Inside The ‘Shakespearean Irony’ Of Trump And Bannon’s Relationship
In August 2016, three months before the presidential election, Republican nominee Donald Trump was behind in the polls. Instead of staying on message, the candidate was engaged in a politically damaging fight with the parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq.
On Aug. 17, in an effort to change course, the Trump team appointed Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the conservative Breitbart News, to lead the campaign. Journalist Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek says the switch would prove to be a turning point.
"[Trump] was headed toward a pretty serious loss, and Bannon brought his wealth of anti-Clinton knowledge into the campaign and managed to keep Trump focused on a target," Green says.
Green argues that Bannon’s experiences with Breitbart gave him a framework for mobilizing disaffected young white male voters who were attracted to Trump. Without such guidance, Green says, "I don’t think that Donald Trump would have been elected president."
Despite Bannon’s success in the campaign, Green says that the adviser’s nationalist vision remains largely unfulfilled. "The kind of tragic, Shakespearean irony of the Donald Trump-Steve Bannon relationship is that Bannon finally did find the vessel for his ideas who could get elected president … [but who] now doesn’t have the focus, the wherewithal, the self-control to even do the basic things that a president needs to do."
Green’s new book, Devil’s Bargain, profiles Bannon and explains his role in Trump’s election.
On Bannon’s role in the Trump administration now
Life in Trump’s inner circle is a constant roller coaster; you’re either going up or you’re going down. Earlier, Bannon fell out of favor when Trump decided that he was getting too much attention, and Jared Kushner kind of rose in his place, but now with the Russia scandal that’s embroiled so many members of the Trump family and inner circle, Bannon, almost by default, is kind of back in good standing. And, in fact, Trump sent him back from Saudi Arabia on the foreign trip that he took in May to go and set up the outside legal organization that was meant to hive off the Russia scandal and try to keep Trump himself as separated from that as possible.
On whether Bannon has any connections to Russia
Not that I know of. Bannon, in a sense, was lucky, in that he came into the campaign very late. He came in mid-August of 2016, which was after a lot of the Russia meetings, including the June 9[, 2016,] Russia meeting with [Donald Trump Jr.] that’s been so much in the news lately. So I don’t think that Bannon is involved in anything that I’ve heard of, although the one lesson we’ve learned with Trump in his campaign is that you can really never rule anything out, no matter how far-fetched.
On how Bannon’s experience with angry video gamers later influenced his strategy as the head of Breitbart News
After Goldman Sachs, [Bannon] wound up as the CEO of a video game company in Hong Kong that didn’t actually produce video games, but what it did was to try and formalize a process called "gold farming." And what that is, is literally they would hire people to play video games and win gold and prizes in the game that they would then turn around and sell to people in the real world so that they could be more powerful and more successful in these massive, multiplayer, online games like World of Warcraft.
This was a serious business, it had backing from Goldman Sachs, and right out of the gate, it made a lot of money. But what happened next was interesting. The players in the actual games, who tended to be young males, bridled at the idea that people were essentially cheating, that they were buying these weapons and things to get ahead in the game, and the players themselves tended to congregate on these message boards that were devoted to [massive multiplayer games], and they organized themselves and they basically went after the video game companies and said, "You need to stop this. You need to push out these gold farmers."
And they had enough power that they basically ruined Bannon’s business. But the lesson he took away from that was that these rootless white males who spend all their time online actually had what he told me was "monster power" to go out and [effect] change, and that they operated at a kind of sub-rosa level that most people didn’t see. So when he moved over to Breitbart News a couple years later, one of his goals he told me was trying to track these people and radicalize them in a political sense, which is basically what wound up happening.
On Bannon joining forces with anti-Clinton operatives Kellyanne Conway and David Bossie in the Trump campaign
What was so interesting to me about the fact that Bannon and this group wound up in charge of Trump’s campaign come mid-August was that they had really spent the previous 20-25 years as professional anti-Clinton operatives, which, believe it or not, is a distinct professional category within Republican politics. There’s no real analog on the left — you can’t make a living anymore as an anti-Obama operative or an anti-George W. Bush operative, but there’s always an appetite among conservative donors, among conservative activists for anti-Clinton stuff, so you literally had people who had spent 20-25 years thinking and plotting about how to stop Hillary Clinton suddenly in charge of a half-a-billion-dollar presidential campaign led by a candidate who is more than willing to carry out those attacks.
On the degree to which Trump subscribes to Bannon’s belief system
I think that Trump is driven mainly by opportunism, by a desire to pursue whatever is going to get Donald Trump positive coverage on cable news now. During the campaign when Bannon’s nationalism seemed to work for him that’s what he would espouse, but when that stopped working for him in February after he became president, he was happy to bring in people who nationalists abhor, people like Gary Cohn from Goldman Sachs. He was willing to listen to Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka, who are the furthest you can get from nationalists. So I don’t know that Trump really has any policy beliefs at all.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. In the days after Donald Trump was elected, the world wondered, how could this happen, writes my guests Joshua Green. Even now, Green says, there’s a sense that some vital piece of the puzzle was missing. He thinks that piece is Steve Bannon, the subject of Green’s new book. It’s called "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency."
Green describes Bannon as a brilliant ideologue from the outer fringe of American politics and an opportunistic businessman who was searching for the perfect vessel for his populist-nationalist ideas. He found that vessel in Donald Trump. Green has interviewed Bannon many times over the past few years and first profiled him in 2015. Green is a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and a former senior editor of The Atlantic.
Joshua Green, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So Steve Bannon was seen as, like, the power behind Donald Trump, the power behind President Trump. But then he seemed to lose power to Jared Kushner. But now Jared Kushner is in hot water because of the Russia meeting. So what is Steve Bannon’s role now within the administration and is he on the ins or on the outs?
JOSHUA GREEN: Well, life in Trump’s inner circle is a constant roller coaster. You’re either going up or you’re going down. Earlier, Bannon fell out of favor when Trump decided that he was getting too much attention. And Jared Kushner kind of rose in his place. But now with the Russia scandal that’s embroiled so many members of the Trump family and inner circle, Bannon, almost by default, is kind of back in good standing.
And, in fact, Trump sent him back from Saudi Arabia on the foreign trip that he took in May to go and set up the outside legal organization that was meant to hive off the Russia scandal and try and keep Trump himself as separated from that as possible.
GROSS: Does Bannon have any connections that you know of that are on the verge of being investigated or have been investigated pertaining to Russia?
GREEN: Not that I know of. Bannon, in a sense, was lucky in that he came into the campaign very late. He came in in mid-August of 2016, which was after a lot of the Russia meetings, including the June 9 Russia meeting with Don Jr. that’s been so much in the news lately. So I don’t think that Bannon is involved in anything that I’ve heard of, although the one lesson we’ve learned with Trump and his campaign is that you can really never rule anything out no matter how far-fetched.
GROSS: I’d like you to describe Bannon’s nationalist vision.
GREEN: So Bannon’s nationalism is something, I think, that grew out of both his Catholic upbringing, his blue-collar background but especially the financial crisis, the rise of the Tea Party. That is when he went from being a Goldman Sachs banker, a Hollywood guy to really moving over into the political sphere. He was one of Sarah Palin’s early champions.
When I met him in 2011, he was already espousing this kind of populist-nationalist politics that was different from anything you were hearing back then on the left or the right. It was not quite a third way, but it was a different sort of Republicanism than we in Washington were accustomed to hearing about.
GROSS: During the campaign, Donald Trump hammered Hillary Clinton for having connections to Goldman Sachs. Bannon used to work for Goldman Sachs. He specialized in mergers and acquisitions. He started doing that in their Hollywood office, then started his own boutique bank dealing with TV and movies. And then he took over an internet gaming company.
And you write about how that gaming company helped shape his vision of how to create a base of support for his vision. He saw people there, disaffected young men, who he wanted to mobilize for his cause. Would you describe this untapped group that he came across – politically untapped group that he came across through internet gaming?
GREEN: Yeah, this is a fascinating story about what is the rise of what’s known today as the alt-right. And Bannon, who has a fascinating and varied career after Goldman Sachs, wound up as the CEO of a video game company in Hong Kong that didn’t actually produce video games. But what it did was to try and formalize a process called gold farming.
And what that is is, literally, they would hire people to play video games and win gold and prizes in the game that they would then turn around and sell to people in the real world so they could be more powerful, more successful in these what were called massive multiplayer online games, like "World Of Warcraft."
This was a serious business. It had backing from Goldman Sachs. And right out of the gate, it made a lot of money. But what happened next was interesting. The players in the actual games, who tended to be young males, bridled at the idea that people were essentially cheating, that they were buying these weapons and things to get ahead in the game. And the players themselves tended to congregate on these message boards that were devoted to MMO games, to the massive multiplayer games.
And they organized themselves, and they basically went after the videogame companies and said, you know, you need to stop this. You need to push out these gold farmers. And they had enough power that they basically ruined Bannon’s business. But the lesson he took away from that was that these rootless white males who spend all their time online actually had what he told me was, quote, "monster power," to go out there and affect change and that they operated at a kind of sub rosa level that most people didn’t see.
So when he moved over to Breitbart News a couple of years later, one of his goals, he told me, was to try and attract these people and radicalize them in a political sense, which is basically what wound up happening.
GROSS: So did Bannon see Breitbart News as his connection to those disaffected white men that he’d discovered through the gaming industry and that he wanted to mobilize?
GREEN: In a word, yes. He thought when he took over Breitbart News that one of the things they wanted to do was kind of grow this audience and really become a kind of locus for the populist nationalism, that’s what Bannon calls it, that he thought was so important and needed to be injected into the American political debate.
And one of the ways he did that was by hiring a very controversial figure named Milo Yiannopoulos, a British provocateur who Bannon hired as his tech editor. And as he explains to me in the book, essentially, he thought that Milo could be the bridge between these rootless, disaffected white gamers and the Breitbart world of populist politics that he was trying to build up. Milo came into Breitbart News and began to publish the kind of screaming offensive headlines that have gotten so much attention over the last year or two.
He was part of this gamergate scandal that attacked females in the gaming industry and did all sorts of things to attract this crowd from the world of gaming and message boards like Reddit and 4chan over into the Breitbart universe where a lot of them became enamored with Trump, I think some of them in an ironic, nonpolitical way.
But this sort of gave rise to what we know of as the alt-right, this very active, aggressive group of online people who attacked journalists, who attacked other politicians, who attacked Trump’s adversaries during the campaign and have kind of become a fixture of our digital political life ever since.
GROSS: So how did Steve Bannon first get connected to Donald Trump? You said they were introduced through David Bossie?
GREEN: They were introduced by David Bossie, who as some listeners may know, is a longtime Republican operative whose specialty really is taking on the Clintons. Bossie first came on the scenes as an investigator for Dan Burton, the chairman of the Government Oversight Committee in the ’90s, who was the main figure trying to take down Bill Clinton at the time.
Bossie was fired from his job for doctoring tapes that were meant to incriminate Bill and Hillary Clinton. But he wound up becoming the head of a group called Citizens United, which is probably most famous today for having sued the FEC and won the Citizens United Supreme Court case that was built around a movie that Bossie and Citizens United had produced, an anti-Hillary Clinton movie that was supposed to run on the eve of the 2008 election.
So Trump met Bossie through Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino mogul. And they were at a fundraiser. He brought the two of them together. Trump was thinking about getting more seriously involved in politics, started turning to Bossie for advice. And one day in 2010, Bossie asked his friend Steve Bannon to come along. And that’s how they all met.
GROSS: I’ll tell you what, let’s take a short break here and then we’ll talk some more about Steve Bannon. And my guest is Joshua Green, and his new book is called "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump And The Storming Of The Presidency." We’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Joshua Green, the author of the new book "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump And The Storming Of The Presidency." And Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and has been writing for a while about Steve Bannon. So one of the key things behind Steve Bannon becoming Donald Trump’s chief strategist during the campaign was the Mercer family – Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, who were big funders on the right.
You call them the kind of alt-Koch brothers. So they’d already been funding Breitbart News. So they already knew Steve Bannon through Breitbart. What was Rebekah Mercer’s role in getting Trump to hire Bannon as his chief campaign strategist?
GREEN: Well, I think Rebekah Mercer, who is Robert Mercer’s daughter, is really the more politically active of the two. But Mercer himself is a fascinating guy, a self-made hedge fund billionaire, famous recluse, very conservative. And the Mercers are essentially the merchant bankers for Bannon and a lot of his political organizations, not only Breitbart News but also the Government Accountability Institute, which is the outfit that produced the "Clinton Cash" book.
They fund Cambridge Analytica, which is a data analysis firm that helped Trump get elected. And they were also big donors to Trump, both directly and in terms of funding various super PAC efforts that were meant to help his candidacy, including the Stop Crooked Hillary PAC that Bannon and Bossie briefly worked on before they joined the campaign.
Rebekah Mercer is, you know, very aggressive, very involved in politics and has clear ideas about what she wants to do. And so I describe a scene in the book in early August where she flies out to visit Trump at a fundraiser in East Hampton and essentially says, you need to make a change now in your campaign or you’re going to lose badly.
And Trump says, well, what do you think I should do? And she says, I think you ought to hire Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. I know them. They’ll do it. And within a couple of days, that’s exactly what happened.
GROSS: So she basically tells Trump, you have to fire Paul Manafort. But it’s Jared Kushner who actually tells Manafort that Manafort has to resign. Donald Trump is known as Mr. You’re-fired. Like, that’s his catchphrase. But he’s not the one who tells Manafort he’s fired. He gets Jared Kushner to do it.
GREEN: I think he had long since lost faith in Paul Manafort as a campaign manager. When Manafort came in, it was after the tumultuous reign of Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager. And what Manafort was trying to do was to essentially sand the rough edges off Trump and make him a little more palatable to the Republican donor class because it was clear, you know, now he’s the nominee, we need to kind of put our best foot forward.
And Trump is going to need to raise a lot of money from rich conservatives who are very skeptical of him and what he stands for. But that never really clicked. Manafort never clicked with Trump. Trump would tell his advisers that he thought Manafort was low-energy. And we all know that’s the mark of death when Trump calls you low-energy.
GREEN: But it was a New York Times story that really did Manafort in. And they reported in mid-August that Manafort’s name appeared on a Ukrainian ledger as having been the recipient of cash payments from a pro-Russia political party, which caused a real firestorm, which upset Trump. He decided that Manafort needed to go.
And as the story was told to me, Kushner at breakfast said very politely to Manafort, listen, you know, you’re really coming under a lot of heat. I don’t think this is good for the campaign and we’d like to have your resignation. And Manafort protested and said, well, look, I don’t – you know, I’ll look guilty if I resign.
I don’t want to do this. And Kushner looks at him and says, well, listen, we’re sending out a press release in about 30 seconds that says you resigned from the campaign. And that was that. Manafort was out and Bannon was really the guy in charge for the homestretch of the campaign.
GROSS: So when Bannon took over the Trump campaign, was he still affiliated with Breitbart? And was he using Breitbart News to campaign for Trump?
GREEN: Formally, Bannon separated from Breitbart News when he joined the Trump campaign. But Breitbart, in a lot of ways, had really been the locus of pro-Trump Republican energy all through the primaries, both before and after Steve Bannon took over the campaign. One of the themes I get at in the book is the division in conservative media. We forget now because Fox lavishes so much positive attention on Donald Trump.
But in the beginning, Fox was not uniformly pro-Trump. There was Sean Hannity, who has always been a Trump fan. But there were also people like Megyn Kelly, who held Trump to account, who were very skeptical. And if you remember the first Republican debate, Kelly went after Trump. It caused a huge ruckus.
And it really caused a split in the Republican Party between people who were pro-Trump and people who were pro-Fox. And Breitbart, led by Bannon, really went to war with Fox News over the issue of, you know, why are you attacking Donald Trump? This is the guy that represents our base. This is who our voters want.
And there was a very ugly scene between Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon where they’re swearing at each other about whether Breitbart is being too negative to Megyn Kelly and so on. But eventually, Trump and Bannon seem to have won that side of the fight. And by the end of the campaign, you really do see the conservative media with a few never-Trumpers, but most of the media is more or less united behind Trump.
GROSS: It’s interesting. You point out that Steve Bannon thought of Fox News as just being old – that old people watched it, whereas Breitbart was like the young white men who were paying attention to that. So he saw Fox News for a while as just being like out of date.
GREEN: Bannon used to say that Fox News is the establishment wing of the conservative media. And establishment and Steve Bannon’s mind is the great pejorative. He saw Fox viewers as, you know, an older, graying, doddering group of people who didn’t really matter and that the readers of Breitbart were younger and more aggressive and more populist and represented a rising generation of conservative voters. And so he was never very interested in TV. He – Bannon thought that everything, you know, was going to happen on the Internet, online, that that was the future of politics and that that was the way to affect the Republican primary and really get Trump elected.
GROSS: Jeff Sessions, who is now president Trump’s attorney general, was the first senator to endorse candidate Donald Trump. And according to your book, it was Steve Bannon who was behind getting Sessions to endorse Trump. How did he do it?
GREEN: Well, Bannon and Sessions had been allied for a long time. Sessions was one of the rare right-wing populists elected to Congress whose views more or less over overlap with Steve Bannon’s and Breitbart’s. And, you know, we forget just what a pariah Donald Trump was at the outset of the Republican primaries. I mean, he was kind of considered, you know, a punchline, an offensive figure. No one in polite Republican company would endorse him. They were – most of them were afraid to attack him, but nobody really wanted to endorse him. And I think Bannon understood how important it was to get just that one first endorsement in hopes that that would break a dam and that he could really bring in some institutional support for Trump. And so he talked to Sessions, who he had previously tried to talk into running for president three years earlier, simply to advance his ideas of trade and opposition to immigration. Sessions didn’t want to do it, but Bannon basically talked him into coming out and endorsing Trump and said, look, this is the way to advance the issues we care about. This is the guy who will elevate them to the top of the list of issues that Republicans have to talk about. And even if Donald Trump doesn’t win, this will advance our cause. And ultimately, Sessions was persuaded.
GROSS: And Bannon also thought it was really important to mobilize the South. And Sessions from the South. Why was he seeing the future being in the South?
GREEN: This is one fascinating aspect to me of Bannon’s politics. For the last 20 or 30 years, it’s been a belief among Republican strategists that the party’s biggest problem is that it is captive to this Southern mindset. Christopher Caldwell wrote a wonderful series of articles in The Atlantic in the mid-’90s that was called "The Southern Captivity Of The GOP." And Caldwell’s thesis, which I agreed with, was basically that the Republican Party is in danger of becoming a regional party that only represents the interests of white people in the South – conservative white people in the South. And then in order to survive, it needs to broaden its appeal to other generations, to other demographics. It’s the same idea that was at the heart of the 2013 GOP autopsy that the Republican National Committee came out with. But Bannon’s belief was just the opposite, that the South was the motherland of American populism, that that was really what we needed, that the establishments in both parties had become captured by a Wall Street globalist elite that cared more about tax cuts for its high-end donors and free trade than it did about representing the interests of working people. And that turned out to be a very powerful message that was really the key, I think, to Trump’s ability to defeat all the people that he did in the Republican primary because he was really the only person who espoused that kind of Southern populism.
GROSS: My guest is Joshua Green, author of the new book "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency." After a break, we’ll talk about the far-right groups that Bannon mobilized for the Trump campaign. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Joshua Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of the new book "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency." It explains how Bannon developed his ideology, looked for the perfect vessel for his populist-nationalist ideas and found that vessel in Donald Trump. Bannon had been the head of Breitbart News when he took over Trump’s campaign last August.
Now, you describe how Steve Bannon brought on board a group that epitomized what Hillary Clinton in 1998 described as the vast right-wing conspiracy, the vast right-wing conspiracy that had mobilized against the Clintons when he was president. So let’s talk about the people you’re talking about there as actually epitomizing that vast right-wing conspiracy. We’ve talked about David Bossie, the person who is behind Citizens United. Kellyanne Conway and her husband, George Conway, what are their connections to early anti-Hillary work and anti-Bill Clinton work?
GREEN: Early on, Conway – Kellyanne Conway was one of three women that were kind of known colloquially in Washington as the pundettes (ph). They were all blonde conservative outspoken anti-Clinton pundits who rose to fame during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. There was Kellyanne Conway. There was Laura Ingraham, who’s now a conservative radio host. And there’s Ann Coulter, who needs no introduction, was also a big Trump supporter. And what was so interesting to me about the fact that Bannon and this group wound up in charge of Trump’s campaign come mid-August was that they had really spent the previous 20, 25 years as professional anti-Clinton operatives, which believe it or not is a distinct professional category within Republican politics.
There’s no real analog on the left. You can’t make a living anymore as an anti-Obama operative or as an anti-George W. Bush operative, but there’s always an appetite among conservative donors, among conservative activists for anti-Clinton stuff. And so you literally had people who had spent 20, 25 years thinking and plotting about how to stop Hillary Clinton suddenly in charge of a half-billion-dollar presidential campaign led by a candidate who is more than willing to carry out those attacks.
GROSS: And I just want to mention that Kellyanne Conway’s husband George worked on the Paula Jones lawsuit against Clinton and helped prepare the brief on her behalf before the Supreme Court. So he was very much involved in the anti-Bill Clinton effort. And continuing with the anti-Clinton theme here, Robert Mercer, the father of Rebekah Mercer – and they’re both very big funders on the right – during the Clinton presidency – I think it was then – he had this theory or supported the theory that Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas had been involved in a CIA-backed drug-running scheme based out of an Arkansas airport.
GREEN: This was – yes, this was a conspiracy theory that had some prominence on the far-right fringes. You don’t encounter a lot of conservative donors, especially not successful businessmen, who are willing to believe things quite that extreme even if they intensely dislike the Clintons. But I think that gives a flavor of Mercer’s animus and paranoia about the Clintons and helps explain why he was so determined to stop Hillary Clinton from becoming president.
GROSS: So you write that Steve Bannon’s plan to stop Hillary Clinton – once Bannon joined the Trump campaign – the plan was built on four organizations funded by the Mercer family, organizations that they had a stake in in some way. One of them was Breitbart News. We’ve talked about that. One of them was the Government Accountability Institute. Would you describe what that is?
GREEN: Sure the Government Accountability Institute is formerly a nonprofit research organization. But what it did in this case was it became a research center to conduct a kind of forensic examination of the Clinton’s finances especially as they pertain to the Clinton Foundation. And the research that this organization did became the best-selling book that was written by GAI’s president, a guy named Peter Schweizer.
That book, "Clinton Cash," came out just as Clinton was preparing to announce her presidential run and really did a lot to tarnish her image right out of the gate. All the stories about the Clinton Foundation kind of became interspersed with Clinton’s email story and besmirched her in a way that I don’t think she ever fully recovered from. And that was Bannon’s goal from the outset.
GROSS: And it’s interesting, like, although Steve Bannon had been the head of Breitbart News, which is famous for fake news, with the Government Accountability Institute, he wanted that Schweizer book, "Clinton Cash: The Untold Story Of How And Why Foreign Governments And Businesses Helped Make Bill And Hillary Rich," Bannon wanted that book to be fact-based in the hopes that the mainstream press would pick up on it and would publish facts from there and that that would work against Hillary. And that’s in fact what happened.
GREEN: That’s exactly right. In fact, that’s what drew my interest in Bannon originally. He had what I thought was a very shrewd analysis of why conservatives in the 1990s had failed to stop Bill Clinton. And Bannon’s analysis was that conservatives had become so wrapped up in their own rumors and silly scandals – what today we would call fake news – that they didn’t realize that they had kind of lost the general public and did not have credibility. And so they went ahead and impeached Bill Clinton. And then they looked up and nobody really went along with them. It didn’t hurt Clinton politically. It didn’t hurt the Democrats politically.
And Bannon’s analysis of that failure went as follows. He decided that in order to really stop the Clintons, you had to rely on facts and not rumors. And so what he wanted to do was to go in and dig into all the foreign contributors who’d given money to the Clinton Foundation. He wanted to try and get the speeches – the private speeches I should call them – that Hillary Clinton gave to Goldman Sachs and others and really fan this idea that there was just something nefarious or disreputable going on at the heart of this.
And the idea was, look, investigative reporters are legitimately interested in this stuff. So if we can marshal a bunch of facts – not rumors, but facts – hand them over to reporters at places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, then I am confident that they will look into these stories themselves, and they will drive this narrative that I think is going to be harmful to the Clintons. And as you say, that’s exactly what happened.
GROSS: So another company funded by the Mercer family that was very helpful in the Trump campaign was Cambridge Analytica. They’re a data company. But what do they do? And they do – do they do anything different from other data companies?
GREEN: Well, they do, and it’s a little controversial. They do what’s called psychographic modeling. They claim that they have deeper insight into voters’ psyches than your run-of-the-mill political data firm. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not they actually do. But the Mercers, and Robert Mercer in particular, who made his fortune as a hedge fund guy by obsessing and understanding data and patterns and algorithms better than anyone else, decided that the Republican Party wasn’t doing a good enough job of leveraging, taking advantage of political data. So he was going to go buy a data firm and do a better job of it himself.
One of the things you saw happening is if Rebekah Mercer supported a political candidate or organization, there would be a lot of pressure sometimes from Steve Bannon to also hire Cambridge Analytica as a data vendor. And a lot of Republican – mainstream Republican outlets felt very threatened by this. You have this company kind of elbowing their way in that controls this data that the party doesn’t. But Cambridge Analytica has been a big part of the Trump story. And, in fact, they had their own data scientists embedded at the Trump campaign. They had very advanced models about who Trump was appealing to and who they needed to reach. It wasn’t clear at the time that they really knew what they were doing, I think but in hindsight, it’s clear that they did.
GROSS: So in terms of Cambridge Analytica’s connection to Steve Bannon, Bannon had an ownership stake in the company and a seat on the board. What do you think Cambridge Analytica did to help Trump win?
GREEN: They went and spent a lot of time and money figuring out who Trump voters really are and how they differ from ordinary Republican voters. They’re more rural. They’re more populist. They care about different issues than your standard Republican does. And so the Trump campaign was able to go and find those voters in places like the Florida Panhandle and turn them out in numbers that nobody – no mainstream political analyst expected. They figured out, you know, who these people are. And a lot of us – and I include myself in this category – thought Trump’s promises in the closing weeks of the campaign that there was going to be this Brexit effect, that these hidden voters were going to come out of the woodwork was just absurd. And in the event, that’s pretty much what happened.
GROSS: So do you think that the Hillary campaign and Cambridge Analytica were looking at swing voters in a totally different way?
GREEN: I do. Although what’s so interesting to me is that they were really looking at the same group of voters. And the Cambridge – or the Trump data scientists gave these voters a nickname that’s wonderful. They call them double haters. And these were people who said that they didn’t like Hillary Clinton and they didn’t like Donald Trump. But their voting history suggested that they were going to turn up on Election Day and they were going to vote for one or the other. And so there was a real tug of war behind the scenes between Clinton’s campaign and between Trump’s campaign to try and win these voters over.
And what happened at the end of the race is that they broke to Trump. And one big debate which I cover in some detail is whether or not James Comey’s announcement that he was reopening Hillary Clinton’s email investigation tilted the race. What’s clear from the data that I have – I have some of the internal polling and some of the memos that were written in the Trump campaign around this time. It’s clear that the Comey revelation had a deep, deep effect on these double haters and got them to come out not to support Trump but to essentially vote against Hillary, which in the end was the same thing.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Joshua Green. He’s the author of the new book "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump And The Storming Of The Presidency." And he is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Let’s take a short break, then we’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Joshua Green. He’s the author of the new book "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump And The Storming Of The Presidency." And he’s a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.
An anti-immigration point of view is very important in Bannon’s world view, and of course it’s been very important in the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency. President Trump is still adamant about, you know, building a border wall. How did an anti-immigration point of view become so important in Steve Bannon’s world view?
GREEN: That is a great question. I think it has a lot to do with his upbringing. Bannon comes from a very conservative, traditional, Catholic family. He went to a right-wing, Catholic military academy. I talked to some of his classmates who told me that Western civilization was the key to the curriculum there and that they were taught, as one classmate told me, that Western civilization is always under assault and needs defending. The classmates think that civilization was saved 500 years ago when Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs of Spain, defeated the Moors, Muslim invaders and that essentially Steve had internalized that viewpoint and sees everything as this grand civilizational struggle.
I talk a little bit about Bannon’s time in the Navy. He was on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf right during the Iran hostage crisis and described to me the Middle East, Pakistan as being almost primeval. He considered Muslims these frightening, threatening people who ultimately wanted to invade the West. And I think that that is where a lot of his anti-immigrant, Islamophobic ideas really started from.
GROSS: Steve Bannon has said with pride that he created the alt-right. And during the Trump campaign, there was a lot of anti-Semitism and racism being unleashed on the Internet, particularly on Twitter. And as you point out in the book, a lot of journalists were getting a lot of anti-Semitic imagery and language directed at them, particularly Jewish journalists. Do you think Steve Bannon is implicated in that at all?
GREEN: Oh, I think he’s implicated, yeah. You know, in all the time I spent with him, I never heard Bannon say anything anti-Semitic. And if you talk to people who worked at Breitbart and left who are critical of him, they don’t think he is either. You know, I heard Islamophobia and sexism and all sorts of things which I, you know, include – never heard anti-Semitic.
But I think the best answer to the question came in an answer that Bannon gave in a 2014 Vatican conference. A tape of this resurfaced over the last six months or so through BuzzFeed where he’s asked about the racism and the anti-Semitism that seems to be a big part of the far-right wing. Bannon’s answer was to kind of shrug his shoulders and say, well, I think all of that stuff is just going to wash out in the end. He seemed to think of it as kind of a necessary evil and that if he was going to storm the gates of the establishment fortress, that he really couldn’t pick and choose between who his allies were. And so he was happy to align himself with people who had very, very ugly viewpoints. And I think that became, in a worrisome sort of way, part of Trump’s appeal to a pretty important bloc of voters who wound up supporting him.
GROSS: Do you see Steve Bannon as a true believer?
GREEN: Absolutely. You know, early on when I first met him, I thought he was a typical Washington grifter who was kind of glomming on to the Tea Party-Palin thing as a way to make money. And it became clear pretty early on that, no, Bannon really believes this stuff to a degree that’s almost scary. And he will keep fighting for this idea of an anti-immigrant nationalism come hell or high water.
GROSS: And what about President Trump? What drives him? Do you think he’s a true believer?
GREEN: No, I don’t. I think that Trump is driven mainly by opportunism, by a desire to pursue whatever is going to get Donald Trump positive coverage on cable news now. And during the campaign when nationalism – when Bannon’s nationalism seemed to work for him, that was what he would espouse. But when that stopped working for him in February after he became president, he was happy to bring in people who nationalists abhor, people like Gary Cohn from Goldman Sachs. He was willing to listen to Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka, who are the furthest you can get from nationalists. So I don’t know that Trump really has any policy beliefs at all.
GROSS: I would love to know – and I’m guessing you can’t really answer this – what Steve Bannon really thinks of Donald Trump.
GREEN: I can’t imagine that Bannon really thinks all that much of Donald Trump. I mean the, you know, tragic, Shakespearean irony of the Donald Trump-Steve Bannon relationship is that Bannon finally did find a vessel for his ideas who’d get elected president, who had the kind of personal force to overcome all the other candidates, all the impediments, against all odds kind of got in there and now doesn’t have the focus, the wherewithal, the self-control to even do the basic things that a president needs to do.
I – Bannon is a pretty self-aware guy and a pretty shrewd analyst. I’m sure he understands that no other president – not Marco Rubio, not Jeb Bush, nobody – would ever let anyone like Steve Bannon within 100 miles of his campaign or his White House. This is his one shot to institute his nationalist ideas. And the guy sitting in the White House doesn’t seem capable of doing anything other than watching cable news and raging about it. And I think that would have to be very frustrating for a guy like Bannon who really does care about these ideas.
GROSS: Joshua Green, thank you so much for talking with us.
GREEN: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.
GROSS: Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of the new book "Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency."
After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review a silent film written by Samuel Beckett, starring Buster Keaton that was released in 1965 and has just come out on DVD along with a documentary about the making of the film. This is FRESH AIR.
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