The dealmaker with a Trump in his hand
On the wall of Steve Bannon’s office hangs a portrait, a gift from Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party. It depicts Donald Trump’s political guru as Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries, in the style of JacquesLouis David’s great neoclassical painting.
It is only half a joke. Because in the alt-right world of populist-nationalist insurgency, Bannon is the emperor. The former chief of the right-wing Breitbart News now serves as chief strategist in the White House. He is the pur- veyor of the incendiary political philosophy that underpinned Trump’s victory and the man who galvanised an ailing campaign in August 2016. Like Bonaparte, Bannon rose from nowhere to wield extraordinary power.
“Trump wouldn’t be President if it weren’t for Bannon,” writes Joshua Green, a journalist at Bloomberg Businessweek, in this sturdy, balanced and informative account of the relationship at the heart of the Trump presidency.
US presidential elections tend to throw up an eminence grise who is both intensely colourful and faintly sinister: George W. Bush had Karl Rove; Bill Clinton had James Carville; and Trump has Bannon, a foul-mouthed, hardnosed, unshaven, flip-flop-wearing Svengali with a consistent and bullish hard-right agenda.
Trump and Bannon could hardly be more different in character, yet they came together in understanding and cleverly exploiting white working-class anger over immigration, Islam, the political status quo and Hillary Clinton. As Green tells it, the America-first philosophy derived largely from Bannon. At the moment when conventional wisdom insisted that Trump must tone down his rhetoric, Bannon let “Trump be Trump” and struck a chord with voters that few others had.
The “devil’s bargain” of the title is the unspoken deal between the two men: “Together, their power and reach gave them strength and influence far beyond what either could have achieved on his own.” Bannon got his “fully formed, internally coherent world view” into the heart of American politics; Trump got the White House.
Long before he tapped Bannon to run his faltering campaign, Trump had come to rely on him for inspiration and guidance, basing his barrage of tweets firmly on the anti-immigrant, Hillary-bashing Breitbart News website. At a conservative conference in June 2015, Trump could be heard calling for his Rasputin: “Where’s my Steve? Where’s my Steve?”
Bannon started out as a blue-collar Democrat, the son of an Irish-American telephone engineer who worshipped the Kennedy clan. Born in 1953 in Virginia, he studied to be an urban planner and then joined the navy. The earthy, “towel-snapping” culture of the naval wardroom coloured not just his language but his hard-edged, militant world view. The humiliating failure of the 1980 Iranian hostage rescue attempt turned him against Jimmy Carter and sharply to the right. His idea of a looming global war against Islamic fascism was born.
Bannon left the navy for Harvard Business