When it was reported several months ago that Steve Bannon, then Donald Trump’s closest political adviser, had fallen out of favor with the president, there appeared a glimmer of hope that perhaps this White House would “normalize.” Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, and the administration’s chief rabble-rousing (white) nationalist, was behind grotesque initiatives like Trump’s Muslim ban; according to several accounts, his inability to competently steer the administration, combined with press headlines about his power, soured Trump on his service. Just maybe, one naïvely hoped, sanity would begin to prevail.
But as Joshua Green, national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek, reveals in his new best-selling book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, Bannon has left a deep imprint on the White House and the president. Green looks back over Bannon’s career and frightening ideological passions, which have made him the adviser most in tune with the president’s demagogic impulses. (On Friday, however, Politico reported that Bannon may again be on the outs: The president is reportedly upset with Green’s book.)
I spoke with Green recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Bannon plans to respond to the Russia investigation, how Trump’s bigotry differs from Bannon’s, and the consequences of seeing history through the lens of a “clash of civilizations.”
Isaac Chotiner: What is Bannon’s place in the White House right now?
Joshua Green: I don’t want to sound like a cliché, I was going to say Game of Thrones, but …
You can do better than that Josh. You’re a national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No House of Cards, no Game of Thrones. There have been moments early on in the administration when Trump listened to Bannon a little bit more and there have been other moments when he listened to him a little bit less, but he never was under this Rasputin spell as was portrayed in the early months of the administration. Bannon hit the nadir of his influence back in March or April when Trump got angry about the Saturday Night Live #PresidentBannon portrayal and Kushner was shivving him in the back.
But the secret to surviving as a Trump adviser is to just take it without complaint. I think what happened was Bannon dug in, he took his punishment, he just stuck it out through the public humiliation phase where Trump was telling the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post that Steve was just some guy. But eventually that passes and Trump gets distracted by some other shiny object or cable news fixation. His attention wanders to the other thing, the new thing. Then if you’re in his physical proximity, which Bannon is, eventually you get pulled back in. I think that’s what’s happened with Bannon and that his stature has begun to climb despite this Politico article. Because Bannon is so far unimplicated in the Russia scandal, and it seems like just about everybody else around Trump is implicated, Bannon is free to whisper in Trump’s ear without first having to check with his defense counsel.
You reported that Bannon is playing a role in the counter-Mueller campaign. Do you know the type of advice he is offering?
I don’t directly know what Bannon is advising about the Russia scandal because I’m not his favorite guy these days, but I do know that just from talking to people around him that he thought the Comey firing was a dumb idea, that he recommended against it, and that he doesn’t think that Trump should fire Mueller—or at least understands the implications of firing Mueller.
That being said, Bannon is not going to resign in principled indignation as Mark Corallo, the legal team’s spokesman, [just] did. He’ll be there to the bitter end because that’s who Steve Bannon is, and he recognizes that Trump is the only president who would ever be a vehicle for his policies. Bannon just doesn’t give a shit. Look at the kinds of things that he said and did when he was running Breitbart News. He doesn’t have a reputation to protect that could somehow be impugned by an association with Donald Trump even if he fires Bob Mueller and crashes through any number of political and constitutional norms.
Just to take a step back: I definitely thought from reading your book that Bannon’s white nationalist populism was very sincere and something that he really believes in and is not just an act.
Totally agree. Yeah.
But we’re witnessing the first six months of an administration that I think anyone would have to admit is the most plutocratic administration we’ve seen probably since the robber baron era, if not ever. I’m wondering how you think Bannon reconciles his populism with that fact in his mind, if he does reconcile it at all.
He is a pretty shrewd guy despite all the bluster and bravado and Darth Vader cosplay that he likes to engage in. He is very much aware that Trump is not carrying out his nationalist agenda. The fact that Trump has surrounded himself with the Goldman Sachs corporate board as senior members of his administration, I read that as being not a move that Bannon endorses but rather an illustration of the limits of his influence and his weakness as a political adviser to Trump.
OK, but who is using whom? Is Bannon really using Trump and the GOP, or is the GOP essentially using Bannon’s populism as a vote-getter for the same old GOP plutocratic policies?
I don’t quite follow the line of argument that the Republican Party is using Bannon. The way I read it is that Bannon has a certain set of priorities and policies that he would like to enact and has been unable to do that both because a) Trump is an attention-addled narcissist who never really had any fealty to populist nationalism, and b) because neither Trump nor Bannon nor Jared Kushner, nor Gary Cohn, nor practically any senior White House official has any idea at all what they’re doing on the legislative front. Because they were unexpectedly elected, had no actual legislative agenda, had no transition team—because Chris Christie was off beclowning himself in the weeks and months leading up to the election—they really had no choice but to accept the legislative agenda of the very Republican establishment that they’d campaigned against and beaten in the primary election. The kind of sad irony of Bannon and Trump’s fate is that they have this GOP millstone hanging around their neck and weighing them down.
Right, but you read these things about Bannon proposing a tax increase on the top 1 percent. Does he realize what party he’s in?
Bannon wanted to raise top marginal tax rates on rich people to 40 percent. He was pushing for that internally in the White House and getting smacked around by Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn and those guys. I think that’s utterly sincere for two reasons. One, Bannon understands that it would be good messaging. You could call for this tax increase, which is like 0.4 percent or whatever, basically meaningless, and all of the headlines would be Trump proposes to raise taxes on the rich. That would undercut the argument that has crippled the Republican health care effort, which is that you’re yanking away health care from all sorts of working-class people in order to fund a tax cut for the rich.
I think left to his own devices, Bannon would be doing some things differently. The immigration crackdowns and all that kind of stuff, he would still be doing that kind of thing. But at least as he has portrayed it to me over the last couple years, he really would like to focus tax cuts on the middle class and steer them away from the rich because he thinks that would enable his political coalition to steal away working class, especially union voters, from the Democratic coalition.
And because he believes it’s the right thing?
I really do think he thinks it’s the right thing, and I think he’s a little naïve in this regard, but he really believes that if he were allowed to run things the way he wants to, that he could attract a portion of the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren populist base. That sounds absurd to me. Everything Trump has done so far has been to poke a finger in their eye, but I do not doubt the sincerity of Bannon’s own belief that it would work for him even though I don’t agree with it.
How deeply do you think race and racial paranoia play into who Bannon is and his ideological makeup?
A lot of media people, I think including you, like to portray him as white nationalist and racist and all that, and I understand why people would do that. I personally think that’s the wrong vector or the wrong strain of bigotry through which to analyze him. I think that it has much more to do with religion. Bannon has this very strange, very odd, but very well-developed intellectual and religious foundation for what it is that he actually believes, and at the heart of that is this apocalyptic clash of civilizations worldview. I thought initially that this was just part of the whole self-generated Bannon mythos, but after having talked to him about it a while back, I think he really believes this stuff.
Bannon went to this right-wing, Catholic, Benedictine military academy in Virginia where they were fed a hardcore Catholic version of Western Civ. That was the curriculum. A classmate told me in the book that they were essentially taught that Christendom is always under assault from outside forces, that true believing Catholics always need to be willing and able to jump into the breach and defend our world—Western civilization. I think that idea burrowed itself into Bannon’s mind and fed into his own natural grandiose sense of himself as someone who was going to be an important actor in history.
Wait, wait, wait. To get back to your question. Just in all the interviews over the years, I’ve heard him be sexist, I’ve heard him be anti-Muslim, I’ve heard him be anti-immigrant, and I tried wherever I could to put these quotes on the record in the book. He called Hillary Clinton a “fucking bull dyke” and some of the other stuff. I never heard him say anything that was personally racist. I asked him about this. He pointed out Breitbart has black staffers and this and that. I said, yeah but look at the headlines you guys write about black crime and this and that. He just shrugs it off.
His abiding passion is this idea that Christians are under assault by Muslims, by “foreigners.” I think where the issue of race does come into play is that he wants to deport people who are here illegally, he wants to shut down the borders, and the people who would be most affected by those policies have brown skin.
The other vector here is that what he wants to do, he says, is preserve—and this is sort of at the heart of his nationalism—an American culture and identity as it exists now, or as it existed since the beginning of the country. There are racial connotations to that. The reason I kind of resist the Bannon is a white nationalist idea is that, to me, conjures up an image of a guy in a Klan hood.
Like our attorney general.
I think you might be closer to the mark there. Look, the end result for the people affected by these policies may be the same thing.
The other point I try to make in the book with some of the alt-right stuff is that Bannon has no problem at all making common cause with those people and actually helped channel them from the dark swamps of the internet into our political process. He is very much culpable for a lot of the ugliness that’s afflicted our politics. I just try to be a little more specific about what I think actually lies at the heart of his motivations, which is not the thing I think people commonly assume lies at the heart of his motivations.
You point out in the book that the birther thing was never a big thing for him.
He’s explicitly condemned it, not just personally, but on behalf of Breitbart News, and he has this showdown with Orly Taitz, the original birther wacko, at a CPAC conference a couple years ago. There’s a distinction between Trump, who propagated that stuff, and Bannon and Breitbart News collectively, who did not.
You have a big thing in the book about how Trump adopted birtherism. After writing the book, did you have a feeling that Trump’s own uses of bigotry were more or less sincere versus calculated?
Here’s the thing: Trump was always a bigot. Go back to the ’70s and ’80s. He came out of the whole swampy New York tabloid culture and all the stuff about the Central Park Five. He was pushing those racist buttons before he went to The Apprentice and laundered his public image. The fact that he just returned to it later on, no, I don’t think that he became more racist or his views changed. I think Trump has always intuitively understood the power of race. When it was useful to him, he would wield that power and when it wasn’t useful to him, such as during his pre-birther Apprentice stint, he wouldn’t. He’s an opportunist. He has no compunction about using race and racism to advance his interests.
A rich white New Yorker like Trump might develop some racist ideas of his own, but he’s probably not likely to develop big thoughts about Christendom.
I have a dry joke in the book about Trump’s familiarity with French metaphysics, which is a passion of Bannon’s.
OK here’s a name drop. You have to make clear that this is purely ironic. I was talking to Russell Simmons the other day in the CBS green room because he came on after me.
I’m going to take out all the context so you sound really arrogant.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, just shiv me. My book was sitting there and he’s like, oh hey I actually knew Trump and was pretty good friends with him back in the day. I went out on the first date he had with Melania. The last time I talked to him was when I went on CNN and criticized him after the birther stuff, and he has never called me again. The point there was that Trump loved surrounding himself with Russell Simmons and with rappers, even Kanye came and visited him during the transition.
That was a touching moment.
Trump is a fame whore. He wants to be surrounded by celebrities and wasn’t put off by nonwhite celebrities. I don’t know. Maybe that’s neither here nor there.
What struck you most about Bannon as a person or surprised you most spending time with him for this book?
I’d known him since 2011. We met after I did this big Sarah Palin profile in the Atlantic. He was no different during the campaign than he was back then. Bannon, for better or for worse, is not a guy who puts on airs or who tries to hide behind a mask. He wears his underwear on the outside.
That may be literally true.
Yeah. He might. He also wears seven polo shirts and ratty flip-flops and all of that. But in person he’s quite a bit different than the public image. The public image of the dark Oz figure behind the curtain is something he knowingly cultivates. Look, he’s a propagandist, and he understands that people in the media are going to take that up and propagate it and that liberals will be frightened and that it will make him seem like a deep sinister strategic genius rather than some buffoon standing at the White House podium making an ass of himself. In person, he’s a very funny, sharp, caustic, charismatic guy.
Well, mostly self-aware. He’ll go through manic phases where he becomes so consumed with some idea or so consumed with whatever project he’s working on. I almost think of it as someone who’s bipolar but unlike Trump himself, Bannon usually comes down from these jags and when he does, yes, is very self-aware. Despite whatever he says on and off the record to reporters, I don’t think that he has any illusions that he and Trump are “winning” right now.