Steve Bannon speaks

Steve Bannon, the controversial former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, was the featured speaker at the Citadel Republican Society student organization's Patriot Dinner in the Holliday Alumni Center on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff​

 When former White House adviser Steve Bannon walked onstage Friday night to address a sold-out crowd at the Citadel Republican Society's annual Patriot Dinner, he was welcomed like a rock-star.

Cadets whooped and hollered in their woolen dress uniforms. A man wearing a coat and tie pulled out a red towel, waving it high in the air. Even the three Republicans in the room who are hoping to be the next governor of South Carolina tripped over themselves to align their campaigns with Bannon and his populist message that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. 

"The majority of the people in this room, in this state and in this country agree that the entrenched, establishment interests of both parties are the major reason why people are fed up with their government," said Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, one of the 2018 candidates for governor.

Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, who is also running to be the state's chief executive, called Bannon "a patriot, a fighter and a conservative who speaks for the rest of us." She introduced him to the audience as her friend. 

Even Gov. Henry McMaster, who showed up late and had to watch Bannon's speech from the back of the room, scurried to the podium after Bannon's remarks to remind the crowd he nominated Trump for president at the Republican National Convention.

Turning to look at Bannon, McMaster added, "Nobody did more to elect Donald Trump than Steve Bannon."

But Bannon did not give any endorsement during his nearly 45-minute speech.

Instead, he played to the room: Mocking Hillary Clinton, taking digs at the media and defending Republican Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore.

"Until I see additional evidence on Judge Moore, I'm standing with him," he said, in relation to a recent Washington Post story contending Moore had sexual contact with a teen-aged girl in the 1970s when he was 32.

Bannon relished in recounting the glory of Trump's surprise victory. The audience of more than 250 people cheered as he retold the tale.

"So how did we do it? In 85 days, how did we do this? It's called unity. It’s called a coalition," the chairman of the right-leaning Breitbart News told a cheering crowd.

"When we won at 2:30 in the morning, the next morning, I went in it was like it was the hand of divine providence that won that," he said.

Mid-speech, though, the protests that had begun across the street made its way inside when a woman began shouting at Bannon. "It wasn't the divine!" she shouted as the audience began booing her. Bannon waited, cracked a joke about his ex-wife and then retorted, "You've got the right for free speech — outside."

Several Charleston-area groups gathered in protest shortly before 4 p.m. outside of Johnson Hagood Stadium, hours before Bannon was scheduled to speak at the Holliday Alumni Center. They came from variety of backgrounds and included at least a few military veterans as well as Citadel alumni.

Robert Swartzel, a Charleston resident who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, said he was upset that public money was being used to provide security for the event, in the form of law enforcement personnel providing security in the area.

Asked how he felt upon hearing that Bannon would be speaking at the dinner, Swartzel said he was disappointed.

"I would have thought that (Citadel President) Gen. Rosa had better common sense then to let a fascist, Nazi, race-baiting (expletive) show up," he said.

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Citadel alumna Heather Hall, who graduated in 2017 with a master's degree in education, said outside the venue that she was disappointed Bannon was speaking on campus. 

"It doesn't represent The Citadel at all," she said.

To Bannon and the attendees inside, though, the protest across the street was just noise.

"It's time for us to get angry again. November 8th is just one day. We have to work every day on this," Bannon said, ending  his speech by calling for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to resign.

Cindy Risher came from Summerton to attend the dinner. Dressed from head to toe in an American flag-inspired outfit complete with jewel-encrusted tie, she beamed after Bannon spoke. 

"The event was absolutely fabulous," she said. "Bannon was straight-up, forward and well-represented Republican values."

Reporter Gregory Yee contributed to this report.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.