Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency

(Review of the book by Joshua Green, Penguin Press, 2017)

This book is about Steve Bannon’s role in the election of Donald Trump.  It’s an insider’s election travelogue yet it reveals some dynamics that remain important even though the election is over and Bannon is back at Breitbart News. 

Bannon:  Mercer and the Anti-Clinton network

Author Green says Bannon brought two things to Trump’s campaign: A coherent nationalist ideology and an Anti-Clinton Network funded by Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies. The network has four interrelated components:

> Breitbart News: Breitbart understood that readers experience news “viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes and villains.“  According to Bannon, Breitbart created “a global center-right, populist, anti-establishment news site.” Breitbart died in 2010 at age 43 and Bannon took over. With $10 million from Mercer, Bannon expanded his DC based operation to Texas (Anti-immigrant ICE contacts) and London (Nigel Farage: Without Breitbart London, No Brexit).

> Global Accountability Institute.  GAI was formed in 2012 in Tallahassee as home for researcher Peter Schweizer where Bannon said he should focus on “cronyism endemic to the Clintons.” Between 2013-2015 Mercer gave several million dollars to GAI and from that came Schweizer›s book, Clinton Cash.  Bannon: “We have a mantra… facts get shares; opinions get shrugs.” GAI used the “Deep Web” to research the Clintons. The Deep Web is “the 97% or so of information on the Internet that isn’t indexed for search engines such as Google and therefore is difficult to find.”

> Glittering Steel. Funded by Mercer and run by Bannon and Mercer›s daughter, Rebekah Mercer, Glittering Steel was formed to produce films to influence politics, along with Christian-themed movies (by entities such as Wilberforce Forum, chaired by convicted felon Chuck Colson). Glittering Steel produced the movie version of Clinton Cash. Bannon, during his Hollywood years, also produced films. He brought them to the Liberty Film Festival:  in 2004 In the Face of Evil (about Reagan); in 2006 Border Wars; in 2010 Battle for America (T-Party); in 2010 Generation Zero (financial collapse); and in 2011, The Undefeated (Sarah Palin).

> Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica was a Mercer-owned American offshoot of a British data company, Strategic Communications Laboratories. With Bannon on the board and Rebekah promoting its use by political campaigns, Cambridge gave the network a “state of the art technology” that allowed the Mercers “to build out an infrastructure for sophisticated messaging and strategy that would be independent of the institutional Republican Party.”

Bannon: Merging the Offline Alt-Right and the Online Gamers

Bannon envisioned a merger between the alt-right and gamers just in time for the Trump election. This arrangement continues to operate and affect national politics.

> The online gamers. In 2005, Bannon went to Hong Kong and joined Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE).  IGE used a “supply chain of low-wage Chinese workers” to play a video game called World of Warcraft published by Blizzard Entertainment. By continually playing the game, the Chinese workers produced a steady stream of virtual goods that IGE planned to sell to gamers for real money. IGE estimated this real-money trading at $1 billion dollars. Bannon got $60 million from Goldman and tried to get Blizzard to license continuous play practice, but the gamers revolted against what they saw as infringement on their game. Blizzard then refused to license the practice.  IGE lost millions, changed its name and forced out its founder. Bannon took over as CEO of the remainder and held onto three gaming sites: Wowhead, Allakhazam and Thottbot which were “doing 1.5 billion page views per month” in 2007 and 2008. Bannon realized the power of the online gamer community, which had successfully dismantled IGE›s effort to interfere with its game.

> The merger. Once Bannon took over Breitbart in 2012 he decided to try to attract the “online legions of mostly young men”—internet masses who could stoke a political revolution by fusing the online world of alienated gamers with the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart News. He connected the two worlds with Milo Yiannopoulos whose October 15, 2015 article was entitled: “How Donald Trump Can Win: With Guns, Cars, Tech Visas, Ethanol …. and 4Chan.” Trump cemented the relationship as he retweeted images of Pepe the Frog. (For more on how this online world now interacts with the real world of politics, read Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle.)

Bannon: Traditionalism, Decline of the West and the War with Islam.

How much of Bannon’s world view will continue to rationalize Trump’s policies is certainly up for question, but the direction of the policies remains the same.

> Traditionalism. Bannon, like Pence, came from an Irish Catholic family, enamored with John Kennedy and the Democratic Party and, like Pence, left both the Party and the Church. Bannon’s family left the Church after Vatican II reforms and joined the Tridentine Church, a Traditionalist expression of Catholicism. Bannon read Rene Guenon (Crisis of the Modern World, 1927) and Julius Evola (Revolt Against the Modern World, 1934), authors who lamented the spiritual decline of the West and the rise of secular modernity. Whether Bannon is in the White House or not, the Traditionalist values of masculinity, traditional authority, racial purity and the subordination of women fit well with Trump and Pence’s policy direction.

> Decline of the West. Green says Bannon sees the West’s spiritual decline as emerging from the destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar in 1314, as Islamic armies took over the “Holy Lands;” and from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended Europe›s inter-religious slaughter.  For Bannon, the decline deepened as the EU gained strength over sovereign nations and Pope Francis, a “pro-immigration globalist” replaced Pope Benedict.  Bannon went so far as to “Breitbart Rome” and worked with Cardinal Raymond Burke [no relation] to support Catholic traditionalists.  The last chapter of Green’s book points out that Bannon believes the West is passing through Kali Yuga a ‹dark age› “when tradition is wholly forgotten.” (A primer on this is  Against the Modern World by Mark Sedgwick).

> War with Islam. Green points to three events that reinforced Bannon’s historical view that the West is in an on-going war with radical Islam. Bannon’s experience as a Navy junior officer (1979-1980) aboard the Paul F. Foster during the Iranian hostage crisis led him to describe the Middle East as “the other end of the earth” and Iran as a place that “looked like the moon … It was like the fifth century—completely primeval.” The second event was the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This prompted him to turn Schweizer’s portrait of Ronald Reagan into his film, In the Face of Evil. Bannon said his film was a metaphor “ about how a democracy takes on a radical ideology.”  The third event was the influx of Muslim refugees and migrants into Europe and the U.S . which he described as the “civilizational jihad personified by this migrant crisis.”

Whether Trump believes any of this or not, Bannon’s policy directions are reflected in Trump’s successful efforts to ban Muslims, halt the refugee program, authorize his militarists, Mattis, McMaster and Kelly to, in Mattis’ word, “annihilate” cities like Mosul and Raqqa, and continue his verbal assault on globalists and free traders.

Bannon: Economic Nationalism and America First.

Green describes a merger of Bannon’s nationalism and Trump’s America First rhetoric.  According to this, Bannon sees the rise of nationalist movements across the world as a return to tradition. He quotes Bannon: “You have to control three things…. borders, currency, and military and national identity. People are finally coming to realize that, and politicians will have to follow.” Trump seems to be following along. Trump’s use of Kelly’s DHS and ICE police to deport immigrants and his recent ending of the DACA program reinforce the idea of controlling borders, as does his continued rhetoric of building a wall. His bringing in Kelly as Chief of Staff along with McMaster at Security and Mattis at Defense suggest military control of both domestic and foreign policy.

Green’s book, however, identifies important distinctions in Trump’s relationship to national identity:  when he met Bannon and took up his “populist nationalism” Trump had to give something up. Trump’s NBC prime time television show The Apprentice, which began in 2004, built a national profile dramatically different than that of any other Republican figure: “Trump was extremely popular with minority audiences.”  The show was seen as a triumph of “American multiculturalism.”

Trump gave up this national profile when he attacked President Obama with his “birther”campaign. What he got in return was a mobilized Republican base that was full of resentment and angry about illegal immigration. Just at the time the Republican Party was publishing its Autopsy Report on Mitt Romney’s defeat—suggesting the need to accommodate minority voters and advocating comprehensive immigration reform—Trump went in the other direction. He became an anti-immigrant populist worried about foreigners taking over the country—and won the Presidency. This is his brand and Bannon’s national identity.

Green’s Conclusions: Disorder and Confusion

Although I believe Trump’s Departmental Secretaries are efficiently implementing Trump’s extractive policies, I will cover Green’s conclusion that there is “disorder and confusion” in the administration.  He gives three main reasons why Trump’s administration “has so quickly fallen into disorder and confusion.” (1) Trump thought he could rule by asserting dominance, but in fact he needs Congress. (2) He ran against the Wall Street agenda but filled his administration with globalists;  (3) He is neither a nationalist nor an advocate of any political philosophy.  Bannon’s language was just a “marketing strategy” for the Trump brand, not a commitment to a set of policies.

Dan Leahy likes to make charts and read a lot of books. He’s also an Irish Catholic. All of the statements quoted in this review are from The Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green. Penguin Press, 2017.

 

 

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