I was sitting at a mahogany table in the great “Breitbart Embassy” hall when a frowning, triplicate Steve Bannon suggested I join him on a trip to Laredo, Texas. With a mischievous grin, he insisted that such an expedition convince me of the need for more draconian border security measures.
Listening to this pitch was one of those record scratch freeze frame moments in life. Even as it happened, I remember being surprised by how absurd it was for me to find myself there. It was August 2014 and Steve Bannon was not yet an “Evil Mastermind on the Cover of Time Steve Bannon,” but Breitbart’s ascension was in full swing. The website was home to the populist, nativist, culturally conservative #war against the old-fashioned RINO elites. And there I was a gay, immigrant-loving establishment Bushie discussing a post-election holiday with the future revolutionary who openly planned to destroy all the politicians I admired.
I’d be lying if I denied having seriously considered joining him on this Rio Grande Dreamer Cruise for the sake of the story, the weird life experience, and most importantly, the relationship. I thought he could be deployed to serve my clients and candidates, the primary goal of a political advisor. As such, I haven’t thought about the sacrifices such relationship building might require. My job at America Rising, an opposition research firm, was to use media contacts to pep up my clients and destroy the competition. It’s a job that often involves dealing with unsavory characters with questionable journalistic ethics. The line between dealing with Bannon and others seemed blurred. Where was a professional PR guy supposed to sign it? It was a question that required more reflection than I gave it.
In an email to Bannon after the meeting, I wrote, “I want to go to the border! Let’s do it in November.” He replied, “K…I will organize a trip for right after the election…some guys are going to the islands America Rising is going to Laredo!!!” (Yes, Steve Bannon is a guy with multiple exclamation marks in emails. Now you know.)
Our Juarez fantasy never came true, but that meeting did lead to a multi-year casual working relationship where Bannon and I would collaborate on a story or issue in which we had common interests, despite deeply conflicting values and grand goals. Sometimes, of course, our target was a Democrat, but on other occasions there was a Republican primary where Bannon would support the cryptofascist and I would support the moderate squish and we would make a common cause by tainting the plain old Republican in the middle.
This was the case during the 2016 primaries, when I Jeb Bush campaign liaison with Bannon, kinda standard. I don’t think any of the other senior staff had ever spoken to him, or if they had, they weren’t very interested in doing it again. As a result, my “relationship” paid some internal dividends. It enabled me to get early information about the content from his colleague Peter Swiss‘s upcoming anti-Jeb polemical ebook, Bush Bucks, which turned out to be a dud. It also gave me the opportunity to bring the candidates I saw at the time as our rivals in the establishment ‘job’ to their knees, so that it was when they would come into contact with the Breitbart base.
These exchanges were made possible by the time I spent at the Breitbart Embassy, a mansion in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC that served as the headquarters for the website, a gathering place for “anti-establishment” Republicans, a crash pad for Breitbart employees, and a party venue where they would host the establishments they pretended to hate but were actually obsessed with. The house’s most distinctive feature is a replica of the Lincoln bedroom, just off the second-floor staircase. It is said that Bannon slept there for a while and maybe even lived there, but I never had the nerve to ask him if that was the case. His wrinkled clothes that first afternoon certainly suggested he may have just rolled out of bed, but then again, Trump didn’t call him “Sloppy Steve” for nothing. My cousins would have called him a hoosier.