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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.

Interview Highlights

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.

Life in Trump's inner circle is a constant roller coaster; you're either going up or you're going down.

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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: July 23, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
The audio version of this interview incorrectly quotes Steve Bannon as saying he created the alt-right. In fact, Bannon told Mother Jones in August 2016 that Breitbart news is "the platform for the alt-right."
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