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Books

Bannon, Trump and ‘Devil’s Bargain’

By Elle Hardy
Joshua Green chronicles Steve Bannon’s rise to prominence – and offers an insight into what he might be capable of now

There is nothing quite like watching history unfurl before you, and as I scribbled notes last Friday on Joshua Green’s biography of Steve Bannon, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency (Scribe; $29.99), my attention briefly wandered to Twitter, only to find out Bannon had just been fired as Donald Trump’s chief strategist in the White House.

Initial reports suggest that the man widely thought of as the president’s svengali will be “going nuclear”, which makes Devil’s Bargain essential reading for gauging the future of this chaotic administration, but also essential to understanding what feels like one of the darkest periods of modern American history.

So who is the man – and why should his nuclear winter be so feared? Green first came across the “unforgettable” Bannon in 2011; the then feature writer at the Atlantic was invited to a screening of The Undefeated, Bannon’s glowing film about Sarah Palin intended to boost her to the 2012 GOP nomination. Sensing the power of Bannon’s febrile, balls-to-the-wall ambition and energy, Green stayed in contact with Bannon and his associates, crafting a remarkable portrait of a remarkable man.

Bannon was born in 1953 in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in a working-class, devout Irish Catholic family. His political jolt came from the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis (“it was like the fifth century – completely primeval”), where the young naval officer felt betrayed by President Carter, and energised by the campaign of Ronald Reagan (so much so that he went to work at the Pentagon during the Gipper’s administration), instilling, or unleashing, Bannon’s virulent “America first” xenophobia.

The bureaucracy of the Pentagon drove Bannon to Harvard Business School, where chance helped him get in the door at Goldman Sachs in the 1980s, clocking 100-hour weeks and rising in the ranks, before an assignment to Hollywood to work out how to value production houses became perhaps the defining point of his career. Learning the peculiarities of the entertainment business, he created his own boutique studio investment and advisory firm, at one point being lumped with a stake in a struggling little comedy called Seinfeld.

After cashing out as a very wealthy man, he took a job at a media firm manipulating internet gaming in Hong Kong, in the process learning that there was an army of disillusioned, impassioned young men whom he would tap into in his next role as executive chairman of digital news organisation Breitbart, which became the outlet for the fermenting political movement known as the alt-right.

Bannon and Trump came to know each other through mutual contacts and flirtations in the conservative political world. Aspiring politician Trump came to seek out “my Steve” at events, fascinated by the high energy and conviction of a self-made man. “It was clear the connection was genuine, said [political consultant] Roger Stone, ‘because Steve is a slob, and Trump hates slobs.’”

Bannon dazzled the ignorant president-to-be by providing a dossier on him compiled from public records (“How did you get that information?”), and his background, conviction and ambition helped shape the instincts of a natural politician into an ideology. “Bannon had a better feel for the American electorate’s anxieties than almost anyone else in the arena,” writes Green, “save perhaps Donald Trump.”

Green’s book is spiced with campaign vignettes, such as how advisers came up with the phrase “build the wall”, and the surreal sources of Bannon’s ideology (René Guénon, a French convert to Sufi Islam; Julius Evola, Mussolini’s ideologist; and the Hindu Vedanta). The pleasing style and pace of Devil’s Bargain make it an indispensable chronicle of the extent to which American politics is etched in the cynical and the sinister. “You have to control three things,” Bannon explained, “borders, currency, and military and national identity. People are finally coming to realize that, and politicians will have to follow.”

Any work on the rise of the alt-right political movement is also an exploration of the American political machine, and among the most interesting parts of an altogether fascinating book is the window into the world of GAI, the Government Accountability Institute, a think tank funded by the wealthy Mercer family and founded by Bannon in 2012, illustrating how he was able to manipulate an under-resourced mass media on the hunt for critical stories about “Hillary Clinton, who was almost universally presumed to be the next president”.

“It’s facts, not rumors, that resonate with the best investigative reporters,” Bannon is quoted as saying. “If they could amass enough unflattering facts about Clinton – ideally ones that hinted at larger stories – then reporters would eagerly chase after them.”

Robert Mercer, who also funds Breitbart and was the influential money behind the Trump campaign, is a billionaire computer savant who likes to “relax by shaping gemstones” and is attracted to crackpot right-wing theories such as the radiation from Hiroshima actually being good for the nearby residents. He and his politically obsessed middle daughter, Rebekah, are the shadowy, highly influential figures in league with Bannon. The invaluable work of GAI, Green believes, played a large role in discrediting Hillary Clinton to an already weary country in no mood for her kind.

Green balances Bannon’s evil-genius narrative with an overview of the many failings of the Clinton campaign, particularly its blindness to the pain and anger of the industrial north-east (of which they had been given strong warnings when Bernie Sanders won many of their Democratic primaries), disconnectedness, arrogance, poor instincts and wilful misinterpretation of data. “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message,” Bannon told a reporter. “From her e-mail server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of.”

Less well explored is the very thing that may be the undoing of Bannon and what he has come to represent. Bannon blames cultural liberalism for infecting capitalism, the American system, rather than placing any blame on capitalism itself. “The Left had taken over many of the institutions of power – meaning government, media, and academe. And it was from these places and positions of power that they were able to disrupt the system and implement a strategy that was designed to ultimately undermine the capitalist system.”

It is here that the opposition to Bannon and his alt-right will find success, for capitalism will ultimately remain their master. The assumption that an electorate that really doesn’t give a damn about Russia, but does about healthcare, is innately wedded to the market is what has led America into this horror show. Just how Trump operates without Bannon, or, presumably, listens to his voice from the seething Breitbart network, will likely define the country’s politics for decades to come.

In hindsight, there was only so long that the two outsized egos could fit in the same room. And so it was last Friday that Romulus killed Remus, leaving the former to build the walls of the empire alone – only with Remus knowing where the bodies are buried and with ample outlets from which to voice his displeasure.

Bannon may have been removed, but, as Green illustrates, his influence and intelligence, and what it may stoke, ought to be feared from wherever he resides, because he is the analogue to America’s political trajectory. A working-class Democrat who went into the military to get ahead, transformed into a passionate Reaganite, turning his talents to making money in the excesses of the 1980s and 1990s, culturally shaped by September 11, politically shaped by the global financial crisis, now arguably the architect of a populist movement that loathes the political, business and media establishment – Bannon embodies the country’s shifting political centre. For all his esoteric influences and curiosities, he is the mainstream.

One wonders whether Trump’s beloved base will abandon him with such a powerful critic sniping from the sidelines, and we need only to look back to Charlottesville to wonder whether America can survive the fury that he will undoubtedly seek to marshal. As one Bannon interlocutor tells Green, “Victory at all costs is a dangerous way to look at the world.”

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at www.ellehardy.com

@ellehardytweets

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