Sam Ta­nen­haus

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Sam Ta­nen­haus

Devil’s Bar­gain:

Steve Ban­non, Don­ald Trump, and the Storm­ing of the Pres­i­dency by Joshua Green.

Pen­guin, 272 pp., $27.00

Six months into Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, the bond be­tween him and his base re­mains strong, largely un­af­fected for now by the mount­ing scan­dals, talk of im­peach­ment, and Trump’s stalled agenda. There have been five spe­cial elec­tions to fill va­cant House seats—in Ge­or­gia, Mon­tana, Kansas, Cal­i­for­nia, and South Carolina—and the Repub­li­cans have won four of them. In Ge­or­gia, the most closely watched race, the Democrats poured in $30 mil­lion for their can­di­date. But the Repub­li­cans nearly matched that fig­ure, and their nar­row vic­tory in June was per­ceived as a win for Trump—and Trump­ism, how­ever ill-de­fined it may be.

Joshua Green’s new book, Devil’s Bar­gain, ar­gues that Trump­ism is best un­der­stood through his part­ner­ship with Stephen K. Ban­non, now the pres­i­dent’s chief po­lit­i­cal strate­gist. Green, for­merly a cor­re­spon­dent at The At­lantic and now at Bloomberg Busi­ness­week, has been writ­ing about con­ser­va­tives since the Ge­orge W. Bush years. It is a tes­ta­ment to his adroit in­ter­twin­ing of Ban­non’s story with Trump’s that we’re not cer­tain which of the two fig­ures has sold the big­ger part of him­self to the other. In the broader sense, they are coau­thors of our mo­ment’s tabloid con­ser­vatism.

Trump has had many bi­og­ra­phers, but it was Green who did the first indepth re­port­ing on Ban­non, in a long Bloomberg pro­file in Oc­to­ber 2015, ten months be­fore Ban­non for­mally joined the Trump cam­paign and res­cued it from what looked like cer­tain de­feat. Pre­vi­ously, Ban­non had been an in­for­mal ad­viser while mak­ing Bre­it­bart News, the web­site he had run since 2012, Trump’s main pro­pa­ganda aux­il­iary, sur­pass­ing Fox News, which had been di­vided over Trump and roiled by a sex­ual ha­rass­ment scan­dal in­volv­ing the net­work’s late founder and CEO, Roger Ailes. Green de­scribes a con­ver­sa­tion in which Ailes, still cling­ing to his job, tells Ban­non he can sur­vive. He just has to plead his case di­rectly to Ru­pert Mur­doch, who is away on his boat and can’t be reached. Ban­non sees the ob­vi­ous, telling Ailes, “If some­body called him about a merger, he’d take the fuck­ing call. . . . You’re done.” A pa­tois of coarse­ness is heard ev­ery­where in this book, but es­pe­cially from its two prin­ci­pals. Ban­non was able to man­age Trump the can­di­date when other, more sea­soned op­er­a­tives could not be­cause Ban­non is Trump’s un­likely spir­i­tual twin, his book­ish dop­pel­gänger, un­kempt in cargo shorts.

Ban­non is by up­bring­ing and tem­per­a­ment a son of the em­bat­tled South, a work­ing-class Catholic who grew up in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, when the state was still a backward fief, ruled by Se­na­tor Harry F. Byrd Jr., an early leader of South­ern “mas­sive re­sis­tance” to civil rights. From the start, Ban­non seems to have been a younger ver­sion of Pat Buchanan: a noisy, brawl­ing, bred-inthe-bone anti-Com­mu­nist. Ed­u­cated by Bene­dictines at a Catholic mil­i­tary school, he went on to Vir­ginia Tech and then en­listed in the Navy in 1977. He was a nav­i­ga­tor on a de­stroyer in the North Ara­bian Sea in 1980 when the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion was putting the last touches on its dis­as­trous se­cret mis­sion to free the Iran hostages. “You could tell it was go­ing to be a goat fuck,” Ban­non re­called.

His ha­tred of the weak­ling Jimmy Carter soon tran­sub­stan­ti­ated into trem­bling wor­ship of Ron­ald Rea­gan. Ban­non had the fa­natic’s in­sa­tiable need to find, or in­vent, cartoon heroes and heav­ies. But he also had a quick, ab­sorp­tive mind. En­rolling in the Har­vard Busi­ness School at twenty-nine, he out­per­formed his younger class­mates but re­mained rough around the edges and was lucky to land at Gold­man Sachs in the Gordon Gekko era.

Like Trump, Ban­non grav­i­tated to me­dia—not in Manhattan, but in Hol­ly­wood. Gold­man Sachs sent him there in 1987, when stu­dios were be­ing bought and re­built, like real es­tate tear-downs, at­tract­ing all man­ner of huck­sters. Ban­non was an am­bigu­ous player in this murky world. To­day the best-known item in his grow­ing legend—first re­ported by Green in his 2015 pro­file—is that he gets a hand­some in­come in resid­u­als from Se­in­feld; it was in­cluded in a pack­age of TV shows he got a stake in as part of a fi­nanc­ing deal. Se­in­field, of course, be­came a colos­sal hit, and Ban­non’s pay­out has been es­ti­mated to be as much as $32 mil­lion. Con­nie Bruck dug into this claim for The New Yorker and found no solid ev­i­dence for the Se­in­feld pay­out—and much skep­ti­cism on the part of peo­ple close to the show.

But Hol­ly­wood fi­nanc­ing is com­plex. Devil’s Bar­gain re­veals that Ban­non does get Se­in­feld resid­u­als, though the amount is far smaller than what has been re­ported; ac­cord­ing to Green, on his White House dis­clo­sure state­ment Ban­non listed the fig­ure as “$2 mil­lion and count­ing.” It is a measly sum by Hol­ly­wood stan­dards and sup­ports the tes­ti­mony of movie-busi­ness sharks who have lit­tle mem­ory of Ban­non. “I never heard of him, prior to Trump­ism,” the me­dia tycoon Barry Diller has said.

Green, more gen­er­ously, de­scribes Ban­non’s Hol­ly­wood sea­son, and his var­i­ous other ad­ven­tures, as pre­par­ing him for his true vo­ca­tion as ring­mas­ter of the new, Trump-led right. Ban­non’s tal­ent, like Trump’s, is find­ing and pick­ing up the strains of hid­den griev­ance: against “me­dia elites,” fem­i­nists, civil rights ac­tivists, left-wing pro­fes­sors, and, above all, im­mi­grants.

Plant Ban­non any­where, and he’ll iden­tify the most sullen, ag­gres­sive player and do his best to imitate him. On Wall Street Ban­non idol­ized Michael Milken—the rogue junk-bond king and raider of blue-chip firms who was even­tu­ally sent to prison for in­sider trad­ing. In Hong Kong, where Ban­non went in 2005 to put to­gether a li­cens­ing deal in­volv­ing the video game World of War­craft, he dis­cov­ered the teem­ing com­mu­nity of gamers, mil­lions of “in­tense young men... who dis­ap­peared for days or even weeks at a time in al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties.” He sensed “the pow­er­ful cur­rents that run just be­low the sur­face of the In­ter­net,” Green writes, and “be­gan to won­der if those forces could be har­nessed and, if so, how he might ex­ploit them.”

By this time, Ban­non was also pro­duc­ing and writ­ing po­lit­i­cal films of his own—crude armies-of-the-night clashes that were frankly mod­eled on Leni Riefen­stahl: the gath­er­ing storm, the threat of vi­o­lence, the Wag­ne­r­ian sound­tracks, the “tech­nique of fear,” as his long­time screen­writ­ing part­ner told Con­nie Bruck. Ban­non’s first film, In the Face of Evil, which glo­ri­fied Rea­gan’s part in win­ning the cold war, left re­view­ers cold—“very much like Soviet pro­pa­ganda,” one wrote. But it thrilled a small but in­tense con­tin­gent of Hol­ly­wood con­ser­va­tives. Since the ter­ror at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001, an­i­mus had been build­ing against the big stu­dios, “so non-un­der­stand­ing of nor­mal hu­man Amer­i­cans,” as Peggy Noo­nan said at the time. In De­cem­ber 2004, Ban­non and oth­ers, “peas­ants with the pitch­forks storm­ing the lord’s manor,” as he told a New York Times re­porter, con­gre­gated at an event called the Lib­erty Film Fes­ti­val. Af­ter one screen­ing Ban­non was crushed in a bear hug by the on­line provo­ca­teur An­drew Bre­it­bart, “squeez­ing me like my head’s go­ing to blow up and say­ing how we’ve gotta take back the cul­ture.”

Bre­it­bart wasn’t yet the “pi­rate king” of the new tabloid right that was form­ing on the In­ter­net. The ti­tle still be­longed to his men­tor and long­time boss, Matt Drudge, the Wal­ter Winchell of In­ter­net gos­sip, com­plete with rak­ishly tipped fe­dora. It was Drudge who rec­om­mended Bre­it­bart when another jour­nal­ist man­qué, Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton, needed help start­ing The Huff­in­g­ton Post; Bre­it­bart briefly served as one of its four found­ing part­ners.

Huff­in­g­ton, from the right, was mov­ing left. But the mixed po­lit­i­cal sig­nals hardly mat­tered. Drudge, Bre­it­bart, and Ban­non are rou­tinely de­picted as wild-eyed ex­trem­ists. Yet they and other West Coast ac­tivists, for in­stance the ed­i­tors of The Clare­mont Re­view of Books, were wag­ing their war as much against “Con­ser­vatism Inc.” as against Democrats and lib­er­als. In the 2016 cam­paign, the tar­gets in­cluded estab­lish­ment con­ser­va­tives like Ge­orge Will, Wil­liam Kris­tol, and the “Never Trump” ed­i­tors at Na­tional Re­view.

Th­ese were dif­fer­ences less of pol­icy and pro­gram than of cul­tural out­look. Drudge, Bre­it­bart, and Ban­non, as they spoiled for a Day of the Lo­cust showdown with the Lo­tus Eaters in Hol­ly­wood and inside the Belt­way, a heroic purg­ing of the sewage pipes, con­cocted a kind of po­lit­i­cal porn—gos­sip and ex­posé com­min­gled with con­spir­acy. There is a long half-for­got­ten his­tory of this on the right dat­ing back to McCarthy-era best-sell­ers like Wash­ing­ton Con­fi­den­tial (1951), which mixed sleazy tid­bits (the ac­tual tele­phone num­bers and street ad­dresses of pros­ti­tutes) and warn­ings that, de­spite McCarthy’s hos­ing the sta­bles, the Pen­tagon and State Depart­ment were in­fested with Com­mu­nists and “fairies.”

Drudge pi­o­neered the re­vival of po­lit­i­cal tabloidism in the In­ter­net age when he “broke” the Mon­ica Lewin­sky story—only he didn’t break it, but spilled the re­port­ing of Michael Isikoff, which had been held up by the editor of Newsweek, who had com­plied with a re­quest to de­lay. The re­quest came from the White­wa­ter prose­cu­tor, Ken­neth Starr, but to Bre­it­bart, re­call­ing the in­ci­dent much later, it “all reeked of Clin­ton-de­fend­ing,” one more in­stance of the lib­eral me­dia clos­ing ranks. The Lewin­sky news made Drudge an in­stant hero on the right. One les­son was: if you have the dirt, go with it. A sec­ond was, if you don’t have it, make it up, since “nar­ra­tive truth” out­weighed “fac­tual truth,” as a for­mer Bre­it­bart writer later ex­plained.

Drudge ended up in lit­i­ga­tion af­ter he

spread a li­belous ru­mor about Clin­ton’s aide Sid­ney Blu­men­thal, but this didn’t de­ter An­drew Bre­it­bart from break­ing the rules, too. In 2010, he posted on one of his web­sites a video of a speech to the NAACP by Obama’s sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, Shirley Sher­rod, in which she seemed to say she’d dis­crim­i­nated against a white farmer. The video cost Sher­rod her job even though it turned out to have been ruth­lessly doc­tored. This was too much even for Fox News, which had broad­cast Bre­it­bart’s edit of the video and was now un­der at­tack. Bre­it­bart was ban­ished from re­spectable con­ser­va­tive precincts, only to re­deem him­self a year later by break­ing the story of An­thony Weiner’s sala­cious tweets.

Ban­non, still mak­ing movie paeans to emerg­ing po­lit­i­cal stars on the right (Sarah Palin was another sub­ject), had yet to grasp the most im­por­tant les­son of tabloid pol­i­tics. It works best as a form of at­tack. And an invit­ing tar­get was al­ready there. One of Ban­non’s col­lab­o­ra­tors, David Bossie, was a Clin­ton hater whose ex­cesses had got­ten him fired from the con­gres­sional com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gat­ing White­wa­ter. Through his or­ga­ni­za­tion Cit­i­zens United Pro­duc­tions, Bossie pro­duced Hil­lary: The Movie in time for the 2008 pri­maries, but the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion re­stricted its ad­ver­tis­ing on the ground that it was plainly op­po­si­tion pro­pa­ganda. Bossie protested that this was an in­fringe­ment of his First Amend­ment free­doms, and even­tu­ally the dis­pute reached the Supreme Court, which in 2010 ruled in his fa­vor. The Cit­i­zens United case shat­tered the rules on cam­paign spend­ing and be­gan the un­lim­ited flow of money into pol­i­tics. In 2011, Bossie took Ban­non to Trump Tower to meet Don­ald Trump, who was think­ing of run­ning for pres­i­dent, and the chem­istry was im­me­di­ate. Un­like the po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als, Ban­non, like Trump, was “flu­ent in the ar­got of Wall Street and Hol­ly­wood,” Green writes. But at the same time, in his di­sheveled ec­cen­tric­ity, he posed no “al­pha male” threat. There­after, at con­ser­va­tive events, Trump sought out Ban­non, ask­ing, “Where’s my Steve?”

Some of the most il­lu­mi­nat­ing pages in Green’s book are not about Ban­non but about Trump—sur­pris­ingly, given how much has been writ­ten about him. Green ap­proaches Trump as a se­ri­ous fig­ure, with “the best raw po­lit­i­cal in­stincts of any Repub­li­can in his gen­er­a­tion.” Trump saw pol­i­tics not as a form of en­ter­tain­ment but as pure en­ter­tain­ment aimed at spe­cific au­di­ences and mar­kets. He also knew a good deal about tabloid pol­i­tics. His tu­tor was another down-mar­ket ge­nius, Roy Cohn, the lawyer and for­mer coun­sel for Joe McCarthy. Al­ready in the 1990s, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent ac­count in The New Yorker, Trump had en­tered an al­liance of sorts with The Na­tional En­quirer, trans­form­ing from a sub­ject of its scur­rilous head­lines into a “source” for sala­cious sto­ries on oth­ers; dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign the En­quirer be­came one of Trump’s strong­est mouth­pieces. But it was Trump’s TV series The Ap­pren­tice that el­e­vated him from Page Six to weekly liv­ing room fix­ture, with his arch bom­bast and casino blus­ter. In its first sea­son, in 2004, the show drew an av­er­age au­di­ence of some 20 mil­lion view­ers. (By com­par­i­son, in 2016 the first Repub­li­can de­bate, which set a record, drew 24 mil­lion. All the rest drew many fewer. The Demo­cratic de­bates got puny au­di­ences, some­times of 5 mil­lion.) No can­di­date since Ron­ald Rea­gan had en­tered pol­i­tics as well known as Trump.

The Ap­pren­tice was an ideal launch­ing pad for a sec­ond rea­son. It in­cluded black con­tes­tants in power suits, tak­ing their place at the Trump Tower con­fer­ence ta­ble for the end-of-show drub­bing from the egal­i­tar­ian boss, who also dis­pensed “in­sider” wis­dom. It was an at­trac­tive way for For­tune 500 com­pa­nies to reach mi­nor­ity con­sumers with the mes­sage that you could find non­white faces in cor­po­rate board­rooms. Ac­tu­ally there were very few such faces, and hardly any in Trump’s own com­pany. But at a time when crit­ics were rav­ing about The So­pra­nos, the di­verse sea­sonal casts of The Ap­pren­tice seemed a break­through of sorts. “Ac­cord­ing to pri­vate de­mo­graphic re­search con­ducted at the time,” Green re­ports, Trump

“was even more pop­u­lar with African-Amer­i­can and His­panic view­ers than he was with Cau­casian au­di­ences.”

Had Trump main­tained this in­clu­sive im­age, Green spec­u­lates, he might have done better with African-Amer­i­can vot­ers than any Repub­li­can since Dwight Eisen­hower. In­stead, start­ing in

2011, Trump leapt on the racetinged “birther cru­sade” against Pres­i­dent Obama. Not even Ban­non took up the birther argument, though it over­lapped with his own pop­ulist case against out-of-touch elites. Why, then, Green asks, did Trump need­lessly “torch his re­la­tion­ship with mi­nor­ity vot­ers”?

One an­swer is that Trump, the en­light­ened boss, was a fake, and his show a Potemkin vil­lage. Ran­dal Pin­kett, an African-Amer­i­can Rhodes Scholar who won The Ap­pren­tice com­pe­ti­tion in its fourth sea­son, spoke out against Trump dur­ing the elec­tion, say­ing that Trump made racist com­ments to him and tried to talk him into shar­ing the vic­tory with a white fe­male run­ner-up. Pin­kett has also said that when he joined the Trump or­ga­ni­za­tion—his prize for win­ning the com­pe­ti­tion—“I never sat in a room with another per­son of color over my en­tire year there.” For Trump, it ap­pears, ideas about race aren’t fixed be­liefs, but mov­able parts of the scenery.

He’d got­ten in trou­ble on race back in 1989, when he had taken out full-page ads in four daily New York news­pa­pers de­mand­ing the harsh­est sen­tences for the black and Latino teenagers con­victed of rap­ing the Cen­tral Park jog­ger; he had stub­bornly in­sisted on their guilt, even af­ter DNA ev­i­dence cleared them and the ac­tual rapist con­fessed in 2002. Yet all it took was a lit­tle tinker­ing with The Ap­pren­tice cast to erase that mem­ory and el­e­vate his “pos­i­tive Q rat­ings”—the mea­sure of a brand’s pop­u­lar­ity used widely in mar­ket­ing. A sim­i­lar mes­sage ad­just­ment could like­wise fix the birther prob­lem. Trump’s brazen in­sis­tence that “the blacks” and even His­pan­ics would rally to him in 2016 was not quite so crazy as it sounded. In the end he did slightly better with both groups than Mitt Rom­ney did in 2012. Green shrewdly sees a sec­ond mo­tive for Trump’s cling­ing to the birther fan­tasy: it tapped into a huge new con­stituency. In his trans­ac­tional world of “com­mu­ta­tive prop­erty,” Trump had traded one au­di­ence for another. His canny in­sight—or in­stinct—was to un­der­stand that the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion would go to the can­di­date who trav­eled the farthest down­stream, not just to view­ers of Fox News but to the au­di­ences who tuned in to con­spir­a­to­rial talk ra­dio and drew their news from cus­tom­ized In­ter­net feeds and so­cial me­dia.

Trump’s con­ser­va­tive crit­ics are also aware of what many Repub­li­can vot­ers re­ally think, but they are un­easy about it. When Na­tional Re­view pub­lished its much-dis­cussed “Con­ser­va­tives Against Trump” sym­po­sium in Jan­uary 2016, shortly be­fore the Iowa cau­cuses, not one of the twenty-two con­trib­u­tors, drawn from across the con­ser­va­tive spec­trum, even men­tioned Trump’s birther ob­ses­sion. They knew the au­di­ence they were try­ing to reach ei­ther didn’t ob­ject to what Trump had done or ap­proved of it. (Even at this late date, as many as 40 per­cent of Repub­li­cans still be­lieve Obama wasn’t born in Amer­ica.) In­stead, the ed­i­tors and writ­ers all ac­cused Trump of be­ing poorly versed in the doc­trine of “limited govern­ment” and “con­sti­tu­tional con­ser­vatism.” Vot­ers didn’t care. Ted Cruz ex­pertly rat­tled off con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples but barely held his own against Trump with evan­gel­i­cals in the Deep South.

In early 2012, Ban­non had been help­ing An­drew Bre­it­bart raise cap­i­tal for a re­launch of his site and se­cured $10 mil­lion from the hedge fund bil­lion­aire Robert Mercer and his daugh­ter Re­bekah—“the alt-Kochs,” Green calls them. But in March of that year, Bre­it­bart dropped dead of a heart at­tack on a side­walk in Brent­wood, at age forty-three. At Bre­it­bart’s fu­neral, Ban­non told Drudge he was go­ing ahead with the re­launch and would be in charge him­self. He had the bless­ings of the Mercers.

He had a new theme, the per­ils of im­mi­gra­tion, one com­po­nent of his pop­ulist na­tion­al­ism and its ha­tred of “sec­u­lar” glob­al­ist “elites.” Again Wash­ing­ton Con­fi­den­tial is a use­ful guide. Its authors told lurid sto­ries of a crime- and sex-crazed black pop­u­la­tion, grow­ing but half hid­den, which set upon white cit­i­zens and the po­lice, who were pow­er­less to make ar­rests and get con­vic­tions be­cause of lib­eral politi­cians and judges. Ban­non up­dated this case in Bre­it­bart, only now the threat came from law­less im­mi­grant hordes stream­ing across the bor­der into “sanc­tu­ary cities,” where they com­mit­ted crimes, in­clud­ing mur­der and rape, and again went un­pun­ished. In 2013, Ban­non set up a Bre­it­bart bureau in Lub­bock, Texas, to re­port on this. He also got to know bor­der agents. Many of Trump’s slurs against Mex­i­can im­mi­grants came from them, Green re­ports, and for the like­minded had the ring of the truth at last be­ing spo­ken by a can­di­date un­afraid to defy po­lit­i­cal speech codes.

It was Ban­non too who staged Trump’s visit to the Mex­i­can bor­der in July 2015, weeks af­ter he an­nounced his can­di­dacy, with Trump step­ping out of his pri­vate Boe­ing jet­liner “in a gold-but­toned navy blazer, khakis, and white golf shoes” and pre­tend­ing he’d braved the trip de­spite warn­ings that his life was in dan­ger. It was re­ported at the time as an empty stunt. But Trump promptly over­took Jeb Bush in the polls and never looked back.

Ban­non be­gan dish­ing up a se­ri­ous-sound­ing ide­ol­ogy for Trump based on his own hectic sam­pling of Euro­pean re­ac­tionar­ies like the anti-im­mi­grant French writer Jean Ra­s­pail (whose dystopian 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, has be­come a kind of Ban­non short­hand for the per­ils of mass im­mi­gra­tion), Réne Guénon, a French Catholic who be­came a Sufi Mus­lim, and the proto­fas­cist Julius Evola. Ban­non could de­liver th­ese big ideas in the ex­cited “high con­cept” sim­pli­fi­ca­tions of a Hol­ly­wood pitch man. It was flat­ter­ing to Trump, who has no pa­tience for books, to hear how his cam­paign wasn’t the “joke or ego trip” so many were calling it but the van­guard of the world­wide pop­ulist upris­ing.

Ban­non could back this up, too. Nigel Farage, the Bri­tish ex­trem­ist who had led the Brexit cam­paign, said the cheer­lead­ing in Bre­it­bart Lon­don had made a dif­fer­ence in the Brexit vote; in thanks, Farage gave Ban­non a gift—a portrait in the style of Jac­ques-Louis David, with Ban­non done up as Napoleon.

But it wasn’t all high-mind­ed­ness. Ban­non also fired Trump up with in­sults about the “fuck­ing bull dyke” Hil­lary Clin­ton. Th­ese were not sim­ply tossed in. Green as­serts, with a good deal of sup­port­ing ev­i­dence, that from the be­gin­ning the elec­tion was less about Trump—a “blunt in­stru­ment for us,” as Ban­non said—than about Clin­ton. Another of Ban­non’s projects was set­ting up an op­er­a­tion, the Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity In­sti­tute, in Tal­la­has­see, which pro­duced anti Clin­ton lit­er­a­ture—not Drudge-style leaks, but care­fully planned lines of at­tack, “sto­ry­board­ing it out months in ad­vance.” The in­sti­tute’s great prod­uct was a book, Clin­ton Cash, a muck­rak­ing ex­posé on the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion

by Peter Sch­weizer that had just enough sub­stance for wide cir­cu­la­tion.* Ban­non took the find­ings, in­clud­ing Bill Clin­ton’s con­tacts with for­eign gov­ern­ments while Hil­lary Clin­ton was sec­re­tary of state, to The New York Times. It was his deftest stroke. With his busi­ness­man’s knowl­edge of me­dia fi­nances he knew news­pa­pers were strug­gling. Ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue was shrink­ing, and news­rooms could no longer af­ford to in­vest money and staff on a se­condary in­ves­tiga­tive story like the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion. The paper had al­ready been part­ner­ing with non­profit news­rooms like Pro Publica. Ban­non also knew that re­porters, while of­ten lib­eral, aren’t ide­o­log­i­cal. They want good sto­ries, just as Drudge and Bre­it­bart did, even if they ad­here to much more scrupu­lous stan­dards. In­deed, there were ques­tions to be raised about the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion, though noth­ing il­le­gal was turned up, in con­trast to the Trump Foun­da­tion, whose glar­ing tax avoid­ance shenani­gans got lit­tle at­ten­tion in the press. To Clin­ton sup­port­ers, it gave new cred­i­bil­ity to the “vast right-wing con­spir­acy,” as Hil­lary Clin­ton had called it in 1998.

Even if there was no con­spir­acy, a Clin­ton fix­a­tion did ex­ist, and Trump’s 2016 vic­tory was its most boun­ti­ful har­vest. The crown­ing ev­i­dence came dur­ing the fi­nal months be­fore the elec­tion, when Re­bekah Mercer told Trump he should for­mally ap­point Ban­non to run the cam­paign he had hith­erto been ad­vis­ing from the sidelines—and not just Ban­non, Mercer sug­gested, but also the poll­ster Kellyanne Con­way, whose his­tory of Clin­ton-bash­ing dated back to the 1990s. Con­way’s hus­band, Ge­orge Con­way, had been Paula Jones’s lawyer in her sex­ual ha­rass­ment suit against Bill Clin­ton. David Bossie also joined, as Con­way’s deputy.

In early Oc­to­ber, af­ter the Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood video show­ing Trump’s lewd boast about sex­ual as­sault was leaked to The Wash­ing­ton Post, Ban­non mounted the tu quoque coun­terof­fen­sive, with ap­pear­ances by Jones and oth­ers. An­drew Bre­it­bart also contributed, from be­yond the grave. His rev­e­la­tions about An­thony Weiner had started another trail of in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and it got tan­gled with the elec­tion when the FBI di­rec­tor James Comey rashly said the bureau had cap­tured e-mails on the com­puter of Weiner’s wife, Huma Abe­din, a mem­ber of Clin­ton’s in­ner cir­cle, that might re­late to the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Clin­ton’s use of a pri­vate e-mail server when she was sec­re­tary of state. Clin­ton has said this last Oc­to­ber sur­prise cost her the elec­tion. Green re­ports that the Trump cam­paign’s own “data an­a­lyt­ics” reg­is­tered a sharp break to­ward Trump at ex­actly that time.

In the first months of the Trump pres­i­dency, when Ban­non was script­ing its Grand Guig­nol themes—promis­ing an end to “Amer­i­can car­nage” through a “de­con­struc­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state”—jour­nal­ists dili­gently worked through his ar­cane read­ing lists to dis­cern a co­her­ent Trump ide­ol­ogy. A better clue could have been found in Ban­non’s White House of­fice. He had the floor-to-ceil­ing book­cases re­moved and re­placed with white­boards on which he has scrib­bled out some of the Trump pol­icy goals, many of them deal­ing with the un­remit­ting war on im­mi­grants and refugees: “Hire 5,000 more Bor­der Pa­trol agents”; “Can­cel all fed­eral fund­ing to sanc­tu­ary cities”; “Pro­pose pas­sage of Davis-Oliver bill” (to ex­pand the pow­ers of Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment).

A vast im­mi­grant-cleans­ing project seems to be the main order of busi­ness for Trump and Ban­non. It took only a week for the Trump White House to an­nounce a travel ban, in­stantly chal­lenged by fed­eral judges, though the Supreme Court is now let­ting a re­vised ban go for­ward in part. Mean­while, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has or­dered hun­dreds of roundups of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants in many cities while threat­en­ing mil­lions more with de­por­ta­tion. And other com­po­nents of the vaunted Amer­ica First agenda are com­ing into view—such as Trump’s vow to with­draw from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord and his blis­ter­ing at­tack on in­ter­na­tion­al­ism at the G20 sum­mit in July.

This is not to say Ban­non’s world­view has gone un­chal­lenged. A Time mag­a­zine cover story on him in Fe­bru­ary, “The Great Ma­nip­u­la­tor,” an­gered Trump, and cost Ban­non a cher­ished place in Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil meet­ings. He has also feuded con­tin­u­ally with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kush­ner. At first this seemed a fa­tal mis­cal­cu­la­tion, given Kush­ner’s priv­i­leged stand­ing. Yet Ban­non pre­vailed over Kush­ner and Kush­ner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, in the in­ter­nal bat­tle over the Paris ac­cord. And now, as scan­dal en­gulfs Kush­ner and Don­ald Trump Jr., who both met with a Rus­sian of­fi­cial in the hope of get­ting dirt on Clin­ton, the bal­ance could tilt back in Ban­non’s fa­vor.

Trump him­self will de­cide who stays and who is sent pack­ing (“You’re fired!”), though for now he seems ab­sorbed in the daily project of bur­nish­ing his brand, which means keep­ing his huge “au­di­ence” en­ter­tained. He hasn’t let them down. They now have the sat­is­fac­tion of see­ing him in the Oval Of­fice, re­done as a kind of Belt­way Trump Tower, com­plete with gold drapes—in ad­di­tion to catch­ing glimpses of him at his palace, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach. And there is al­ways a fresh episode in his run­ning fight with ad­ver­saries and de­trac­tors.

His fans still come out in droves. At the Trump rally in June in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, they stood in line for hours— or even camped out overnight—to re­live the ex­cite­ment of the cam­paign. When they shouted the fa­mil­iar chants (“Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!”) no one cared that Clin­ton re­mains at large, the wall un­built, and the pres­i­dency it­self in peril.

But if Trump is eas­ily dis­tracted, Ban­non is not. Green’s book is in part a cau­tion­ary tale: both Trump and Ban­non have a his­tory of be­ing taken lightly only to rear up and catch the skep­tics by sur­prise. Ban­non was scoffed at in Hol­ly­wood, and in the early stages of the elec­tion he seemed no match for Roger Ailes. Most thought Trump would be laughed off the stage once the votes were counted. Those as­sump­tions are now haunt­ing mem­o­ries. Ban­non is still with us, and for the time be­ing his “blunt in­stru­ment” is still in the White House.

—July 13, 2017

Steve Ban­non

Don­ald Trump

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