Stephen K. Bannon sauntered onto the wooden stage to the roar of applause with the song “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones booming over the crowd.
The former White House chief strategist was in Fairhope, Ala., campaigning for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore at a boisterous rally held inside a barn with hay-lined floors on Monday night.
Bannon offered kind words for Moore, a former state judge whose fire-and-brimstone Christianity and anti-establishment rhetoric have earned him hero status among many conservatives. Moore was “righteous,” he assured the audience, and “represents your values.”
But Bannon reserved his most effusive praise for his former boss, President Trump, who, in an unusual clash of priorities, has endorsed Moore’s primary opponent.
Trump was “one of the most courageous individuals I’ve ever seen” and the “greatest public speaker since William Jennings Bryan,” Bannon gushed, referring to the late populist politician and master orator from Nebraska.
“Every person,” he said, “should get down every night and thank God that Donald Trump is president of the United States.”
The glowing words were, by all appearances, an attempt to ease some tension between Trump and Moore supporters, many of whom have bristled at the president’s decision to campaign for Republican Luther Strange, the opposing candidate in the special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Just days ago, Trump visited Huntsville, Ala., where he held a rally for Strange, a former state attorney general who was appointed by the Alabama governor. The move rattled many conservatives who view Strange as part of the swamp Trump has vowed to drain. Breitbart News, headed by Bannon, has championed Moore’s candidacy and relentlessly criticized Strange.
The Republican primary will be held Tuesday. Most public polls show Moore with a comfortable single-digit edge.
In his remarks in Huntsville on Friday night, even Trump seemed skeptical about whether endorsing Strange was the right move, as The Washington Post’s Abby Phillip reported.
“I’ll be honest, I might have made a mistake,” the president told the crowd at one point.
“Roy has a very good chance of not winning in the general election,” Trump said. “Roy is going to have a hard time, but I will be backing him if he wins.”
The race bears a strong resemblance to the 2016 presidential election, with an insurgent candidate giving an establishment favorite a run for his money. The twist is that Trump, the outsider in 2016, now finds himself gambling on Strange in hopes that he will be a more reliable ally in Congress. Moore, who was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court twice for defying judicial orders, has been fiercely critical of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP officials.
Republican leaders worry that a win for Moore could bolster hardline conservatives seeking to challenge incumbent Republicans in next year’s midterm elections. In turn, the party has poured money into the Strange campaign and launched a barrage of television ads against Moore, as The Posthas reported.
In Fairhope, Bannon and several other right-wing luminaries gathered at the Oak Hollow Farm to give Moore one final boost before Republican voters go to the polls. The guest list included Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, Brexit leader Nigel Farage and Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Moore spoke as well, emerging to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” in a cowboy hat and leather vest. “God has put me in this election at this time and all of the nation is watching,” he told supporters. He drew loud applause when he pulled a pistol from his pocket and waved it in the air in a testament to his stance on gun rights.
When Bannon took the stage, Farage introduced him as the “greatest political thinker and activist in the Western world today.”
Unshaven and clad in an casual jacket, Bannon portrayed the race between Moore and Strange as a battle for “sovereignty in America.” He declared war on the Republican establishment, saying McConnell and the “permanent political class” were “the most corrupt and incompetent group of individuals in this country.”
“They think you’re a pack of morons,” he thundered to the tightly packed audience. “They think you’re nothing but rubes. They have no interest at all in what you have to say, what you have to think or what you want to do.”
He warned McConnell and Republican strategists who had backed Strange that their “day of reckoning is coming.” McConnell, he added, owned Strange “lock, stock and barrel.”
Then he turned to the president.
“We did not come here to defy Donald Trump,” Bannon said. “We came here to praise and honor him.”
Not long ago, he said, Trump was in Moore’s position, fending off attacks by mainstream Republicans and members of the media, whom he called “the running dogs of the elites of this world.”
“Donald Trump ran for president because of his duty to this country,” he said. “A vote for Judge Roy Moore is a vote for Donald J. Trump. And a vote for Donald J. Trump is a vote to make America great again.”
Bannon went on to extol the president again after the rally. In an interview with Fox News, he tied support for Trump to the ongoing fracas over professional athletes kneeling during the National Anthem — a controversy Trump inflamed over the weekend with a series of antagonizing tweets.