On the night of Nov. 14, Roy Moore’s campaign for an Alabama Senate seat looked all but finished.
After five women came forward with accounts of Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct with them as teenagers, including one who was 14 years old, the GOP candidate was abandoned by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many Republicans in Congress, and the Republican National Committee cut off his funding.
But it was an ultimatum from Fox News host Sean Hannity, delivered on his Nov. 14 broadcast, that posed the direst threat. “For me, the judge has 24 hours,” Hannity told his viewers, after excoriating Moore. “You must immediately and fully come up with a satisfactory explanation for your inconsistencies.” He added, “If you can’t do this, then Judge Moore needs to get out of the race.” In 2017, a Republican candidate can overcome disapproval from party leaders, but losing the conservative media is usually fatal.
Four weeks later, Moore’s situation has entirely turned around: He not only survived, but leads his Democratic opponent in most polls. President Donald Trump has forcefully endorsed him. The RNC restored his funding. McConnell stopped saying he should quit and now says the people of Alabama should decide his fate. Most Republican voters there have decided the allegations are false: A CBS News poll found that 71 percent don’t believe them. Hannity, too, is back in the fold and a big reason why Moore received a hero’s welcome at a Dec. 5 barn rally in Fairhope, Alabama.
Rather than bury Moore, conservative media resurrected him — and the party followed. It did so thanks largely to the influence of the man who introduced Moore in Fairhope: Steve Bannon. “The whole thing was a setup, right?” the former White House chief strategist told the roaring crowd.
Through his staff at Breitbart News, his talk radio show, and his allies in politics and media — Hannity among them — Bannon has worked harder than perhaps anyone else to sow doubt about the accusations against Moore and to push the claim that his accusers are lying. In doing so, he’s illustrated the growing power of conservative media to shape the perceptions of Republican voters, something that may keep Alabama’s Senate seat in Republican hands when polls open on Tuesday.
No one appreciates Bannon’s efforts more than the candidate only recently left for dead. “He’s the counter to the ‘fake news’ — he’s been a stalwart,” says Roy Moore. “It’s helped us a lot. He’s the master strategist.”
Bannon’s efforts to save Moore from the fallout from the first Washington Post story laying out the accusations predate its publication on Nov. 9. Tipped by the Moore campaign, Breitbart News published word of its impending arrival in an article intended to undermine the charges by Leigh Corfman that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with her when she was 14. That did little to blunt Republican outrage in Congress or the White House. Although Trump was traveling abroad and didn’t comment, aide Kellyanne Conway said the behavior attributed to Moore “would be disqualifying for anyone in public office.”
Bannon dispatched Breitbart reporters to Alabama to discredit the Post story. He was so certain they would turn up evidence of collusion and unravel the Post story that he publicly predicted as much during a Nov. 10 speech in South Carolina. “They’re finding some collusion going on in stories about Judge Moore,” he said, while accepting the Citadel Republican Society’s Nathan Hale Patriot Award. “I think you’ll see tomorrow.”
‘Special Place in Hell’
Evidence of collusion between Moore’s accusers and the press never materialized. Instead, Moore’s situation worsened, not least because of an interview he gave to Hannity’s radio show that same day. Asked if he had pursued teenage girls as a grown man, Moore replied, “generally, no” but added that he’d “dated a lot of young ladies,” had known some of his accusers, and “if we did go on dates, then we did.” The performance didn’t help his cause. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, told the Associated Press, “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.”
Even so, Bannon was most alarmed by Hannity’s ultimatum to Moore and moved to intervene, according to three people familiar with his actions. Along with Breitbart’s Washington editor, Matthew Boyle, he besieged the Fox News host with phone calls and texts. Bannon, who recently told the New York Times that Hannity is “the single most important voice for the ‘deplorables’” — his term for Trump supporters — asked the Fox host not to call on Moore to withdraw and instead to let Alabama voters decide, said people familiar with Bannon’s activities.
One of the people said Hannity was skeptical, but willing to listen. The person said Hannity texted Boyle, “You pull this off it’s a f— miracle.” Hannity declined to comment on the text. Through a spokesperson, he denied that he was pressured by anyone.
Moore’s campaign also raced to convince Hannity within his 24-hour window, issuing a public memo — addressed “Dear Sean” — that sought to rebut the women’s allegations. “Sean is very important,” says Dean Young, Moore’s chief political strategist. “He’s a well-respected guy and we think he’s an honest man. Judge Moore is an honest guy, too, and wanted to be as clear as possible.”
The pressure campaign paid off. Even as three new accusers came forward, Hannity declared himself satisfied with Moore’s response. “I lived in Alabama,” he said. “I know these people. They’re smart, they’re great Americans — God, family, faith, country. I am very confident that when everything comes out, they will make the best decision for their state.”
It was Bannon’s message precisely. And it gave Moore the reprieve he desperately needed. The pressure to quit the race stopped building. “Steve has been a voice for the conservative movement in turning this around,” Kayla Moore, the judge’s wife, said backstage at the Fairhope rally.
Bannon worked to create a counter-narrative that ultimately would change many Republicans’ perception of the scandal. A former filmmaker, he’s long been captivated by the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker, and the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein for their power to shape public sentiment. Earlier this year, Bannon told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer his 2012 anti-Obama film “The Hope and the Change,” had consciously mimicked Riefenstahl’s infamous, “Triumph of the Will.” Her film, he added, “seared into me” that unhappy voters could be influenced if they felt they were being conned.
“Riefenstahl and Eisenstein both created an image of their nation that coalesced in the minds of citizens and shaped public opinion through narratives, which is essentially what Bannon is doing in politics,” says Nadia Szold, a filmmaker and documentarian who has studied Bannon’s films and discussed his influences with him. “They all evoke emotions like nostalgia, patriotism or paranoia that strengthen a collective sentiment.”
Building a New Narrative
In the run-up to the presidential campaign, Bannon’s narrative-building energies were chiefly directed at the mainstream media. He helped conceive and produce the book “Clinton Cash” as a way of injecting negative storylines about Hillary Clinton into major outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post to discourage potential Clinton voters and grease the skids for the Republican nominee.
In Alabama, however, Bannon needed to move Republican voters, which entailed exerting a different, more direct influence. Early on, he sent two top Breitbart editors, Boyle and Aaron Klein, to attack Moore’s critics and churn out a fusillade of stories designed to raise doubts about the motives of Moore’s accusers and the mainstream reporters covering them. The general theme, Boyle explains, was that the whole thing was a Democratic ruse abetted by a compliant liberal press: “This was a missile launched at the conservative movement by the mainstream media.”
An ardent believer in the power of talk radio, Bannon turned his daily SiriusXM radio show into the broadcasting hub of the Moore counter-narrative that was fast emerging. It disseminated Breitbart’s stories across the conservative universe, parts of which remained committed to opposing Moore. “Our voters turn to the conservative media — or what people thought was conservative — because the rest of it is fake news,” says Young. “That includes Fox News, which follows Mitch McConnell’s lead. Hannity is a bright spot there, but Fox News has gotten more liberal.”
Harnessing Talk Radio
Local talk radio was especially important because it reached voters who would decide Moore’s fate. Bannon sent his reporters to appear as guests.
“Without Bannon and Breitbart, it would have been almost impossible for us to get the message out there,” says Scott Beason, a conservative radio host whose show broadcasts weekdays on the SuperStation FM 101.1 and blankets the Huntsville and Birmingham markets. “They had a big effect. They’re giving people information that’s not making it into our local reports, that gave us a reference point to refute these stories and say, ‘Here’s the part you don’t know.’ And that often flips the situation on its head and changes people’s minds. I really believe because of the work they did that that’s how Roy Moore is going to be able to get over the hump on Tuesday.”
Although support for Moore fell sharply after the sexual misconduct allegations, it has gradually returned, something Beason attributes to four weeks of steady bludgeoning that Bannon’s operation has administered to Moore’s accusers and the mainstream press. “Not everybody listens to my radio show,” he says. “It took time to get the message out so people were hearing these things. My listeners go to the gym, or the ballpark, or Sunday school, and say, ‘Did you hear what Scott said?’”
And while Moore couldn’t count on Fox News to supply laudatory coverage, his campaign found a conservative alternative, the One America Network, an upstart competitor to Fox that had multiple crews in Alabama throughout the primary. “For us, as a network that’s continuing to grow, it was very important to our leadership that we could be a serious media organization on the ground in Alabama,” says Trey Yingst, OAN’s White House correspondent.
“They’ve gained momentum down here, I heard more and more about them,” Young said of OAN. “We get treated fairly there. When we want to get the real story out, we do it through the real conservative media.” Both Moore and his wife, Kayla, were made available to OAN for interviews, while Yingst landed an exclusive interview with Bannon after the Fairhope rally.
Throughout Moore’s scandal, Trump, who hadn’t weighed in, loomed as the ultimate determiner of the candidate’s fate. According to three people familiar with his actions, Bannon made calls to Trump and Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, urging them to withhold public comment and let the people of Alabama decide whether Moore belonged in the Senate. The Daily Beast reported that Conway also pushed the president not to condemn Moore.
Trump, an avid consumer of conservative media, especially Hannity’s show, was willing to go much further. On Nov. 26, he attacked Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, on Twitter: “The last thing we need in Alabama and the U.S. Senate is a Schumer/Pelosi puppet who is WEAK on Crime, WEAK on the Border, Bad for our Military and our great Vets, Bad for our 2nd Amendment, AND WANTS TO RAISES TAXES TO THE SKY. Jones would be a disaster!” On Dec. 4, Trump called Moore to bestow his endorsement, then tweeted, “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama,” adding “No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!”
With Trump aboard, the RNC quickly followed suit and restored funding to Moore’s campaign — news that first appeared in Breitbart. “We stand with the president,” a senior RNC official told the website.
Attacking ‘Fake News’
The next evening, rain poured down on the barn at Oak Hollow Farm, in Fairhope, where Bannon and Moore were scheduled to headline a rally. Inside, amid all the Americana, homemade signs celebrated Breitbart News (“Who’s Your News Daddy/Breitbart #1/Not Fake”), with colorful pennants devoted to Bannon and Boyle. The Chestang Bluegrass Gospel band gave way to a series of conservative speakers, who lambasted the “fake news” media to rapturous applause.
Bannon, who has toured the country delivering populist stem-winders, painted Tuesday’s election as pivotal in the battle against McConnell and the Moore’s accusers. “Don’t let them take your voice away!” he told the crowd.
As Moore began speaking, Bannon ducked backstage to sit for an interview with OAN. Then he picked up a headset and joined a live broadcast of his SiriusXM talk-radio show, fighting to be heard above the noise of the crowd. Since the scandal broke, Moore had all but vanished from TV and radio, leaving others to defend him. But as soon as he stepped off the stage, he was ushered through a door and handed a headset, so he could join Bannon’s broadcast already in progress.
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