Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon gives the keynote speech at the unity dinner fundraiser hosted by the Macomb County Republicans at the Andiamo Celebrity Showroom in Warren. Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News
Warren — Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon rallied Republicans on Wednesday night in Michigan, where he celebrated the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s election and touted it as a blueprint for GOP candidates in 2018.
“You can’t fake the Trump agenda,” Bannon said in Macomb County, where he credited blue-collar voters with helping propel Trump to victory last fall. “You have to go all in. And this agenda is a winning agenda. Do not believe the opposition party. Do not believe the fake news.”
The self-described economic nationalist who is attempting to reshape the Republican Party addressed a crowd of roughly 750 paid guests at the Andiamo Celebrity Showroom in Warren. The “unity dinner” fundraiser was hosted by the Macomb GOP and prompted protests outside.
Bannon championed the Trump agenda one night after Republican Ed Gillespie lost to Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, an outcome Democrats have framed as a repudiation of the president.
Trump had endorsed Gillespie but said Tuesday night the candidate “did not embrace me or what I stand for.” Bannon also distanced himself from Gillespie, calling him a “good guy” but saying he was “more establishment” than other Republicans who had sought the nomination.
Bannon told local Republican activists he “had to come” to Macomb County despite requests around the country for him to speak on “the high holy day of MAGA,” referencing Trump’s campaign mantra of “make America great again.”
Trump won Macomb County 54 percent to 42 percent in 2016, helping him to a 10,704-vote advantage over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Michigan. He was the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1988.
Bannon joined the Trump campaign in August 2016 and helped hone a message he said was focused around ending illegal immigration, bringing back manufacturing jobs and ending “pointless foreign wars.”
Trump “understood why Macomb County and certain areas of Michigan have gone from a global powerhouse to hollowed out,” Bannon said. The president “understood what globalism and elites in this country and other countries had done to working men and women in the United States.”
Protesters criticized Trump’s attempts to ban travel to the U.S. from some majority-Muslim countries and prohibit Transgender residents from serving in the armed forces. .
As a Trump campaign adviser, White House aide and CEO of the Breitbart news and opinion website, Bannon has “fomented white supremacy and misogynistic hate,” said Robert Fidler of the Metro-Detroit Political Action Network, which helped organize the protest.
Fidler also bashed the Macomb GOP for hosting Bannon.
“I think it’s very clear where they stand ideologically,” he said. “We feel as an organization that something this virulently evil must be resisted at all levels of society. There isn’t any room to stay neutral on this.”
Upon resigning from the Trump administration in August, Bannon returned to run Breitbart, which has been accused of publishing racially charged content while fueling the rise of the controversial “alt-right” movement.
“By definition, that puts him at least as a fellow traveler to white supremacists,” said Bruce Coppola of Macomb Township. “Unfortunately the Republican Party has really been taken over by an extremist fringe, and Mr. Bannon represents that.”
In his speech, Bannon denied any racist undertone to his policy positions.
“Economic nationalism is what binds us together,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your color is or what your religion is or what your sexual preference is. You know what it cares about: You’re a citizen of the United States.”
Meshawn Maddock of Milford, a Trump supporter who has helped organize events to support the president, dismissed demonstrator accusations that Bannon is racist.
“He’s not,” Maddock said ahead Bannon’s speech. “He is a God-loving American, he is out to clean house ... .”
Law enforcement officials closely monitored the event. Warren police were limiting access to the building, and horse-mounted deputies from the sheriff’s department in neighboring Oakland County lined the opposite side of East 14 Mile.
The Macomb GOP said tickets to Bannon’s speech sold out in less than two days. Admission cost $70 for individual tickets and up to $1,000 for a gold sponsor package that included 10 tickets with preferred seating locations, access to a VIP reception and a full page advertisement in the event program.
Several declared and potential 2018 candidates attended the dinner, including gubernatorial primary opponents Bill Schuette and Patrick Colbeck, potential candidate Brian Calley, U.S. Senate hopefuls John James and Bob Young Jr., and Attorney General hopeful Tom Leonard.
“If you think you are going to be successful in 2018 by separating yourself from our president, it’s not going to happen,” Leonard said in an introductory speech.
Colbeck told The Detroit News he was denied the chance to speak at the event despite paying for a sponsorship. A tea party favorite, the state Senator from Canton Township praised Bannon’s attacks on establishment Republicans.
“Having him outside of the administration actually helps because he doesn’t have any shackles on,” Colbeck said. “When somebody is going off and doing swamp politics, he can call them on it. There’s a lot of opportunities to do that right now in Michigan.”
Schuette, who said Macomb County could again be a key in 2018 elections, praised the event as a celebration of Trump’s victory last fall.
“These are tremendous Republicans coming together because we beat Hillary Clinton and elected Donald Trump,” Schuette said when asked about protesters outside. “Nobody in this room is in favor of white supremacy. I’m not, no one is, and that’s a fact.”
Bannon has a history of challenging Republican orthodoxy. In 2016, he helped raise the profile of a primary challenger to House Speaker Paul Ryan, and this year he has reportedly threatened to back primary challengers against all incumbent GOP senators except Ted Cruz of Texas.
He also reportedly fought with Trump’s original chief of staff Reince Priebus, who resigned, and belittled Trump’s daughter Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner before leaving the White House in August.
Trump has struggled to get his early agenda through Congress, which has tried but failed to repeal and replace the federal healthcare law known as “Obamacare.” But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been faster to back budget and tax reform plans “because we dropped the hammer on them,” Bannon said.
Maddock called GOP U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona “the biggest obstacle” to the Trump agenda and said Republicans “will start winning” if they can pass the president’s tax reform plan.
“If you are a Republican candidate anywhere in the United States and you are not on the MAGA (Make America Great Again) Trump train, you need to get out of our way,” Maddock said.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon railed on Bannon ahead of his visit, accusing him of “dog-whistle, race-baiting politics” plaguing the GOP.
“Republicans can call their dinner whatever they want, but they’re not going to paper over the civil war that’s tearing their party apart,” said Dillon, whose own party continues to deal with fallout from a divisive 2016 primary battle between nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Former President Barack Obama, a Democrat won Macomb in 2008 and 2012, when he defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 4 percent in the county. Michigan Democrats hope to regain momentum here next year as they attempt to retake the governor’s office and win other statewide races.
They can do so by stressing “bread and butter economic issues,” Dillon said, arguing Trump and Congressional Republicans have either failed to live up to campaign promises or “done the opposite” of what they pledged.
“Now we have a record from Donald Trump and other Republicans who supported him that showed the things they ran on and the appeals they made to Macomb County voters were total and utter BS,” he said.
Bannon called Macomb one of “’three to four” counties across the country that helped Trump win the 2016 and predicted it will continue to play an important role in upcoming elections.
“2018 is fast approaching, and I mean like today,” Bannon said. “They’re not going to give you your country back. You’re going to have to fight for it. You’re going to have to take it back.”