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The Steve Bannon way of winning elections will shape democracies elsewhere

To get a sense as to what he’s capable of, it’s worth reading Joshua Green’s excellent book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.

analysis Updated: Aug 21, 2017 22:11 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times
Steve Bannon,Donald Trump,Joshua Green
Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, US, on February 23, 2017. (Reuters)

Liberals in the US and elsewhere are glad that Steve Bannon is no longer a part of Donald Trump’s White House where he was ‘chief strategist’, after heading his campaign earlier.

Bannon is not giving up politics just yet. He’s back at the right-wing website Breitbart News as executive chairman. “I feel jacked up,” he told the Weekly Standard. “Now I’m free. I’ve got my hands back on my weapons. Someone said, ‘it’s Bannon the Barbarian.’ I am definitely going to crush the opposition. There’s no doubt. I built a f***ing machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up. And rev it up we will do.”

To get a sense as to what he’s capable of, it’s worth reading Joshua Green’s excellent book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. The book, which became a No. 1 New York Times best seller, offers a fluent account of the 2016 presidential campaign and the far-right insurgency that eventually vanquished both the Republican establishment and Hillary Clinton to propel Trump into the White House.

It also provides an interesting portrait of Bannon, “a brilliant ideologue from the outer fringes of American politics …whose unlikely path happened to intersect with Trump’s at precisely the right moment in history.” Bannon is quite a character, one audiences can misread if they are acquainted with only the dour, sullen pictures of him that circulate on the web. In Green’s reading Bannon has “manic charisma”, he is a “high-energy”, “mile-a-minute talker”, “volcanic, opinionated and never ruffled by doubt”.

Bannon, who has been exposed to a variety of influences, is quite unlike the average social conservative. Raised in a working class Irish-Catholic family of Democrats in Virginia, Bannon went to a strict Roman Catholic, military high school, headed to Virginia tech, the Navy and the Pentagon. Disillusioned that he couldn’t be Secretary of Defense working through the ranks, he decided to go to Harvard Business School (HBS) and thereon to Goldman Sachs. He thrived at Goldman when it was a “very small partnership and an enormously conservative place”, as he put it, but “soured” when the firm became like other investment banks that in his view turned Wall Street into a “casino that taxpayers have to bail out.” He then become a movie producer in Hollywood and went on to lead Breitbart News.

Along the way he was convinced that Western civilisation is in decline, he saw up-close the drama of the seizure of American hostages in Iran in 1979 that nurtured his Islamophobia. His experience at Goldman turned him against the cosmopolitan, globalising elite who he feels “gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia”. He read history, classics and Zen Buddhism, developed a “deep interest in Christian mysticism and esoteric Hinduism”. One of his peers at Harvard rated him as “certainly top three in intellectual horsepower in our class – perhaps the smartest.”

Green offers an account of Bannon’s networks with anti-Clinton operatives in Washington which came in very handy during 2015-16. There is a fascinating, extended narrative on the Trump campaign and Bannon’s contribution to it and the difference he made at key points when it was faltering. Of particular interest are the methods of four organisations which Bannon used to shape the campaign. These organisations were either funded by or invested in by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who is known for his support to conservative causes.

The first is Breitbart News, the “racially-charged, hard-right populist provocative right-wing website” started by the late Andrew Breibart which Bannon took charge of in 2012. Breitbart News “helped spark” the 2013 Republican shutdown and forced House Speaker John Boehner to resign. The site was willing to “publish dubious investigative ‘sting’ videos” and misleadingly edited material to malign liberals. Bannon was interested in tapping young audiences and considered that Fox News’ audience “was geriatric.” As an investor he had seen how online gamers could organise to wreck companies that used unfair practices and he wanted to fuse “masses of alienated gamers… and the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart by its radical politics”. He hired Milo Yiannopoulous, a British tech blogger, an “amoral nihilist” and “Internet troll nonpareil” who specialised in the “intentionally offensive opinion piece that invariably provoked a high-traffic response.” Breitbart News focused on “incendiary cultural issues”; Hillary Clinton once mentioned headlines the site ran; they included “Birth Control makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”, “Would you Rather Your Child had Feminism or Cancer”.

Bannon cultivated huge audiences, marshalled armies of trolls and managed to intimidate Fox News with the campaigns he ran. Breitbart’s attacks on news anchor Megyn Kelly for her criticism of Trump forced the network’s president Roger Ailes to call Bannon and beg him to call off the attacks.

The second organisation Bannon used was the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a non-profit research group which, in contrast to Breitbart’s provocations, produced fact-based research. It had lawyers, data scientists and forensic investigators and, importantly, collaborated with mainstream outlets on a variety of topics to reach audiences beyond the Republican bubble. GAI produced material that journalists drew on and it ultimately “trained its investigative firepower on the Clintons” for about two years. In 2015 GAI’s head Peter Schweizer published a book called Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. The book, which focused on Clinton’s apparent conflicts of interest, and was released just as she was preparing to launch her candidacy, dominated political conversation for weeks on end.

Bannon also had a Mercer-backed film production company called Glittering Steel, which made movies and political advertisements. The company did not make successful films but produced a movie of Clinton Cash which debuted at Cannes Film Festival.

The other significant Mercer-funded organisation that Bannon relied on was Cambridge Analytica (CA), “the US offshoot of a British data analytics company…that advised foreign governments and militaries on influencing elections and public opinion using the tools of psychological warfare.” The company’s use of Big Data in Trump’s campaign was reported in the Zurich-based Das Magazin last year. This involved developing psychological profiles of people based on their online behaviour and then targeting them with tailored political ads. Cambridge Analytica is said to have profiled the personality 220 million people in the US and focused on 17 states.

Trump thus owed his victory in some measure to the combined effect of the fulminations of a populist website, fact-based research popularised by mainstream media and data driven political communication – all of which were driven by a right-wing ideologue who was backed by big money. In capturing that confluence of interests and methods, Green’s book provides a firm sense as to how political campaigns may be waged in other democracies henceforth.

Bannon and Trump are not the lodestars for democracy we expected to see. But apparently they are.

(Twitter: @SushilAaron)

First Published: Aug 21, 2017 22:11 IST