Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency (Joshua Green)

From when he won the Republican nomination, until Election Night, I told anyone who would listen that Trump would win, and win handily.  I am a Trump supporter, and voted for Trump.  I am also a big fan of Steve Bannon.  Joshua Green is none of the above—yet he has written a compelling, and insightful book, even-handed in every way, that is very much worth reading.

The dust jacket for Green’s book, Devil’s Bargain, promises to give us, by “revealing [the] inside story of the partnership between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump,” the “key to understanding the rise of the alt-right, the fall of Hillary Clinton, and the hidden forces that drove the greatest upset in American political history.”  I’m not sure the book accomplishes all that.  In particular, by Green’s own admission, the “alt-right” is a thing of ambiguous and propaganda-laden definition.  And the relevant forces aren’t all that hidden—it’s more that, again by Green’s own admission, they were hidden in plain sight.  Nonetheless, this book does a good job of pulling all the threads together, through the specific lens of Bannon.

Green begins with describing Election Night, focusing on the actions that night of various players, some famous, some not.  Ironically, Sean Spicer figures prominently—who quit as Press Secretary three days ago, just after this book was published.  Green does not ascribe Trump’s victory wholly to Bannon, but considers Bannon’s nearly fortuitous role as Trump’s campaign manager most definitely a but-for cause of Trump’s victory.  He compares Bannon to both Karl Rove and Machiavelli, as men “whose plots and intrigues on behalf of a ruler make him the hidden hand behind the throne.”  (We can ignore that in fact Machiavelli wrote his famous treatise, The Prince, in exile hoping to ingratiate himself with the local throne, and died before any rehabilitation.)  This hidden, or not so hidden, hand is the focus of Devil’s Bargain.

First, Green relates how Trump became connected to certain elements of the “fever swamp right.”  Such a thing certainly exists; years ago I used to know a lot of people in the fever swamp right, and while today’s active members are mostly different, Green draws a good picture of the type and their activities.  For Green’s purposes, the most important swamp dweller is the obscure-yet-powerful David Bossie, a long-time leader in the often semi-hysterical anti-Clinton movement.  Bossie heads  the group Citizens United.  It was, therefore, Bossie’s 2007 documentary on Clinton that Hillary Clinton’s allies on the FEC tried to suppress, and which the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case deemed protected free speech, even though conducted through the corporate form.  (Green oddly characterizes this decision as “opening the floodgates for wealthy individuals to take a larger and more active role in electoral politics,” when there were and are no limits on rich individuals making contributions.)  And Bossie was instrumental in introducing Bannon to Trump.

Trump’s connection to what might be called the “unattached Right,” those people not in power and not closely tied to the Republican Party, was new, but Trump had long been drawn to politics, in a not particularly coherent way and not with a conservative bent.  Green ascribes, with little evidence, but one man’s guess is as good as another’s, Trump’s turn to conservatism to the positive reaction to his attacks on Obama for not producing his birth certificate.  (Green does not think that the infamous group insulting of Trump at the 2011 Washington Correspondents’ Dinner, often referred to as the driver for Trump’s decision to run, was the spark.)  Green ascribes Trump’s eureka moment in the birther controversy to having “figured out that the norms forbidding such behavior were not inviolable rules that carried a harsh penalty but rather sentiments of a nobler, bygone era.”  That’s not true, of course—the “inviolable rule” was always only that such attacks were common and encouraged by the elite, but could only be made on conservatives, from Sarah Palin to Mitt Romney, and never on compliant, go-along-get-along Republicans, much less on any figure of the Left, who were protected by the Left’s cultural dominance and ability to determine what news is presented, and how.  What Trump figured out was that dominance could be broken through by force of will, and he had the platform to give it effect.  (Green always portrays the news-setting, or “mainstream,” media as neutral in this book, which is of course laughable.  But generally, he does an excellent job of staying focused and not introducing his personal biases.)  In any case, it’s plausible that the success of this attack on Obama, and the attention garnered by it, galvanized Trump to run for office.

Bannon, apparently, never joined the “birther” craze.  This seems a bit strange, since Bannon is all about the effective attack, and this attack actually made quite a bit of sense in context, even if ultimately showed false, given that everything else about Obama normally disclosed by Presidents was, and is, hidden—his grades, his college and law school applications, his test scores, his early writings.  On the other hand, one of the key themes of Green’s book is how Bannon realized that most right-wing organizations were an echo chamber with a strong hint of crazy.  I can both endorse and understand Bannon’s feelings from my own experience, although I suspect that the Internet has raised both membership in the echo chamber, and the level of crazy, since my days in that environment.  It’s possible that the Clintons have killed a bunch of people.  But it’s just not very likely.  Bannon’s genius was to harness the energy being expended on a circular firing squad and direct it to a larger audience, through the Breitbart platforms and through the offering of detailed, sourced, undeniable truths, such as the massive corruption of the Clinton family in the book Clinton Cash.  Bannon thus downgraded insular punditry in favor of facts combined with outward-directed organization.  “What Bannon built was in essence the very thing Clinton herself was mocked for invoking in 1998:  a ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ designed to tear her down.”

Green next spends some time, though not as much as I would have liked, on Bannon’s personal background, focused on how his views became what they are (answer: many of them have been there since his earliest youth).  He follows Bannon’s youthful education, naval career, Harvard M.B.A., time at Goldman Sachs in the 1980s (when Goldman was very different than it is now), and Hollywood career (as a producer and as an advisor to mergers-and-acquisitions transactions, including involuntarily, but fortunately, taking as payment part of the residuals of Seinfeld).  This is all interesting, though frankly not all that illuminating, since Bannon appears to have had a pretty consistent philosophy throughout his life.

Somewhat surprisingly, we are given almost nothing about Bannon’s personal life.  Yes, we are treated to “color” about his odd dress habits, and that he lives in the townhome from which Breitbart is run.  But, for example, it is well known that Bannon has been married three times.  Yet this book only mentions one wife, his first, in passing.  The others make no appearance at all, nor do any of Bannon’s three children.  Is he estranged from them all?  That seems relevant.  Similarly, Bannon’s personal interactions with everyone are, as related in this book, wholly of a hyper-charged political nature.  That seems unlikely.  How does Bannon relate to people when not talking about politics?  Does he relate?  This book doesn’t say.  Maybe Green doesn’t really know.  Maybe those who do know aren’t talking (though that also seems unlikely—you can always at least get enemies to talk).  Maybe Green just didn’t have the space or inclination.  But the result is the drawing of a figure that’s curiously flat, given his notoriously outsized personality.  There are also a few hanging threads.  At the beginning of the book Green mentions that Bannon was the director of Biosphere 2, the project in the Arizona desert to replicate a Mars colonization environment, in the 1990s.  That sounds interesting, and maybe relevant to Bannon’s views of the future.  But not a single word more is said about it.

Green makes much of, and reviewers such as Bret Stephens in the New York Times have made much of, a passage where a childhood friend and schoolmate of Bannon’s ascribes his (largely negative) view of today’s Muslim world to that “We were all taught that Western civilization was saved five hundred years ago in Spain, where Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Moors.  The lesson was, here’s where Muslims could have taken over the world.  And here was the great stand where they were stopped.”  The implication is that Bannon thinks we must make a similar great stand.  Maybe.  But probably not, since that’s not at all what happened under Ferdinand and Isabella.

The 1492 “defeat of the Moors” referred to was when the dual monarchs negotiated, on generous terms to the Muslims, the surrender of the last toehold of the Muslims in Spain, the Kingdom of Granada.  This occurred after Spaniards gradually expelled the alien invaders from the rest of Spain through hundreds of years of the heroic Reconquista (traditionally with a start date of the Battle of Covadonga (718), which established the Christian Kingdom of Asturia in northern Spain, a few years after the initial Muslim invasion and conquest of the peninsula).  More importantly, the “great stand where they were stopped” was actually the Battle of Tours, in France in 732, where Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, turned back the Muslim advance into Europe.  (We can ignore the debate as to how big or important this battle actually was—it indisputably marked the high water mark of the Muslim advance, and for a millennium or more was a Western cultural touchstone, as it should still be now.)

This history may seem to be merely trivia, but it is not.  Bannon knows his history, and as far as the Muslim world goes, it is much more likely that he sees the fight against Muslim domination as like the Reconquista, a long-term battle, rather than some apocalyptic “great stand.”  This has significant implications for policy.

In any case, Green switches the focus back to Trump, noting how The Apprentice showed Trump his popularity, especially among minorities (Trump won more Hispanic and black votes than Romney, admittedly a low bar).  Green identifies how Trump, really without much notice outside his growing audience, gradually became more of a fixture on conservative-oriented TV and radio.  Since anything conservative in media is by definition not “mainstream” and is not allowed to set what is considered news, it is not surprising this went unnoticed by the larger world.  It certainly went unnoticed by me, but then I don’t consume any TV or radio.  I literally laughed out loud when I read that Trump had announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015.  Shows what I know.

The rest of the book is taken up with how Bannon became Trump’s campaign manager, after Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort had flamed out, for very different reasons.  Green notes Bannon’s own intellectual ferment, focused on various forms of nationalism and approval of the European politics of the “new right wing” in Europe, and how Bannon “was trying to build an intellectual basis for Trumpism, or what might more accurately be described as an American nationalist-Traditionalism.”  Here there are also hints of the enormous fractures within the Trump political organization, which, along with Trump’s own utter lack of discipline, have long made Trump’s organization dysfunctional.  For example, there is a reference, in passing, to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner missing critical August events during the campaign—because they were “yachting in Croatia with David Geffen.”  Given that Geffen and all of his views are basically Kryptonite to any Trump voter, this says something about Ivanka and Jared, as well as Trump himself—and it’s not good or promising for the future.

Here, also, appears Green’s analysis of the “alt-right.”  As he notes, “The term ‘alt-right’ itself had no fixed meaning.  In its broadest sense, it encompassed the spectrum of groups left over if you took everyone to the right of center and subtracted mainstream Republicans and neoconservative foreign-policy hawks:  populists, libertarians, immigration restrictionists, paleoconservatives, white supremacists, and full-on neo-Nazis.  This catchall definition is what Bannon had in mind when, in July, he told a journalist at Mother Jones that he considered Breitbart ‘a platform for the alt-right.’  But Clinton, in her August 25 speech, cleverly defined ‘alt-right’ to mean only white supremacists and Nazis, taking the sins of the racist fringe and stretching them to cover the whole group. . . . Most voters (and many journalists) were unfamiliar with the term and accepted Clinton’s definition of it.”

This seems like as good an analysis as any.  What is really shows is that the term “alt-right” is, as applied neutrally, so broad as to be meaningless—it’s like defining “alt-left” as “everyone to the left of center and subtracting mainstream Democrats and active Black Lives Matter participants.”  And it shows that its main use is as a term of propagandistic abuse handy for mainstream Democrats and their allies in the news-setting media, since it allows them to include all the real threats to them (because the mainstream Stupid Party is hardly a threat) under the umbrella of “Nazis!!!!”  The real reason journalists accepted Clinton’s definition was not unfamiliarity, even if they were unfamiliar, but that it served their own interests to do so, which were exactly aligned with Clinton’s interests.   They had no desire to find the truth, or parse the definition—they wanted to continue their role as Clinton’s outriders and handmaidens, and they thought this slur was the silver bullet with which they could kill the werewolf Trump.

The main part of the book ends with the final days of the campaign.  The narrative reminds us how very unlikely Trump’s win appeared.  Not just because of the polls, and not just because of Trump’s lack of discipline.  We were constantly reminded how much less Trump had spent, how he had no ground game, how he did not grasp the necessary role of technology, and so on.  Green ascribes Trump’s win to a combination of unique circumstances, Bannon’s roping in of elements normally regarded as déclassé by the Stupid Party, and a relentless mode of attack, again pushed by Bannon, all of which persuaded the “double haters,” who disliked both candidates, ultimately mostly to vote for Trump or nobody.

So what happens after Trump?  Green’s book, of course, is in the moment—his Afterword is dated barely a month ago, on June 5, 2017.  If anything, both the book and the month since have, in case we needed any more proof, shown us that Trump has managed to make the shifting sands of modern American politics even more unstable than usual.  The hope of many on the right, that Trump’s often-insane seeming behavior is some kind of meta-strategic master game, is silly.  But, sooner or later, Trump will disappear, and it is very likely that Trump will accomplish very little of what he promised.  Green offers a brief outline of why that is, but I think most people, right and left, Trump or NeverTrump, agree.  (Of course, most people agreed not that long ago that the idea of Trump as President was laughable, so buyer beware).  Certainly, we have seen little results.  Where is the wall?  Where is the rollback of gun control?  Where is the repeal of Obamacare?  Where is the punishment of China?  The ending of the Iran giveaway?  The prosecution of Hillary?  Infrastructure spending? And much more, notable by its absence.

Green insightfully, in his Afterword, notes that “Trump ran against the Republican Party, Wall Street, and Paul Ryan, but then took up their agenda.”  Truer words were never spoken.  Also, “Trump doesn’t believe in nationalism or other political philosophy—he’s fundamentally a creature of his own ego.”  Thus, if you believe news reports, Bannon has either been sidelined or is on the way out, and his carefully constructed intellectual framework has been thrown in the trash.  As the Good Book says, “Put not thy trust in princes.”  It should be no surprise that in the current environment, Bannon’s long term impact is likely to be zero.

If Green is right overall, though, the forces that brought Trump to power were not transitory and are not patient.  Green notes that it is “clear that Bannon had a better feel for the American electorate’s anxieties than almost anyone else in the arena.”  It seems to me that people who support Trump correctly believe that they have been repeatedly betrayed.  Certainly, in my lifetime, Republicans have never delivered on any form of radical change promised—it is always, and most of all in the past eight years, five steps leftward by the Left, and maybe one step to the right if the Right gains power—or maybe just two more steps to the left.  The result has been, and will be, ever more resentment from a significant segment of Americans with real concerns and grievances—let’s call them the “deplorables.”  Each time they vote for change, and get none, the amplitude of their reaction in the next cycle increases.  There is no reason to think that electing Trump is the high point of that amplitude, especially when Trump totally fails to deliver.  If the deplorables were willing to vote for someone like Trump, with many obvious defects, how much more for the right charismatic leader with a consistent, vigorous vision?  Probably quite a bit, and that’s not necessarily good.  But it is likely that, by hook or by crook, we will get the government we deserve.


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