Trump and Ban­non form a part­ner­ship of big egos

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book review by Marc Fisher

In Joshua Green’s con­cep­tion of the per­fect storm that pro­duced the Trump pres­i­dency, Steve Ban­non is the bril­liant ide­o­logue who had spent years search­ing for the right ves­sel for his na­tion­al­ist, pop­ulist pol­i­tics, and Don­ald Trump is the in­tel­lec­tu­ally un­moored mas­ter mar­keter who had ev­ery­thing but a mes­sage to win over mil­lions of frus­trated Amer­i­cans.

The two men come to­gether in a mar­riage made by Hil­lary Clin­ton, a merger ce­mented in the decades-long ob­ses­sions of the anti-Clin­ton right, a sub­cul­ture of roil­ing ha­treds and con­spir­acy the­o­ries that rose up to take over the Repub­li­can Party and fi­nally crush the Clin­ton ma­chine.

Ban­non did come to the 2016 cam­paign with a bub­bling pot of no­tions about the de­cline of the West and the ex­is­ten­tial threat posed by both rad­i­cal Is­lam and cor­po­ratist fi­nanciers on Wall Street (where he spent much of his early ca­reer). But the story of Trump and Ban­non is only partly a tale of charisma con­nect­ing with con­tent.

The “Devil’s Bar­gain” in Green’s ti­tle refers to what the au­thor, a re­porter at Bloomberg Busi­ness­week, calls an “im­plicit bar­gain” be­tween Ban­non and Trump in which the can­di­date adopts the mas­ter­mind’s hard-right, na­tion­al­is­tic pro­gram, and to­gether

these two out­siders — each in his own way seething with re­sent­ments about class, re­spect and stature — land the ul­ti­mate in­sider po­si­tions.

But the dev­il­ish bond be­tween Ban­non and Trump is best re­vealed through each man’s most suc­cess­ful ven­tures: Bre­it­bart and “The Ap­pren­tice.” Two men who de­light in rail­ing pub­licly against the me­dia are se­rial en­trepreneurs who found their most en­dur­ing and pow­er­ful in­flu­ence when they built me­dia prop­er­ties that shot bull’s-eye­sinto the Amer­i­can psy­che.

Through Bre­it­bart, which Ban­non ran af­ter the death of its founder, An­drew Bre­it­bart, in 2012, Ban­non learned how pop­ulism could blend with the power of new me­dia to pro­duce a po­lit­i­cal jug­ger­naut. With “The Ap­pren­tice,” Trump crys­tal­lized a life­time of me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion, craft­ing an on-air char­ac­ter who was at once a bil­lion­aire ob­ject of as­pi­ra­tional envy and a man of the peo­ple.

Mix, bring to a rapid boil, and — voila! — the re­sult is a ro­bust and rad­i­cal new dish on the menu of Amer­i­can democ­racy.

But a key in­gre­di­ent is un­der­val­ued in this ef­fort to retroac­tively write a recipe for the Trump vic­tory: celebrity. “The Ap­pren­tice” not only al­lowed Trump a fresh start af­ter three decades as a pop-culture punch­line, but the real­ity show also be­stowed upon the bil­lion­aire a new level of fame, which he cor­rectly saw as a kind of bul­let­proof­ing. Through­out 2016, as one reve­la­tion af­ter an­other pum­meled vot­ers with ev­i­dence of Trump’s fi­nan­cial fail­ures and per­sonal mis­deeds, the can­di­date was con­fi­dent that he would sur­vive be­cause he would be judged not as a politi­cian but as a celebrity.

Just as sports fig­ures and Hol­ly­wood types are al­lowed their foibles and felonies as long as they keep us en­ter­tained, so, too, would Trump get away with all kinds of stuff that would be ca­reer-end­ing for politi­cians of any party or ide­ol­ogy.

Green makes an im­por­tant point about the vi­tal role “The Ap­pren­tice” played in mak­ing Trump pres­i­dent. On the show, Trump was even more pop­u­lar among blacks and His­pan­ics than he was among whites. That made him a dar­ling of ad­ver­tis­ers ea­ger to be as­so­ci­ated with a show and a char­ac­ter that were friendly to a mul­ti­cul­tural im­age of the new Amer­ica.

Trump will­ingly dis­carded that as­pect of his pop­u­lar­ity when he went af­ter Barack Obama by be­com­ing a lead­ing spokesman of the birther move­ment. Green, like many ob­servers, sees Trump’s em­brace of birtherism as a con­scious, strate­gic ap­peal to la­tent racist ten­den­cies among dis­af­fected Amer­i­cans. But Trump’s life is a con­sis­tent pat­tern of im­pul­sive acts that tell us more about his prej­u­dices and predilec­tions than about any well-hid­den phi­los­o­phy or prin­ci­ples.

The no­tion that Trump knew, as he sank ever deeper into birtherism and re­lated depar­tures from real­ity, that he was sab­o­tag­ing his pop­u­lar­ity among black and His­panic vot­ers does not com­port with the life he has lived. Trump main­tained right up to Elec­tion Day that he would do ex­ceed­ingly well among racial mi­nori­ties. The in­sults and slurs he traf­ficks in ex­press his free-float­ing ag­gres­sion far more than any ide­ol­ogy or strat­egy.

Green ar­gues that Ban­non had the up­per hand in the re­la­tion­ship that won the pres­i­dency and that his pri­mary tool was ideas. The wizard of the new Amer­i­can pop­ulism is pre­sented as Oz, the grand ma­nip­u­la­tor, the se­cret power be­hind the throne. But just as the Oz of the chil­dren’s clas­sic turned out to be a sad, small shell of a man who didn’t re­ally have the power to grant courage, heart or smarts to those who lacked them, Ban­non, could not have waved his magic wand and put any old pol into of­fice, ei­ther.

It was Trump who used his in­stincts and above all his celebrity to sur­vive the “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” grop­ing tape and the “John Miller” PR man record­ing and the bankrupt­cies and myr­iad other cam­paign dis­as­ters.

“Devil’s Bar­gain” mar­kets it­self as a dual pro­file, the story of the core re­la­tion­ship that shaped Trump’s ap­peal and his pres­i­dency. The ten­dency here to put Ban­non at the heart of the ac­tion per­haps stems in part from the fact that Green had more than 20 hours of in­ter­views with Ban­non and just 90 min­utes with Trump.

But there are some re­mark­able par­al­lels be­tween the two men. Both went through elite in­sti­tu­tions — Har­vard, Gold­man Sachs, Hol­ly­wood for Ban­non; Penn, in­her­ited wealth, New York’s high so­ci­ety for Trump — yet re­mained out­siders miffed that the true elites would never re­spect them. Both rel­ish the at­tack; Green has good de­tail on how Trump and Ban­non crafted a way out of the grop­ing­tape mess by, as Ban­non put it, turn­ing Bill Clin­ton into Bill Cosby.

Like Trump, Ban­non, too, learns es­sen­tial lessons from his me­dia suc­cesses. In 2005, he moved to Hong Kong and jumped into the busi­ness of video games, dis­cov­er­ing a dis­af­fected world of young Amer­i­can men who lived in the al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties of games that took up much of their time — “a rolling tum­ble­weed of wounded male id and ag­gres­sion” that he would tap into through both Bre­it­bart and the Trump cam­paign.

Ban­non in this book is a much richer char­ac­ter than Trump, pre­sented less as the mad ge­nius of the na­tion­al­ist right and more as a hun­gry, am­bi­tious searcher, an in­tel­lec­tual wan­derer who craves great­ness but has trou­ble stick­ing with any sin­gle path.

The por­trayal of Trump of­fers a straight­for­ward recita­tion of how the can­di­date con­sis­tently out­foxed and out­punched the op­po­si­tion. Green is jus­ti­fi­ably fas­ci­nated by the pos­si­bil­ity that Trump might have run well to the left of Repub­li­can or­tho­doxy — em­brac­ing his mul­ti­eth­nic fan base; po­si­tion­ing him­self as a so­cial lib­eral, as he of­ten had on Howard Stern’s ra­dio show; push­ing, as he did against Mitt Rom­ney af­ter the 2012 elec­tion, for a more lib­eral ap­proach on im­mi­gra­tion.

But Trump con­cluded in 2013 that the votes were on the other side, that the post-2012 Repub­li­can con­sen­sus that the party had to ap­peal to Lati­nos and lib­er­al­ize its ap­proach on im­mi­gra­tion was not the way to dis­af­fected vot­ers’ hearts. The ev­i­dence, there­fore, is not that Trump was a nat­u­ral na­tion­al­ist ea­ger to cre­ate a white-iden­tity move­ment but rather that he would do what it took to win, pe­riod.

Two big egos came to­gether in ser­vice of their be­lief that they could save a de­clin­ing na­tion. One man be­lieved that his ideas would turn his­tory. The other be­lieved that his per­son­al­ity would do the trick. It’s pos­si­ble that his­tory will look back upon Trump and Ban­non as the architects of a cam­paign that al­tered the na­tion’s di­rec­tion. It’s also pos­si­ble that his­tory will set­tle on a more mod­est in­ter­pre­ta­tion of events: As Ban­non puts it in “Devil’s Bar­gain,” Clin­ton “rep­re­sented ev­ery­thing that mid­dle­class Amer­i­cans had had enough of.” And maybe, as the Made­line books say, that’s all there is, there isn’t any more.

DEVIL’S BAR­GAIN Steve Ban­non, Don­ald Trump, and the Storm­ing of the Pres­i­dency By Joshua Green Pen­guin Press. 272 pp. $27

MATT MC­CLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Like Pres­i­dent Trump, White House se­nior coun­selor Steve Ban­non learned in a pre­vi­ous ca­reer how to blend pop­ulism with the power of me­dia.

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