Marc Fisher, a senior editor at The Washington Post, is co-author of “Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power.”
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 groping-tape 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 middle-class Americans had had enough of.” And maybe, as the Madeline books say, that’s all there is, there isn’t any more.
By Joshua Green
Penguin Press. 272 pp. $27