However Donald Trump’s presidency ends, if we can look back we’ll want to know, really, how it all came about – perhaps so we can prevent anything similar happening again.
In my previous Northern Review, I looked at one side of last year’s political equation; why Hillary Clinton didn’t win – here, a new book lets us see up-close one of the reasons why Trump did.
The two campaigns painted contrasting pictures of what American politics had become, yet an important thing both stories have in common is that no-one, with very few exceptions, took Trump seriously as a politician, let alone as a potential President. One man who did – eventually – was Steve Bannon, who saw the real estate mogul as the ideal vehicle to advance his populist vision.
This compelling book, by Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Joshua Green, who has been writing about Bannon for several years, describes in often graphic detail the role he played running Trump’s campaign and then, post-election, as his Chief Strategist.
It’s probably symbolic that the White House is being refurbished this week, with the President ensconced at his New Jersey golf club; not just because the current occupant of the Oval Office may have infamously called it “a dump”, but because the rapid turnover of senior staff has left the People’s House looking disorganized, in dire need of discipline and direction.
Yet through it all, Bannon has remained a constant; “a sign of the authentic connection” between President and his base, Green told Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post this week. “The one thing Trump fears most in the world is losing that connection and losing that support to his base, to his voters, and therefore I don’t think he’s going to push Bannon out.”
When Bannon was dramatically brought on board to run the Trump campaign a year ago this month, effectively replacing the sidelined Paul Manafort, the New York Times described the move as “the political equivalent of ordering comfort food.” Prior to joining the Trump Train, Bannon had been chairman of Breitbart News, the strident online voice of the far-right, which had been ranged against establishment Republicans (and there is one particularly foul-mouthed description by Bannon of House Speaker Paul Ryan) almost as enthusiastically as against Hillary Clinton. Significantly, Bannon had hosted a daily call-in show which gave him a direct line to the thinking of potential Trump supporters.
And as Green describes, Bannon’s understanding of that mindset helped him craft the idea of Trump as the figurehead not of a political campaign but of a populist movement. The book helps illuminate how the two men – from differing economic and cultural backgrounds – came to find each other and together orchestrate the most remarkable upset in modern political history.
The Devil’s Bargain of the title comes from Green’s description of his first meeting with Bannon in 2011 – at a time when Bannon believed that former Vice-Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin might have been the personality by which he could fulfill his aspirations – and highlights the uncertain trade-off between the skilled political operative who can put their candidate in a position of power, but with no guarantee that they will follow through on enacting a particular agenda.
As well as looking at campaign techniques and the growth of what the New York Times called a kind of “alt-GOP”, the book also examines the intellectual origins of Bannon’s form of nationalism and how he encouraged Trump to take a hard line on the emotional issue of immigration. Green told C-Span recently that immigration, overlaid onto an appeal to disaffected blue-collar voters, may have been the single issue that carried Trump to victory.
In a chapter entitled “Honest Populism,” Green describes Trump’s impact on the Republican party:
For all the drama he created, Trump alone had intuited that standard Republican dogma no longer appealed to large swaths of the party base. In fact, voters had grown frustrated, even disgusted, by the politicians who purveyed it. While overshadowed by his feuds and insults, Trump had conveyed and defended a clear set of ideas that drew record numbers of Republican primary voters, even though they frequently cut against right-wing orthodoxy: protect Social Security and Medicare benefits, defend Planned Parenthood, restrict free trade, avoid foreign entanglements, deport illegal immigrants and build a wall. Trump had arrived at these heterodox views by doing exactly what politicians were supposed to do: listening to voters…
When you look at the voters, you see they want hope. There’s no hope. No hope. We’re taking care of everybody else. I’m for making America first.. Five, ten years from now – different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party.
Green’s access to Bannon over an extended period, as well as a range of other inside sources means that, literally on every other page there’s some kind of stunning backstage scene that gives an insight into the rolling infighting and the strategic agenda of the Trump campaign, and what that portended for the administration.
Bannon is often described as anything from a “svengali” to, according to a dark Time magazine cover story, “The Great Manipulator,” which asked if he was the “second most powerful man in the world?” A New York Times editorial was simply headed “President Bannon”. Trump, meanwhile, apparently irked by the idea of sharing the limelight with anyone, seems to have been particularly irritated by a Saturday Night Live sketch portraying Bannon as the “real” President, in the guise of the Grim Reaper.
Just this week, it was reported Trump was upset about the book, apparently saying he hates it “when people take credit for an election I won.” But there can be no doubt after reading this of the crucial influence of Bannon, and how Breitbart’s disinformation created the environment in which the appeal of Trump’s campaign could take root.
So, if you’re looking for reasons why someone like Bannon – and indeed someone like Trump – can succeed, particularly in the face of seeming conventional wisdom, and why politics will likely never be the same again, a good companion volume to this book will be one coming out next month by Kurt Andersen, entitled “Fantasyland – How America Went Haywire”. In it, he writes:
Trump took a key piece of cynical wisdom about show business—the most important thing is sincerity, and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made—to a new level: His actual thuggish sincerity is the opposite of the old-fashioned, goody-goody sanctimony that people hate in politicians.
If he were just a truth-telling wise guy, however, he wouldn’t have won. Trump’s genius was to exploit the skeptical disillusion with politics—there’s too much equivocating; democracy’s a charade—but also to pander to Americans’ magical thinking about national greatness. Extreme credulity is a fraternal twin of extreme skepticism.
“I will give you everything,” Trump actually promised during the campaign. Yes: “Every dream you’ve ever dreamed for your country” will come true.
Devil’s Bargain – Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency (2017) is published by Penguin Press.
Also published on Medium.