Over the span of several days this month, the pro-Trump, nationalist website Breitbart distanced itself from Paul Nehlen after the Wisconsin businessman-turned-conservative-candidate went on anti-Semitic and white-power rants.
Nehlen had been a columnist for Breitbart and his page there was stripped of its content and their relationship severed. But beyond his writing, he had also been a vehicle for Breitbart’s staff to torment House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Nehlen challenged Ryan in the GOP primary in 2016, only to lose by a massive margin. He is running again in 2018. And, until recently, had at least the implicit backing of Breitbart.
But while the website may have dropped the candidate, it hasn’t dropped his electoral cause. Breitbart staffers told The Daily Beast that they remain committed to going after Ryan even if it won’t be done via a primary challenge in 2018.
“We always understood that Nehlen was not going to win,” said a senior Breitbart staffer. “The whole point [of supporting him in ‘16] was it forced a trade policy debate and Ryan flipped on TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal]. It was a huge deal. Now, is that the only way we can go after the Speaker? No. There is a number of things we can do.”
Breitbart’s crusade against Ryan dates back years. The site and its CEO, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, have long considered the Speaker a “globalist” squish and an enemy of their brand of conservatism. But in recent weeks and months, Ryan has fallen down the target sheet. It was his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who primarily came under Breitbart and Bannon’s fire, especially after lawmakers in that chamber failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. McConnell and Breitbart found themselves on opposite sides of increasingly bitter primary fights as well, most notably and recently in Alabama where the senator backed his colleague Luther Strange (R-AL) and the website championed the far-right upstart—and general election loser—Roy Moore.
As those feuds played out, Ryan proved to be increasingly in lock step with Trump’s agenda. And with whispers turning into murmurs turning into reports that the Speaker was considering retirement, his utility as a punching bag for the nationalist right has become diminished, one source close to Bannon acknowledged.
Inside Breitbart and Bannon’s political orbit, however, there is little appetite to let Ryan coast into 2018 or a new career. Staffers there say they plan to wage war on him should he allow a deal to codify legal protections for DREAMers—undocumented children—pass through the House.