Steve Bannon — the former Harvard Business School grad, Goldman Sachs managing director, and Hollywood mogul — cast California as a linchpin in the fight to halt the spread of what he called the globalist and elitist agenda. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Issuing a defiant call to arms to grassroots Republicans, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon railed Friday against dangerous “global elites” and the Silicon Valley “lords of technology” whom he said are robbing U.S. citizens of jobs, wealth and opportunity.
“They want all the benefits of a free society…all the benefits of this rules-based international order,’’ including lucrative trade deals and capital markets, he said, while “we the citizens of the United States…underwrite the whole thing.”
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Bannon also launched a blistering attack on a former President George W. Bush — who this week delivered a rebuke of President Donald Trump — casting him as a tool of those globalists.
“President Bush embarrassed himself,’’ Bannon said, referring to him as “a piece of work.” “It is clear he didn’t understanding anything he was talking about…he had no idea whether he was coming or going — just like when he was president of the United States.’’
“There has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush’s,’’ he said to applause.
Bannon delivered the comments to a wildly enthusiastic sold-out crowd of 500 at the state GOP convention, where he was greeted with a standing ovation. Security was tight, with double lines of fencing outside the Anaheim Marriott, and lines of police officers on hand for protesters who promised to show up but never materialized in large numbers.
Delegates paid $100 for dinner with the former White House senior adviser who has returned to his post as Breitbart News executive chairman and many ponied up $300 for a gold-plated pass that included a VIP reception and a photo with Bannon — the kind of buy-in usually reserved for elected officials and rock stars. Entering the convention hall, Bannon was greeted with cheers and mobbed by party activists aiming to grab selfies.
In his address to California Republicans — much of it delivered off-the-cuff — Bannon aimed squarely at some favorite conservative targets, including sanctuary cities.
“You’ve got a very dangerous thing going on in this state,’’ said Bannon, likening California in 2017 to South Carolina in the 1830’s, a state he said also tried to “pick and choose the laws they want,’’ before it it pulled away from the Union.
“You are a sanctuary state — and trust me, if you do not roll this back, 10 or 15 years from now, the folks in Silicon Valley and the progressive left in this state are going to try to secede from the Union.”
But Bannon — the former Harvard Business School grad, Goldman Sachs managing director, and Hollywood mogul — cast California as a linchpin in the fight to halt the spread of what he called the globalist and elitist agenda. He urged Republicans to organize, rise up — and put up a fight to hold on to California House seats that are considered vulnerable in 2018.
“It’s time for California to start having some victories,’’ he said. “[Progressives] are going to drag us so far to the left that we’re going to hold those districts and Nancy Pelosi is not going to get her opportunity to impeach the president of the United States.”
Bannon, in his 40-minute address, didn’t disappoint an adoring crowd, casting himself as a populist conservative and political pugilist who has kicked off an epic battle between old guard, establishment Republicans and his army of activist followers in the 2018 midterms.
To many in the audience who greeted Bannon’s speech with cheers and shouts, the Breitbart executive’s decision to take his fight to solidly blue California — a state where Democrats hold a 15-point voter registration advantage, every major statewide office and super-majorities in both houses of the legislature — served as a shot of adrenaline to a state party that has slipped to near irrelevance.
Some Republicans greeted Bannon’s choice of targets with praise.
Harmeet Dhillon, the San Francisco attorney who is also a member of the Republican National Committee — and who represents James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired earlier this year after writing a controversial memo on diversity — said she welcomed Bannon’s focus on Silicon Valley.
“For every James Damore, there’s a thousand others who get fired,’’ said Dhillon, who has also represented UC Berkeley College Republicans in their efforts to bring conservative speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. “Silicon Valley corporations like Twitter, Google…systematically suppress the voices of conservative bloggers, voices and citizens. So think they should be taken to task on free speech issues.”
But other activists in attendance expressed concerns that Bannon was overly divisive.
Conyers Davis, who worked in George W. Bush’s administration, said after the speech that Bannon’s rhetoric was “really scary,” contrasting it with what he called a message of civility from Bush in New York the previous day.
Bush, he said, is a “proven winner. And if you look at the current administration, they’re doing anything but winning.”
Yet Bannon’s attacks on establishment politicians were generally well received. When he mentioned Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain — the former POW whose name was met with boos — someone in the audience yelled, “Hang him!”
Here in Orange County, the once-vaunted stronghold of Republican conservatism, Bannon’s presence fired up hard-right conservatives who charged that the collapse of the California GOP is directly related to efforts to moderate the party message and capitulate on issues like illegal immigration, anti-terrorism efforts, free trade and globalism.
“Intellectually and ideologically, the energy of what is left of the conservative movement here is absolutely with Bannon — and he’s the only reason a lot of these people are coming to the convention,’’ said Tim Donnelly, a former state assemblyman and co-founder of the Minutemen — and a self-declared member of Bannon’s “anti-establishment” wing of the party.
Bannon’s draw is that he represents the “complete opposite” of establishment state GOP leaders like its chairman Jim Brulte, a former state senator, whom Donnelly charged has “turned the party into “Democrats lite,’’ and “wants to hand over the state to people who are in the country illegally, at the cost of the future of California’s kids.”
Donnelly last week became the first California candidate to seize on Bannon’s call for “war,’’ and launched a challenge against GOP Rep. Paul Cook, charging that he alone will “have President Trump’s back” on key issues. Donnelly met with Bannon prior to the speech — but the Breitbart executive has yet to endorse any candidates in California races.
Bannon sought to reassure the embattled party activists that the GOP could take back the reins in a majority-minority state that is increasingly tacking to the left.
“It looks like now, it’s impossible to do anything in California,’’ he said. “The media’s against you, the culture’s against you…[but] you have got everything you need to win…you’ve got big ideas, you have the grassroots, you’ve got muscle.”
He urged conservatives to support Trump’s agenda,’’ adding “the future of this state is in your hands, I mean that.”
Bannon is not universally known among California Republicans, but he has considerable support. Among California Republicans, 41 percent view Bannon favorably and 33 percent unfavorably, according to a poll of California voters by Sextant Strategies for Capitol Weekly.
Still, some centrist Republicans expressed concern that Bannon’s appearance would be taken as a signal that in California — birthplace of the Reagan Revolution — the GOP grassroots is ready to embrace some of the strategist’s nationalist positions.
Luis Alvarado, a longtime party strategist who has declared himself a #NeverTrump Republican, said he could only hope that Bannon’s address “will not be something that causes harm” — a reference to white nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic groups who have appeared to be energized by both Breitbart coverage and Bannon himself.
Democrats wasted no time fundraising on Bannon’s address, with Congresswoman Nanette Barragan sending out a letter reminding Democrats that “the same guy who runs a website promoting white supremacists and Neo-Nazis is being embraced by California Republicans.”
And billionaire activist Tom Steyer — who is reported to be launching a $10 million ad campaign aimed to getting out a message to impeach Trump — tweeted that “California is doing just fine without the racist, divisive blather that Mr. Bannon is peddling.”