Devils Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green review

The American journalists pithy account of Steve Bannons impact on Donald Trump fails to shed much light on what makes the former film producer tick

In the bizarre cast of characters hovering around the Trump administration reality show, White House chief strategist Stephen K Bannon stands out. To begin with, he has a brain. This is attested to by most journalists who have spent time with him, especially Joshua Green, the author of this book. The use to which Bannon has put his intellect, though, is what makes him really different.

His worldview is one of decline of the west nihilism. How that worldview dovetailed with Donald Trumps and helped create the greatest upset in modern American political history is the story told in this brief, snappily written book.

Devils Bargain is an extension of Greens reporting on the Trump campaign for Bloomberg Businessweek. The author acknowledges that coverage started as a lark. He doubtless thought reporting Trump would be more amusing than trying to report on the tightly controlled Clinton campaign and he already had goodsources in rightwing politics.

Green first met Bannon back in 2011, when the operative was in his film producer phase, pushing a hagiographic documentary on Sarah Palin. The author had already written an 8,000-word profile of the man for Businessweek by the time the Bannon-Trump relationship solidified.

The book functions best as a chronology of the campaign from the Trump side. It was a campaign that even on election night no one on his team expected to win.

There is plenty of gossip about the backbiting among the Republican factions as Trump torched his rivals for the nomination and then embarrassed party grandees all the way to election night, with Bannon never far away. Trump is a nut who likes to surround himself with nuts, says one GOPoperative.

On election night, as results started pointing to a Trump win, the White House wanted to know what number to call to congratulate Trump. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, knew Obama and decided to interpose himself. Christie told the White Houseto call his mobile and he would pass it over to Trump. Trump snappedat him: Hey, Chris, you knowmy fucking number. Just give it tothe president. I dont want your fucking phone.

But while the gossip is fun, the book is unsatisfying on its key player, Steve Bannon. Green spent more than 20 hours interviewing him for his big story but he doesnt seem to have done much deep thinking about what makes the man tick. Nor is he able to put him in the context of the changes in American society that led to Trumpselection.

Green buys into Bannons own creation myth. The story is he comes from the working class and has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But class was a more elastic thing in the Americain which Bannon grew up, thequarter century after the second world war, the greatest economic expansion in the nations history. Bannons father, Marty, started his career as a lineman working for the phone company AT&T. Blue-collar, for sure, but he ended up in management. He sent all his sons to Benedictine College Preparatory, a private Catholic military school. Current fees are $16,500 per annum.

Seeing Bannon through the prism of class doesnt really explain the ease with which he gathered advanced degrees from two of Americas most prestigious graduate schools: Georgetown Universitys School of Foreign Service and Harvard Business School. Something other than class needs to explain his restless advance to an office down the hall from the president. His first career was as a naval officer, but he ultimately chafed against the glacial pace of advancement. After Harvard, he joined Goldman Sachs, left,then spent a decade and a half in Hollywood running a boutique investment fund. His main achievement was getting a credit as executive producer on 18 films, most of them rightwing documentaries, and accepting future royalties on the comedy show Seinfelds syndicationrights.

Then, in the early part of this decade, he ends up befriending Andrew Breitbart, professional rightwing agitator, who turned his eponymous website into the go-to place for conspiracy theories particularly about the Clintons and, later, Obama. The relationship with Breitbart, more than 15 years his junior, opened his eyes. Green writes: Breitbart taught him: I liked being hated more than I like beingliked.

Bannon was in his mid-50s when he learned that lesson.

A lot of interesting questions about the man are not raised by Green. Nor can they be answered by emphasising Bannons affinity with the American working class and whose worldview is a backlash against its decline. He was at Goldman Sachs for half a decade. Was he ever on partner track and if not, is that the real reason he left? He worked in Hollywood for 15 years but other than the lucky deal that landed him with some Seinfeld residuals, was he ever a player?

Does he harbour some feeling of insecurity that the big recognition in these fields a partnership, an Oscar eluded him? Day in, day out, his end of finance and the film business is dominated by Jews. He has denied being antisemitic but does his ambivalence about the antisemitic outriders who live in the comment columns of Breitbart and alt-right message boards stem from suppressed resentment towards Jews and his lack of recognition at Goldman Sachs and in the film industry?

From a distance, it seems like Bannon is a product of his era. Born in 1953, he is as prone to search for oddball, all-encompassing historical theories of everything as any other pot smoker who was at university in the early 1970s. Bannons fave theories happen to be those of Ren Gunon, a fairly bizarre French thinker, who traced the decline of the west to the destruction of the Knights Templar. According to Green, he also talks up the Hindu concept of the Kali Yuga, a 6,000-year dark age when tradition is wholly forgotten.

Bannon also seems like a typical rightwing Irish American someone who pledges himself to the most conservative, pre-Vatican II elements in the church but signally fails to live by its moral code. Bannon has been married three times.

But he is undoubtedly clever, his eyes open to parts of society that others in media and politics dont pay attention to. Certainly not those who ran the Clinton campaign.

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, Greens draft serves primarily as a chronology. It details the relationship between Bannon and Trump without giving satisfactory reasons for why it works and for how long it will continue.

Michael Goldfarb hosts the FRDH podcast (goldfarbpod.com)

Devils Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green is published by Penguin Press (16.99). To order a copy for 14.44 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/06/devils-bargain-steve-bannon-donald-trump-storming-of-presidency-joshua-green-review

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