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The Making of the Tabloid Presidency

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.

Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon; drawing by James Ferguson

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 in-depth 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-in-the-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 securities fraud. 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 Shirley Sherrod, a Georgia official in the US Department of Agriculture, 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?”

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by John Springs

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 race-tinged “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 ProPublica. 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

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    Reviewed in these pages by Michael Tomasky, June 25, 2015