Steve Bannon has been dropped as White House chief strategist for Donald Trump © EPA
Returning to his former home Breitbart, Steve Bannon was a man triumphant.
“Populist hero Stephen K Bannon returns home to Breitbart” the alt-right news outlet declared on its website on Friday afternoon.
It was just hours after the White House had announced Mr Bannon’s departure as Donald Trump’s chief strategist and already he was presenting himself as a man back in play.
“I feel jacked up. Now I’m free,” Mr Bannon declared in an interview with the Weekly Standard. “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons.”
Ousted from the White House by Mr Trump’s new chief-of-staff John Kelly, Mr Bannon is viewing his dismissal as an opening shot in a battle against his former White House antagonists. So are his conservative allies.
“#WAR” tweeted Joel B Pollack, editor of Breitbart.
As Mr Bannon’s administration critics privately cheered the chief strategist’s long-awaited departure, Mr Bannon was plotting on his next move: full-on media war against his opponents in the White House that will be motivated as much by revenge as ideology.
In Mr Bannon’s crosshairs are likely to be Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council; and National Security Advisor HR McMaster. All three men are part of a group that Mr Bannon refers to as the Democrats in the White House.
The split between nationalists such as Mr Bannon, 63, who gave voice to the president’s America first instincts, and globalists in the administration has been a fixture of Mr Trump’s tumultuous presidency. Populists in Mr Bannon’s camp refer derisively to officials such as Mr Cohn and Mr Kushner, a counsellor to the president, as “Democrats”.
President Donald Trump with his White House team in January. From left to right: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice-President Mike Pence, chief strategist Steve Bannon, press secretary Sean Spicer and national security adviser Michael Flynn. Only the Vice-President remains today © Reuters
The president was a registered Democrat for more than eight years until as recently as 2009 and contributed more than $250,000 to Democratic candidates over the years.
As Mr Bannon put it to The Weekly Standard: “I can fight better on the outside. I can’t fight too many Democrats on the inside like I can on the outside.”
One White House adviser said Mr Bannon would be much more effective on the outside, and would create a campaign to push Mr Trump in a different direction to the one his advisers want him to go. “He’s likely to really unleash against those people.”
Mr Bannon’s departure is expected to alter the administration’s tone, according to several White House officials. But the tension between nationalists and globalists will not disappear.
Steve King, the conservative Republican congressman from Iowa, had warned the president not to fire Mr Bannon, calling him the “linchpin” of Mr Trump’s populist movement.
On Friday, Mr King told NBC News that Mr Bannon’s departure made him fearful that a purge was under way to rid the White House of real conservatives and that Mr Trump would not fulfil many of his campaign promises.
Hours after his firing, Mr Bannon announced he had returned to his former role of executive chairman of Breitbart — the same role he inhabited before joining the Trump campaign a year ago. At the time, Mr Bannon was credited with righting the listing campaign and fine-tuning Mr Trump’s nationalist message on trade, immigration and a less interventionist foreign policy.
The widely-read Breitbart reacted to Mr Bannon’s ousting on Friday with a story calling him the conservative spine of the administration and warning that the president now risked becoming “Arnold Schwarzenegger 2.0”, a reference to the former California governor. After winning election as an anti-elite outsider, Mr Schwarzenegger disappointed conservatives by shifting to the left in his second term.
Mr Bannon, a crusader against the political and business elite, may launch a new media venture to press his anti-elite message with the backing of Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire, and his daughter Rebekah, the Washington Post reported hours after his exit.
“I’m sure he will redouble his efforts to promote what he calls the populist/nationalist worldview,” said Henry Olsen, a political analyst with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Anything Breitbart does now will be traced to him whether he is involved or not.”
As chief strategist in the White House, Mr Bannon pushed for tough trade measures against China, unsuccessfully sought a foreign policy role and feuded with several colleagues. The president fumed over his public prominence, which notably included a Time magazine cover in February.
On Saturday Night Live, Mr Bannon was parodied as a Machiavellian manipulator of the president, which did nothing to boost his White House standing.
More recently, Mr Trump was irked by Devil’s Bargain, journalist Joshua Green’s book, which portrayed Mr Bannon as the brains behind the president’s stunning November victory.
Nevertheless, the president dallied for weeks over a rupture with his media-savvy consigliere.
“In politics, the rule is: ‘keep your friends close, and keep your enemies closer’. Bannon is not an enemy, but Bannon’s supporters may be,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster.
Likewise, any media war by Mr Bannon on the administration faces its own challenges. Even if the he criticises the president’s aides rather than the president, Mr Trump may not appreciate the distinction.
“The challenge is Trump will know where it’s coming from,” said the White House adviser. “The more White House staffers get attacked, the more Trump may rally around them. It may very well backfire.”
Follow David J Lynch on Twitter: @davidjlynch