Thursday 18 October 2018

Army of Trump 'mini-mes' aims to unseat Republicans

Alt-right: Steve Bannon Photo: AP
Alt-right: Steve Bannon Photo: AP

Ben Riley-Smith in Washington DC

One is a stetson-wearing Alabaman who said gay sex should be illegal. Another is a security mogul recently living in Abu Dhabi. A third is dubbed "Chemtrail Kelly" for an event discussing if jet vapours were used for mind control. And then there is the convicted felon.

Meet the Donald Trump "mini-mes" looking to upend the Republican Party establishment and storm Congress. This "motley crew" lies at the heart of a civil war raging in Washington DC, the outcome of which will have a profound impact on the presidency.

In their sights are the Republican incumbents up for re-election next year but vulnerable from a challenge within their own party. While backgrounds may differ, they have one thing in common - the zeal of an outsider that has left the party's base energised and its leaders shaking in their boots.

"There's a time and season for everything," announced Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief of staff, this month. "Right now it's a season of war against a GOP establishment."

His speech - aimed at the "Grand Old Party", the Republicans - included a direct threat to those senators seen as opposing Trump. "Nobody can run and hide on this one," Bannon said. "These folks are coming for you. The day of taking a few nice conservative votes and hiding is over."

An explanation for the fury can be found in the last nine months. Since taking office, Trump has failed to pass a single piece of major legislation. That is all the more glaring given the Republicans, Trump's party, hold majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

It has left the US president fuming, often publicly, at his colleagues on Capitol Hill and riled up his support base. Now they are taking direct action.

Bannon is touring the country meeting candidates and donors to find politicians who back Trump's agenda and can beat Republicans seeking re-nomination. By his side is Sebastian Gorka, another Trump adviser from the populist wing who left the White House this summer to campaign from the outside.

Gorka is scathing about senior Republicans and unapologetic about seeking their demise. "Very simply, the Republican establishment, especially the leadership, has betrayed the electorate in terms of what they promised to do," he said.

"If they're not spoiling Trump's agenda - and in cases like John McCain they are doing everything they can to undermine the president - then the fact is they are not doing anything for him."

The strategy has already paid dividends. Roy Moore, he of the stetson hat, successfully beat incumbent Senator Luther Strange to selection in Alabama. Many more are lining up to follow the same path: Kelli Ward in Arizona, Erik Prince in Wyoming, Michael Grimm in New York.

The candidates could even get some support from the man they call "Mr Brexit" - former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He appeared on stage to support Roy Moore - triggering outcry at home - and does not rule out similar trips again. "I have a following with the base here, of that there's no doubt," Farage said, referring to his US trip last year to defend Trump when few others would.

"Steve Bannon is absolutely determined to rid the Republican Party of its establishment wing," he added. "Anyone that underestimates him is making a huge mistake."

Yet the risk is obvious. Like the Tea Party before it, this new insurgent movement could ultimately undermine the cause by replacing electable candidates with losers.

Moore, having dispatched his Republican rival, is now facing a tight race against the Democrat opponent for the seat in Alabama, famous for its conservatism. Losing just a handful of seats next year would be enough to flip the Senate and give Trump's opponents a majority.


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