The Republican 'War Room': Inside Steve Bannon's effort to galvanize the right

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Steve Bannon has a new MAGA megaphone, and Republicans eager to shine in a party still tethered to former President Donald Trump know it.

Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive and one of the architects of Trump's Make America Great Again movement, has increasingly leveraged his "War Room: Pandemic" podcast into a kind of proxy primary. Ambitious Republicans are flocking there for the chance to demonstrate loyalty to Bannon's former boss and pitch themselves to Trump’s voters — and, more indirectly, to Trump himself.

With Fox News appearing to lose favor among some of Trump’s most diehard fans, "War Room" appears to be gaining steam as a safe space for the far right. It’s routinely among the most popular podcasts on Apple’s platform and streams live twice each weekday and once every Saturday through the Real America’s Voice network.

On this show, Joe Biden is not the real president, and the theory that Covid-19 leaked from a Wuhan, China, lab has been a hot topic for more than a year. Bannon encourages skepticism about vaccines one minute and peddles zinc and Vitamin D pills the next.

In an interview with NBC News, Bannon said candidates who appear will be pushed first and foremost on what he called "a litmus test" for the GOP: challenging the outcome of the 2020 election.

"So Nov. 3 is not going to go away," Bannon said. "There will not be a Republican that wins a primary for 2022 — not one — that doesn't take the pledge to get to the bottom of Nov. 3."

YouTube has banned Bannon’s podcast channel, citing concerns about the spread of false claims about election fraud. Nevertheless, Bannon has had little trouble booking guests, from MAGA celebrities such as the MyPillow creator to veteran lawmakers and candidates. They’re often reaching out to him, Bannon said, aware if they want to reach the Trump base, it’s a must-visit.

“We pride ourselves on being the most populist, most economic nationalist wing of this movement,” Bannon said.

The podcast is a home for the most ardent Trump backers. Bannon said he's jokingly told some, "We're with the dead-enders now," a reference to those who believe what Democrats and some Republicans term "the big lie" — that the election was stolen.

"And we pride ourselves on that," he said, making no secret that he views the last election similarly. "I think politicians see that need to reach that audience."

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., dropped by this month as she worked to unseat Trump critic Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as chair of the House Republican Conference. Eric Greitens, the former Missouri governor who resigned over a sexual misconduct allegation and is now running for Senate, is a frequent guest. And Bannon has taken a particular interest in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states where next year's primaries for governor and Senate are shaping up as big Trump loyalty tests.

The show, which debuted ahead of the first of Trump's two impeachments and refocused last year during the coronavirus outbreak, speaks to Bannon's sustained influence among the Trump faithful — though the relationship between him and the former president has not been without its stumbles. Trump pushed Bannon out of his chief White House strategist post in 2017 and later dubbed him "Sloppy Steve" but pardoned him from wire fraud and money laundering charges in the final hours of his presidency.

Jason Miller, a Trump adviser who co-hosted with Bannon in the show's early days, compared his sway to the late Rush Limbaugh, who helped grow the conservative movement in the 1990s. Miller said the former president — often referred to as an "audience of one" for those who wish to please him on TV and radio — is familiar with "War Room."

"We present him with clips," Miller said of Trump. "I frequently update him on who's on the show and who's doing what." The former president, he added, "definitely has an appreciation for the work that Bannon and the show are doing."

Some of the GOP's most polarizing figures are frequent guests. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., continues to appear amid a federal sex trafficking investigation that is in part focused on whether he had a sexual relationship with a minor. (Gaetz has not been charged with a crime and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.) A day after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., condemned her for equating pandemic safety measures with the Holocaust, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., returned to the "War Room" for a sympathetic ear.

Mike Lindell, the MAGA-famous conspiracy theorist and businessman whose MyPillow products Bannon advertises, is another regular. After Lindell told Bannon on air last week that he planned to confront Govs. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Brian Kemp of Georgia over their acceptance of Biden’s victory in their states, the Republican Governors Association barred him from entering a members-only event.

Along with the election, cancel culture comes up often. So does critical race theory, the academic term meant to recognize how systemic racism is inherent in American life. Republicans have made it a catchall for anti-racism and anti-diversity lessons they don’t want taught in schools — and a new front in the GOP culture wars.

The show has encouraged those on the far right to, as one guest laid out earlier this year, "invade" the Republican Party by becoming local GOP precinct committee officers — an effort that has gained momentum since Trump left office. But the show's central focus has been China, specifically examining the role the Chinese government played in the pandemic. On the show, conspiracies involving Dr. Anthony Fauci, China and the election are all inextricably linked.

"The traditional conservative media has been cowed by lawsuits and the like, and they haven't really been willing to talk about some of the things that really are important," said Peter Navarro, the former Trump White House adviser who, along with the right-wing activist Raheem Kassam, is a frequent co-host of the program. "And so viewers are looking for alternatives. What you see on Steve's show won't show up until weeks later in the corporate media."

Bannon, whose past attempts to assert himself as a GOP shot-caller yielded shadowboxing primaries and the failed Senate candidacy of Roy Moore in Alabama, particularly revels in the opportunity to use his forum as an incubator for Trumpism.

When Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., joined him on April 7, the day Trump endorsed his 2022 Senate candidacy, Bannon dwelled for a moment on the past: Trump hadn’t backed Brooks in the 2017 primary that Moore advanced from before losing the special election.

"For those who don't know," Brooks assured listeners, "Steve worked very hard to help me in 2017, and if we had gotten the endorsement of Donald Trump back then, Doug Jones never would have been elected.”

For some, "War Room" is a place to speak freely in a way they might not elsewhere. Sean Parnell, a Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, told local reporters at his campaign launch that he had no interest in re-litigating the 2020 election. On Bannon's show less than two weeks later, Parnell said he would welcome an audit of election results in his state — a contradiction first noted by Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate, WESA. Jeff Bartos, another Senate hopeful in Pennsylvania, has used "War Room" to call Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim, "Hamas' spokesperson in the United States."

When former Rep. Lou Barletta appeared on the show, days away from launching his gubernatorial bid in Pennsylvania, Bannon hailed him as "a legendary figure in the Trump movement" for being one of the former president's earliest supporters in Congress. The admiration is mutual.

"Steve Bannon reaches an enormous audience of Americans who value the policies of President Trump and don't like the country's current direction," Barletta spokesperson Kristen Bennett said. "Steve comes at current events from a populist point of view, is intelligent and entertaining, and resonates with a wide segment of the electorate."

As multiple candidates in Ohio's GOP Senate primary seek to tie themselves closely to the former president, Bannon has welcomed former state party leader Jane Timken and former state treasurer Josh Mandel. He’s also had on J.D. Vance, the "Hillbilly Elegy" author and venture capitalist who is exploring a bid. When Timken launched her campaign in February, Bannon stressed to his audience that "the 'War Room' doesn’t tell you how to vote, but we want you to go to her site. That's pure MAGA right there."

Mandel and Vance have turned up on the show more recently, with Mandel first appearing May 21 and quickly accepting an invitation to return.

"He loves going on because it's hard-hitting, anti-establishment and MAGA fire all the time," said Mandel’s campaign manager, Scott Guthrie. "Every time Josh is on, he hears from patriots all over Ohio who are big fans of Steve and the show."

Greitens, the former Missouri governor and current Senate candidate, has used his appearances to press his own MAGA credentials, which could help him emerge from a crowded Senate primary in Missouri. During a May 4 appearance, he declared "law and order" — a familiar Trump refrain — "the No. 1 issue," lamenting that he knows suburbanites who won't go to Major League Baseball games anymore because of crime.

"'War Room' is the tip of the spear of the MAGA movement," Greitens said in a statement provided by his campaign. "Steve Bannon’s audience is smart and action-oriented. His audience has many of President Trump's strongest supporters and I’m honored to be able to go on and defend the America First agenda."

The precise size and scope of that audience is hard to measure, though. According to Chartable, which tracks the podcast industry, "War Room" ranked 36th overall in global reach over the past week — and in the top six among right-wing podcasts.

A.J. Bauer, a University of Alabama assistant professor who studies the conservative media ecosystem, said the show can help Republicans reach a committed segment of the base.

"It seems like it's more of a space where people who are already pretty radicalized to begin with can go to kind of hear their thoughts echoed back to them," Bauer said after listening to the podcast. "It was like watching a superhero movie. It's like a Marvel Universe, but for QAnon and MAGA types. … Unless you invested the energy to know all the characters and watched all the previous movies, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense."