Bannon and allies bid to expand pro-Trump influence in local US politics

Key Donald Trump loyalists Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn are at the forefront of a drive to expand Trumpist influence at the local level of US politics while forging ahead with efforts aimed at promoting baseless claims that Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory was fraudulent.

The growing drive by Trump’s hardcore allies has spurred election watchdog groups to voice alarm about the threat to democracy posed by Flynn and Bannon – and other Trump acolytes – as they combine debunked claims about election fraud and calls for further 2020 election audits with planning conservative takeovers of official positions that run US elections.

The moves come a year after the attack on the Capitol in Washington when a pro-Trump mob invaded the building in an attempt to stop the certification of Biden’s election victory.

Flynn and Bannon, using varying paths, have focused new energy on increasing conservative influence by recruiting more allies for key posts at the local and precinct level with an eye on the 2022 and 2024 elections, and building more political alliances on issues such as vaccine requirements and mask mandates.

The strategies Flynn and Bannon are deploying overlap those of other conservative outfits, such as the influential youth group Turning Point USA, to expand the pro-Trump base at the precinct level, and work to elect Trump-backed politicians to key posts such as secretary of state in Georgia, Arizona and other battleground states.

Flynn and Bannon have separately relied on a mix of non-profit groups, including one backed by the multimillionaire Patrick Byrne, conservative social media outlets favored by the far right like Telegram, and events that convey evangelical Christian messages with political disinformation.

Bannon, for instance, has used his War Room podcast to espouse plans for “taking over the Republican party through the precinct committee strategy” and invited would-be candidates to appear as guests. The podcast, which has tens of millions of downloads, has found a large and receptive conservative following.

Flynn, meanwhile, touts the adage that “local action has national impact” and has been a star speaker in several key states at “ReAwaken America” events, which are dubbed “health and freedom” conferences and combine evangelical themes with misinformation about the 2020 election and vaccine skepticism.

The conservative crusades by Flynn and Bannon come after Trump pardoned them post-election for lying to the FBI and fraud respectively. Bannon and Flynn also were central actors with other Trump loyalists in scheming about ways to block Congress from certifying Biden’s election, efforts that are under scrutiny as part of a House select committee investigation of the deadly Capitol attack by hundreds of Trump supporters.

As they have carved out new roles in the conservative ecosystem, Flynn and Bannon still support Trump’s conspiratorial claims that he lost in 2020 due to massive cheating, a mantra that reinforces their drives to expand local and state electoral influence to give Republicans a better shot at recapturing Congress next year, and the White House in 2024.

“We’re seeing a dangerous trend of election deniers lining up to fill election administration positions across the country,” Joanna Lydgate, chief executive of the States United Democracy Center, said in a statement to the Guardian. “And the efforts by Flynn, Bannon and other promoters of the big lie are all part of this playbook to hijack elections in 2022 and 2024 if their preferred candidate doesn’t win.”

Likewise, as they have revved up political work on multiple fronts, the two ex-Trump advisers have taken more extremist stances sparking strong criticism.

Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general, has been skewered for his authoritarian style advocacy of “one religion” for America, and for speaking at some events with heavy presences by adherents of QAnon conspiracy movement. Flynn’s call for “one religion” came during a talk to a conservative Christian audience in Texas on the ReAwaken America tour in November.

“If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion,” Flynn said. “One nation under God and one religion under God, right? All of us, working together.”

Flynn’s feature role at ReAwaken America meetings in several states such as Michigan and Florida is hardly an accident, according to Byrne, the multimillionaire founder of the America Project that counts Flynn as special adviser and spokesperson.

Byrne, who has joined Flynn at some ReAwaken rallies, said in text messages that he and Flynn had a large hand in launching the ReAwaken tour during the spring by bankrolling the events with some “tens of thousands of dollars” from the America Project.

Overall, Byrne said that the America Project has raised about $9.5m, of which he donated close to $7m. Byrne and the America Project poured over $3m into a months-long audit of Arizona’s largest county, which Trump was banking on to find major fraud, but which resulted in no significant changes to Biden’s win there or overall in the state, much to Trump’s dismay.

Byrne said the project has helped promote audits in other states besides Arizona. Boasting a net worth pegged at about $75m, Byrne is the ex-chief executive of furniture retailer Overstock.

Byrne texted that he didn’t vote for Trump, and deems himself a “rule of law” advocate who claims there’s still a “mountain of evidence” to support the widely debunked allegations of fraud.

Byrne’s project has had no dearth of Trump links. The project’s president until late last month was Emily Newman, a former Trump aide. Newman, along with Byrne and Flynn, attended a meeting in December 2020 with Trump about ways to block Biden taking office where Flynn touted the option of declaring martial law and deploying the military to rerun the election in key states Trump lost, according to multiple reports.

Flynn’s brother, Joe Flynn, has succeeded Newman as the project’s president, Byrne said.

On top of his work with the America Project, Flynn’s focus on expanding the Maga base at the local level increased when he became chairman in May of another non-profit, America’s Future, which, in turn, has partnered with Turning Point USA and others to form a larger alliance dubbed County Citizens Defending Freedom USA.

The county citizens group has sponsored an array of training programs, protests and candidate meetings with a focus on mask mandates, vaccine requirements and critical race theory, according to Florida lawyer Ron Filipkowski, a former prosecutor who authored a Washington Post article on the wave of local drives by Trump backers.

For his part, Bannon’s heavy emphasis on a local “precinct strategy” to help Republican’s electoral fortunes combines conspiratorial and apocalyptic bravado.

Bannon told CNN in December that his War Room podcast is an organizing tool to expand Trump’s base. “It’s about winning elections with the right people – Maga people,” Bannon said. “We will have our people in at every level.”

“We’re taking over all the elections,” Bannon said in November on his War Room podcast.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of [last year’s election] and we’re going to decertify the electors. And you’re going to have a constitutional crisis. But you know what? We’re a big and tough country, and we can handle that, we’ll be able to handle that. We’ll get through that.”

Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University, told the Guardian that much of Bannon’s political messaging has relied on alternative social media channels such as Telegram that appeal to conservative and far right allies to spread pro Trump gospel and help broaden the Maga base at the local level.

To Squire, Bannon’s rhetoric and large audience look increasingly dangerous.

“After being de-platformed from mainstream social media over the past year, Bannon has been promoting ‘alternative’, permissive social media channels such as Telegram and Gettr. There his listeners are able to amplify and intensify Bannon’s messaging into a 24-hour-a-day echo chamber filled with disinformation, scams, and conspiracy theories.”

For Lydgate, the chief executive of the States United Democracy Center, the multi-front drives by Bannon, Flynn and other key Trump loyalists pose serious risks for the integrity of future elections.

“They want to sow doubt in our democracy and make it easier to undermine the will of American voters.”

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