It can be hard to keep track of who’s up and who’s down in our nation’s Gonzo Presidency.
Just days ago, as I was finishing Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain, the book’s central figure, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, was still rumored to have the president’s ear, phoning in to the Oval Office to give political advice even after his support of accused child molester Roy Moore gave Democrats a Senate seat in Alabama, the reddest of red states. But the day I began writing this, the president broke with his long-time consigliere, issuing a blistering public repudiation saying, among other things, “When [Bannon] was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
At times like these, it can be hard to take the occupants of the White House seriously as anything other than smack-talking stars of a not-especially-convincing politically themed reality TV show. But we need to take Donald Trump and Steve Bannon very seriously because one of them is president of the United States and the other is the man who got him there.
This is precisely the virtue of Green’s absorbing book: It takes Trump and Bannon seriously, not as the overgrown teenagers they seem so intent on playing on TV, but as two canny media manipulators who, together, won the most powerful political office in the world.
As it happens, the source of the sudden blood enmity between the two men is yet another political tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. That book has not yet been released as I write this, but going by the tabloid tone of the excerpts that have appeared in New York and The Hollywood Reporter, and the scabrously critical quotes from Bannon and others that have leaked elsewhere, Fire and Fury is likely to become the one Trump/Bannon book most people will read.
This is unfortunate because while Green doesn’t quote Bannon accusing the president’s son of treason or offer juicy peeks at Trump’s efforts to keep the White House staff away from his toothbrush, Devil’s Bargain is the first thing I’ve read in the last year and a half that manages to make some sense of the human catastrophic weather event that is Steve Bannon. And make sense of him we must. Now that Trump has cut ties with him, Bannon may well fade from public consciousness as have many other one-time right-wing stars like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck before him. But that won’t change the fact that Bannon did more than anyone besides Trump himself to elect a politically naive reality TV star president of the United States.
That, of course, isn’t how Trump sees it. In his incendiary public statement announcing his break from Bannon, Trump noted that Bannon joined the 2016 campaign only after Trump had won the Republican nomination, adding: “Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country.”
This, as is the case with so much the president says when he’s in a mood, is demonstrably untrue. Green persuasively argues that Bannon, who first met Trump in 2011, offered the future president two services without which Trump never could have won: first, “a fully formed, internally coherent worldview…about trade and foreign threats,” and, second, a turn-key ready “infrastructure of conservative organizations” that had spent decades attacking his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Indeed, at times reading Green’s book, one comes away with the gnawing sense that Trump did not so much win the 2016 election as happen to be the guy who benefitted when the darker forces on America’s right wing finally succeeded in destroying Hillary after failing to drive her husband from office in the 1990s.
Bannon, Green maintains, deserves credit for being at the center of this effort. Now, before we go too far down that road, it should be noted that Bannon is clearly the source of much of Devil’s Bargain and that, like everyone else in Trumpland, Bannon has a habit of taking credit for every least thing that happens, including the sun rising in the morning. But Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, has done some important journalistic spadework, including deep dives into the sources of Bannon’s political philosophy and the inner machinery of his political and media operations, that lends credence to the pivotal role Bannon played in Trump’s improbable rise.
Among the more fascinating nuggets Green has unearthed is the fact that, before he ran for president, Donald Trump, the TV star, was wildly popular among immigrants and African Americans. Starting from its debut season, when its breakout star was a black Howard University grad student named Omarosa Manigault, The Apprentice was not only unusually integrated for a prime-time American TV show, but presented minority contestants as striving, ambitious entrepreneurs. As a result, Green reports, “the audience that tuned into The Celebrity Apprentice was among the most liberal in all of prime-time television, owing in no small part to the large number of minority viewers Trump attracted.”
It was this popularity among liberal-leaning minority audiences that Trump torched when he chose to enter the national arena by questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Thus, it was in a certain way fortuitous for Trump that he was able to graft Bannon’s hard-right focus on traditional values and nationalist policies onto his own ever-shifting worldview. Even “the Wall,” Trump’s signature campaign pledge, turns out to have been “a trick, a mnemonic device,” according to Green, who quotes Trump staffer Sam Nunberg saying he and fellow campaign operative Roger Stone came up with the line about building a border wall in 2014 as a way “to make sure [Trump] talked about immigration.”
But perhaps the most decisive gift Bannon offered Trump was access to a vast, well-financed machinery designed to take down Trump’s general election opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the early 2000s, Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who owes his personal fortune to, of all things, a stake in Seinfeld reruns he picked up in a deal, began making political documentaries. The films don’t seem to have made much of a ripple in of themselves, but they put Bannon in contact with fringe right-wing figures like David Bossie, president of the anti-Clinton group Citizens United, and reclusive hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who financed Bannon’s political and media operations.
It was the Mercer-funded outfits, chief among them the feisty alt-right news site Breitbart News and the lesser known Government Accountability Institute, a Florida-based research group, that played the largest roles in the 2016 campaign. In Devil’s Bargain, Green outlines a two-pronged media strategy in which Breitbart administered daily doses of political provocation aimed at the alt-right masses while the research group played the long game of digging up just enough legitimate dirt on Clinton that the mainstream media would have to pick up the story. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon tells Green. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”
This, it strikes me, is the true genius of Steve Bannon. His politics are a muddle of white-identity grievances and crackpot theories, his nose for political talent is dubious at best, and he has a singular gift for self-destruction. But the man understands systems. Peel away the revolutionary bluster and the three-day stubble and you have a Goldman Sachs banker engaging in a smart bit of media arbitrage. Bannon recognized that the mainstream media, despite its liberal lean, was willing to go after Clinton, but didn’t have the resources. So, leveraging the Mercers’ millions, he provided those resources for them, financing a team of data scientists who scoured the deep web for unreported donors to the Clinton Foundation who may have benefited financially from their relationship with the Clintons. They hit pay dirt in the form of a book called Clinton Cash, which sped to the bestsellers list and spawned multiple independent media investigations, including one that landed on the front page of The New York Times, setting off the first of a cascade of scandals that painted Clinton as incorrigibly corrupt.
As I write this, The Washington Post is reporting that Rebekah Mercer, one of Bannon’s earliest and most prolific political patrons, has also broken with him and sided with President Trump. For now, Bannon remains in charge of Breitbart News, but he may be thrown under that bus before long, too, leaving the man the national press once portrayed as the mastermind of the Trump administration as little more than a national punchline.
If that happens—and given the post-resignation track record of so many senior Trump aides, it would hardly be surprising—the currency of Devil’s Bargain will no doubt fade as well. That would be a shame because whatever you may think of Steve Bannon, he saw better than almost anyone else how to exploit the vulnerabilities in the modern media landscape to elect a man president. Many of those vulnerabilities still exist, and anyone who wants to elect the next Donald Trump—or to prevent his election—had better understand what Bannon saw.