politics and of our collective national anxieties. It was Bannon who, earlier than almost anybody else, spotted the anti-establishment backlash that gave rise to Trump. From his couch that night in January, watching Oprah command the Golden Globes stage with a message of female empowerment, Bannon was sure that he was witnessing the next great political backlash—this one aimed at Trump and “patriarchs” like him, whose behavior had galvanized a potent counteraction.
“It’s a Cromwell moment!” Bannon declared, invoking 17th century Puritan zealot Oliver Cromwell. “It’s even more powerful than populism. It’s deeper. It’s primal. It’s elemental. The long black dresses and all that—this is the Puritans! It’s anti-patriarchy.”
I recount this scene in the preface of the new paperback version of my book, (Penguin Books, Feb. 13, 2018).
Convinced that the awards show was a pivotal moment in American culture, Bannon regarded the activism on stage not only as a demonstration of female empowerment but also as an expression of anti-male rage. As someone who prospered by harnessing an angry backlash to get Trump elected, Bannon’s true fear was that Trump and Republicans were not sufficiently alert to the electoral threat posed by this rising movement. If Oprah could galvanize a national audience watching an awards show on television, he pointed out, then she could certainly turn out Democratic voters in force were she to hit the campaign trail this fall. Republicans are already in danger of losing the House; Bannon thought Oprah would cinch it for their opponents.
Six weeks later, Bannon’s concern looks especially prescient. As fallout grows from the revelation that White House staff secretary Rob Porter allegedly abused two ex-wives—and was allowed to remain in the job after administration officials had been made aware of the allegations—Bannon is the rare person in Trump’s universe who sees clearly the political damage such episodes are doing to Republicans and takes seriously the backlash coming in the form of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement.
When Porter’s troubled marital history first emerged on Feb. 6, the initial response from the White House was to vigorously defend him. Chief of Staff John Kelly issued a defiant statement of support: “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him.” As pictures circulated of Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye she says he inflicted, Porter resigned and the focus of the White House’s defense efforts shifted to Kelly, who had known about Porter’s marital problems because they’d prevented the staff secretary from getting a permanent security clearance.
This belated attempt at damage control was further undermined by the president himself, who tweeted his frustration that Porter was being condemned without “due process” and said nothing about the victims of his alleged abuse, his ex-wives.
Trump and others around him have been reluctant to publicly address the grievances or to acknowledge the potential political consequences that #MeToo could have for the GOP. Women make up the backbone of the liberal resistance to Trump, which poses a dire threat to Republican congressional majorities this fall and perhaps, even to the future of the Trump administration. A Democratic-controlled Congress would vigorously investigate—and might even impeach—the president. “The anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo 10,000 years of recorded history,” Bannon said. “You watch. The time has come. Women are gonna take charge of society. And they couldn’t juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch. This [the Golden Globe Awards] is a definitional moment in the culture. It’ll never be the same going forward.”
Leaving aside Bannon’s flair for dramatic pronouncement, the crux of his fear is something Democrats on the ground say has already materialized. “The single biggest action since Trump’s election was the Women’s March, which very quickly transitioned to an electoral organizing movement, with levels of activism beyond what we’ve ever seen before in an off-year electoral cycle,” says Alfred Johnson, co-founder and chief executive officer of MobilizeAmerica, an online platform that connects activists and Democratic campaigns. “As somebody who works on the ground with this movement every day, it’s unquestionably the case that a majority of Democratic political volunteers are women—as are many of the new candidates.”
Last fall, Johnson says, more than 70 percent of MobilizeAmerica’s volunteer shifts were completed by women, and the candidates they helped won every race but one.
With the White House reeling from a scandal that underscores Republicans’ worsening problems with women, there’s a kind of upside-down poignancy to the fact that Steve Bannon, so publicly cast out of Trump’s inner circle, seems to be the only Republican able to see what Democrats like Johnson are seeing every day. Bannon can sound the alarm, but it’s unclear whether anyone in the White House will listen. Right now, Trump seems no more willing to heed Bannon’s counsel than he is Oprah’s.