Book review: Devil’s Bargain, by Joshua Green
Trump, for his part, seemed to recognize that Bannon alone could focus and channel his uncanny political intuition with striking success. Bannon didn’t make Trump president the way Rove did George W. Bush – but Trump wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Bannon. Together, their power and reach gave them strength and influence far beyond what either could have achieved on his own. Any study of Trump’s rise to the presidency is therefore unavoidably a study of Bannon, too. It’s a story Trump won’t like, because he isn’t always the central character.
“Darkness is good,” current White House Chief Strategist and half of the above-described evil bromance advised Trump regarding discrimination in a campaign ad. It says a lot about his creepy, aggressive, no-fucks-given personality. As a chair of Breitbart News, the alt-right, nationalistic platform he took over in 2012 after its eponymous founder’s death, he adhered to the mantra from the viral video of the honey badger, who famously “don’t give a fuck.” Neither does Bannon, and he took that attitude and all it entails along with him to the White House, in his latest role in a peripatetic career.
There’s long been recognition that Steve Bannon has operated as a kind of evil-intentioned puppeteer behind the scenes of Trump’s public persona. Trump himself hated that idea’s dissemination so much that it seems to be why Bannon was relegated to the back burner a few months into the administration, forced to work his way back up through the ranks of Trump’s cronies.
Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Joshua Green has had Bannon on his radar for years, dating back to 2011 when Green wrote a profile on Alaska governor and nonsense-babbling attention-seeker Sarah Palin that wasn’t as glaringly negative and ridiculing as most mainstream coverage of her tends to be. Bannon, enamored with Palin, contacted Green after reading the article and invited him to a screening of his documentary The Undefeated, which he’d written and directed about Palin’s life and career.
Green was intrigued by Bannon, a well-connected figure who seemed comfortably wealthy with a long list of contacts and a hefty resume. Skeptical, Green fact-checked some of the questionable assertions, like that in addition to working and producing in Hollywood, he’d also worked for Goldman Sachs, was rich on Seinfeld residuals, and ran a World of Warcraft “gold-farming” operation in Hong Kong, paying people to play and acquire assets in the game that Western players would rather purchase than earn. Amazingly, all the stories checked out. This is a man with fingers in ALL the pies.
Each piece of Bannon’s past seemingly contributed to his, and by extension Trump’s, current positions. For example, that Chinese Warcraft venture helped Bannon recognize and harness the collective power of “millions of intense young men,” specifically “rootless, white” ones with money.
“For years, Bannon had been searching for a vessel for his populist-nationalist ideas, trying out and eventually discarding Tea Party politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. At the same time, he was building an elaborate machine designed to destroy the great enemy whose march to the White House posed the biggest threat to those ideas and to everyone whose beliefs hewed to the right of center: Hillary Clinton. In 1998, when Clinton first posited a “vast right-wing conspiracy” bent on ruining her and her husband, she was widely ridiculed. But she wasn’t wrong. By the time she launched her 2016 campaign, Bannon was sitting at the nexus of a far-flung group of conspirators whose scope and reach Clinton and her campaign didn’t fathom until far too late.”
Yes, like a disease-ridden parasite seeking a vulnerable, unsuspecting host, Bannon found the perfect empty-headed mouthpiece to shriek his populist rhetoric to the masses.
In his afterword, Green lists some reasons why Trump’s White House has turned into the raging dumpster fire it is so quickly, and it’s partly also how Trump and Bannon came together as a perfect storm. One reason is that “Trump doesn’t believe in nationalism or any other political philosophy – he’s fundamentally a creature of his own ego.” Bannon had recently founded the Government Accountability Institute to support Peter Schweizer’s controversial book Clinton Cash, which, although its allegations are highly questionable, generated tons of negative attention for Hillary the year before the election. So he was especially fired up, ready for a scorched earth campaign.
Green tracks Bannon’s rise and steps along the way, fitting together the pieces of how he developed and honed his nationalistic philosophy and fringy political beliefs, then managed to imprint them on a candidate who had a good sense for what a good chunk of the population wanted to hear, managing to secure the nation’s highest office. That’s already been scary enough, but learning the nitty gritty of who Bannon is and what he’s capable of and connected to makes it much scarier.
Green takes a critical tone, but regardless of stance, any voter should be open-minded enough to read this background and roadmap of someone who’s wielding so much power and influence.
It feels like the book was thrown together relatively quickly, but it’s no less important for its hastiness. It’s written in an easily readable but intelligent reportage style, and thanks to Green’s previous interview access to both Trump and Bannon plus years of tracking the latter, a mostly thorough portrait emerges. It’s an ugly one, but it’s got some detail. Just like the one hanging in Bannon’s office, a surely surreal depiction of him as Napoleon in a classic painting of the emperor, a gift from fellow nationalist Nigel Farage.
It’s rife with such delightful, often terrifying anecdotes, with the involvement of more celebrities, politicians and notable figures than I realized were connected. And it sheds light on some things we guess about but haven’t been sure of, like perhaps the stupid but unsurprising reason sycophantic Trump coattail-clinger Chris Christie has been shunned from the inner ranks.
Some disturbing chapters address the mega-rich and mysterious Mercers; father Robert, a computer science and artificial intelligence tech pioneer and co-CEO of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, and his influential daughter Rebekah. The pair have donated many millions to right-wing politicians, and after their first choice Ted Cruz was out, they focused their considerable resources on Trump via Bannon in rather shady ways.
Plus quotes from Trump that shouldn’t surprise us but are wonderfully telling: “You treat me like a baby! Am I like a baby to you? I sit there like a little baby and watch TV and you talk to me? Am I a fucking baby?” As spoken to former campaign manager Paul Manafort. No comment.
“For years before he joined Trump’s presidential campaign, Bannon had been a Washington figure of no particular distinction who tended to inhabit the far fringes of Republican politics, where he felt most at home. Sometimes, he drifted so far out on the fringe that he and his compatriots were shunned by mainstream right-of-center outfits such as the American Conservative Union, which throws the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Bannon not only didn’t mind the slights, he reveled in the minor notoriety, playing up his image as the skunk at the garden party.”
But Trump has always struck me as the same, a lurking, stinky but ever-present menace on the fringes of whatever’s in the headlines, like his newspaper ads railing against the accused Central Park Five and refusing to walk back his stance after their exoneration with DNA evidence.
Or his stirring up of the embarrassing, racist “birther” controversy, which unfortunately seems to have been a major catalyst in his finally turning his decades of threats to run for office into reality. An equal parts hilarious and terrifying anecdote here tells of his humiliation at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner after attending as a guest of the Washington Post, capitalizing on his notoriety over the birth certificate stink. Obama and host Seth Meyers made so many jokes at his expense, and we all know by now that despite his bullying and ridiculing of anyone who negatively blips his radar, he’s thinner-skinned than a soggy overstuffed summer roll.
The examples here are tip of the iceberg, Green covers a lot. Some flaws in a messy narrative structure, a halfhearted skip through Bannon’s upbringing and education, and the glaring omissions of certain events and details aside, it’s a dishy, scary, eyebrow-raising must-read.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency
by Joshua Green
published July 18, 2017 by Penguin