Stephen Bannon, Trump’s New C.E.O, hints at his master plan
Even for a campaign creating regular media tremors, the hiring of Stephen K. Bannon as the new campaign C.E.O. for Donald Trump has to count as a real shock. Trump is a first-time candidate who has talked about professionalizing his campaign, and yet he has hired a media bomb-thrower with no experience on the trail. But on another level, it is no surprise, since for years there has been a political symbiosis between Trump, Bannon, and Breitbart Media, the news organization that Bannon has led for the last four years. In truth, Bannon and Breitbart Media were Trump before Trump, creating the political philosophy and the political army in waiting that has been the engine for the candidate’s astonishing rise in American politics.
To understand the relationship between Trump and Bannon, you need to start with Andrew Breitbart himself. Over a short, fireworks-laced career, Breitbart helped re-write the rules of political discourse in the U.S. Starting in 2007, after a stint at the Drudge Report, he launched a series of Web sites—Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism, all under the Breitbart.com umbrella—to challenge the narratives set forth by so-called “liberal media” institutions. His sites, really a decentralized blogger network, were threaded together by furious denunciations of government, politicians, journalists, and Democrats, and they were fueled not by traditional norms of journalism, but largely by anger. It was a potent audience that might, in particular hands, serve as a potent electorate.
Indeed, Breitbart has given voice to millions of mostly working-class white voters who are anguished over the loss of status, the loss of certainty, and the diminishment of a long-cherished way of life—and who tend to blame Congress, the mainstream media, big business, and the Republican establishment for these misgivings. As The New Yorker graphically described it, Breitbart and his fellow bloggers and aggregators were not content providers, but “malcontent” providers—“giving seething, sneering voice to what he characterizes as a silenced majority.” Breitbart himself would not have disagreed. “I like to call someone a raving cunt every now and then,” he told the magazine, “when it’s appropriate, for effect.”
Breitbart unexpectedly died of heart failure, in 2012, at the age of 43, but the movement that set his media company in motion did not end with his death. Perhaps more than any other outlet, Breitbart, which notched 13.8 million unique visitors in June, according to ComScore, has built an audience that has indeed become the foot soldiers, or electorate, for Donald Trump. The connection between Breitbart and Trump is so strong that many refer to the site as “Trumpbart.” In fact, the company, over the strong objections of some of its staff, chose to side with the Trump camp over its own reporter earlier this year when Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, grabbed Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at an event in Florida. (Fields declined a request to comment for this story. Charges have since been dropped.)
In the wake of Andrew Breitbart’s death, Bannon quickly grabbed the reins of power and he continued to build the network in the spirit of its founder. He is likely the most potent conservative news executive in a post–Roger Ailes landscape, and his new role as campaign C.E.O. overshadows even Ailes’s reported role as a Trump adviser, which The New York Times revealed this week. (Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks has denied this relationship.)
Like both Trump and Ailes, a former adviser to Nixon who subsequently controlled the pulse of a large swath of the conservative polity, Bannon is not fully representative of his own audience. A graduate of Harvard Business School, who enjoyed a successful career launched at Goldman Sachs, he, on paper, resembles the sort of establishment figure that the Breitbart audience so despises. But like Ailes, and Trump, he seems to have a near three-dimensional chess-style mastery of that audience. On his daily radio show, he deftly balances a wide range of callers, sometimes quizzing them, frequently complimenting their insights, occasionally chastising them for gaps in logic, but mostly communing with them on the sad state of affairs of our country and our society.
But Bannon does share one strong feature with the audience, a love of controversy and confrontation. Just before one of our two meetings this summer, Breitbart’s technology correspondent, Milo Yiannopoulos, was slapped with a rare lifetime ban from Twitter for an essay that provoked vicious, racist attacks by his followers against the actress Leslie Jones, a gifted performer whose major crime was finding work, in this case as part of the all-female ensemble on the new Ghostbusters movie. Across the Web, Yiannopoulos’s actions were noted as an example of race-baiting. Bannon’s first words to me that day were, “Did you hear about Milo? It’s great.”
Bnnon, not surprisingly, has critics, even within the movement he leads. A former employee of Breitbart described him to me as “Donald Trump but more intelligent.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment, and was instead referring to the opportunism, the personal vindictiveness, and the lack of a moral center that have become defining characteristics of Trump.
Bannon certainly does appear to share some of Trump’s moral flexibility. On his radio show, he is fairly direct in trying to defuse some of the worst racial instincts of his audience. When one white caller offered the appalling observation that maybe it is time for white people to start shooting back, Bannon quickly backed him down in an effort that could pass for racial harmony in Breitbart land. But Bannon is equally energetic in leveraging what Ian Tuttle of the National Review has called “the racist, moral rot at the heart of the alt-right.” Even as he expressed personal discomfort to me with race-baiting, Bannon has given full rein to Yiannopoulos and others to exploit some very ugly things in this country.
Breitbart, indeed, is a brand built on anger. And when I first started following the site, it was impossible for me to see anything beyond that anger. In contrast to the modulated tones of NPR, where I worked for years, the pulsating furor of Breitbart, and of its users, was mesmerizing and terrifying, not unlike a horrible roadside crash.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Breitbart as a mere collection of bomb-throwers. In some sense, the organization is also the first significant American outlet to articulate and represent, in a large-scale way, a new philosophy of nationalism and populism that has found strong purchase in American society, and in many other parts of the globe. The Breitbart philosophy revolves around the core belief that a wildly corrupt ruling class, of both parties, has abandoned American workers in favor of policies that line its own pockets and the pockets of corporate interests. And its white-hot anger stems from how the leading institutions of American life have engineered all sorts of arrangements hostile to American workers: trade deals that favor the interest of large multinational companies over American workers, open-border policies that serve the needs of agro-businesses at the expense of low-wage Americans, and, more generally, a set of globalist policies that support transnational business interests without regard for the deteriorating status and position of middle America.
Bannon is a compelling spokesman for this position. It is his classmates from Harvard Business School who have, in his view, turned public-spirited American companies into pure finance plays run by bottom-line or bust management. For Bannon, it is not magnificent Apple making America the model of innovation, but, as he said to me, “f***ing Apple, making iPhones with slave labor.” That view of American corporations is in vogue these days, but Bannon and Breitbart were not only ahead of the curve, they helped invent the curve.
This view of the world is conveyed through reporting that is rarely sober, occasionally funny, but more often incendiary and race-baiting. Breitbart’s followers are collectively known as “the hobbits”—a reference to a speech on the Senate floor in 2011 by John McCain, where he derided the Tea Party as a bunch of hobbits, meaning that they were living in a fantasy world defined by a struggle between good and evil. But the insult from McCain, who has been mocked by Breitbart (and Trump), has now been adopted as a badge of honor by its audience.
For better or worse, Breitbart is as much about its community as it is its own reporting. And it is anger that fuels that community. A trip into virtually any Breitbart comment board needs to be accompanied by a dose of Dramamine and a willingness to endure the racial heat that currently drives so much of the debate in this country. Before my first meeting with Bannon, I selected one top article of the day and pulled up several choice comments to read to him. Here is one exchange that I found, with no effort at all:
From “ResistandRebel”: It is hilarious how butthurt the feral negro’s are about a few dead mongrels! It is even more hilarious how butthurt they are all the time, even with affirmative action, all the free shlt, and their own separate everything! LOL! I guess I would be too if my family tree was made up of a bunch of mongrel, spear chucking monkey losers!!!
Reply from “DefiantDeity”: Exactly who are the but hurt ones here? They act like the mental midgets they are as soon as one of their own mentally challenged members gets gunned down for being an idiot. I celebrated with some alcohol when Zimmerman was found not guilty and I celebrate every time one of these mongoloids are shot by cops. There are a lot more of us Americans than there are people in BLM. Designate them a terror group and wipe them off the planet over night.
Comment from “Paul Kersey”: They know that White people are superior. They wine about it all the time and want to kill us because of it. They know they come from jungle savages and will never be equal to us so they destroy everything we create.
When I read Bannon those comments, his response was slightly pained, and he tried to wave the issue away, saying that it is all “the Wild West,” the “top of the first inning”—the logical consequence of Breitbart’s absolute commitment to unregulated and unfettered speech.
But it was also clearly a topic of concern, and he returned to it later in the conversation, asking me for advice on how to reduce these types of comments on Breitbart, and whether a ban on anonymity would change the tone. It was unclear to me whether he was bothered by the overt racism, or just its business implications—there simply aren’t enough white working-class people to fuel a winning nationalist movement in this country. Bannon seemed to recognize that until he can ultimately win over a significant slice of working-class blacks and Hispanics, his movement—and now Trump’s campaign—seems likely to remain a significant but secondary operation. On Tuesday evening, hours before Bannon’s role was announced, Trump delivered a prepared speech near Milwaukee that appeared aimed at attracting African-American voters. “Law and order must be restored. It must be restored for the sake of all, but most especially for the sake of those living in the affected communities,” Trump said. “The main victims of these riots are law-abiding African-American citizens living in these neighborhoods. It is their jobs, their homes, their schools and communities which will suffer as a result.”
As campaign C.E.O., it is Bannon’s job to use his audience-gathering ability to attract undecided and independent voters beyond the extant white working-class movement. He has not found much success doing that at Breitbart, and it is difficult to see what skill set he brings to doing that for the Trump campaign. Trump currently polls at zero percent with African-American voters in several states.
But he has tried to at least articulate the reasons why the philosophy of Trumpbart should have wider appeal. Throughout our conversations, Bannon argued to me that many globalist policies supported by establishment Republicans and Democrats alike are most damaging to the minority communities that he hopes in the long run will rally to the Breitbart banner. But having effectively normalized racial conflict in his audience, this appears almost as a fever dream. What Breitbart shares most with Trump, on some level, is an imperviousness to the notion that words matter, and that hatred only pollutes the discourse it touches. The First Amendment may protect even the most outlandish content that Breitbart hosts, but that spirit is likely to limit its own growth prospects, despite Bannon’s best efforts. BuzzFeed has grown into a well-respected news organization, but many still recall it as a cat-picture site. The Huffington Post is a large digital-media brand, but it is one still identified with blogs operated by its famous founder. For all that Bannon contends that Breitbart is the vox populi for Americans without a national voice, it will be hard to shake the worst aspects of its hobbit roots. And that reality, in fact, may undermine the very people, and the candidate, that Breitbart aims to serve.
The son of working-class parents in Norfolk, Virginia, as Joshua Green has reported for Bloomberg, Bannon signed up for the Navy right out of school, and spent four years aboard a destroyer, including in the Arabian Sea during the Iranian hostage crisis. “By the time he arrived in the Persian Gulf in 1979,” Green wrote, “the U.S. was preparing its ill-fated assault on Tehran, and Bannon’s faith in his commander in chief had dimmed: ‘You could tell it was going to be a goat f—.’”
Bannon has succeeded in a way that has taken him far from his working-class roots and his working-class audience. After grad school at Harvard, Bannon flourished in the elite environment of Goldman Sachs. He moved to Los Angeles and eventually went out on his own. In a move that was prescient, or lucky, or both, he agreed, during the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to Ted Turner, to take a piece of the action in five TV shows in lieu of a typical commission. One of those shows, a then promising but still uncertain comedy, Seinfeld, became successful enough to permit Bannon to strike out into conservative movie-making and ultimately into alliances with people like Andrew Breitbart.
Unlike Seinfield, a show built around dispassionate and wry observations, Bannon is all unchained energy in support of his various causes. And it’s hard not to like him. When I was introduced to him by e-mail, he instantly messaged back with an offer to meet: “Dude! Anytime 24/7/365.” Two days later, we were together at a coffee shop below the SiriusXM studios where Bannon hosts his daily Breitbart radio show.
Informal doesn’t quite capture his appearance. He wears a T-shirt, cargo shirts, and black Nike sneakers, all tumbled below long, stringy hair. It gives him the look of a badly over-the-hill surfer, but it is truly a disguise, masking one of the most consequential figures in American media. Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart has spread in all different directions, opening up the popular Breitbart London site (which anticipated and helped fuel the populist sentiment behind Brexit) and a variety of other content verticals. The growth of the Web sites has been driven by smart investments in technology and early activations on Facebook and other social-media sites, which have put Breitbart at the front of the social conversation.
Bannon, who has said he will take a leave of absence from Breitbart, has also branched out beyond the written word and talk radio into investments in movement books, such as Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash, and into movies (including the Clinton Cash movie and a brand-new movie hosted by the Duck Commander himself, Phil Robertson). Revenue will continue to be a challenge for Breitbart, but they are already sufficient to maintain a staff of about 100 people even now, according to Bannon.
As smart and capable as he is, Bannon is still a political novice and thus an odd choice to run a campaign badly in need of message and organizational discipline. (He might make more sense as an executive producer of the media empire that V.F.’s Sarah Ellison reports Trump is eyeing as his next move, after the election.) On the surface, Bannon at least has the benefit of being politically sympathetic with Trump; Breitbart, under his leadership, after all, has become “Trump Pravda,” as one former staffer described it to me. But when I talked with Bannon, he expressed a wariness about the political genuineness of the Trump campaign persona. Trump is a “blunt instrument for us,” he told me earlier this summer. “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.” It is likely that Bannon’s political calculus here, if not Trump’s, will be less about winning an election that seems a bit out of hand and more about cementing an American nationalist movement.
If that is the case, Bannon, and by implication Trump, will have little incentive to turn toward the center or offer real solutions to the complicated global political and economic environment in which we live. And if the outraged and xenophobic tone of Breitbart is any guide, we are in for a final three months of the campaign that will put the rest to shame.