Subtitled “Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising,” Joshua Green’s book about the 2016 election explains how Trump pulled off an upset. Green interviewed Bannon and other major players. The journalism and writing are of highest quality, like what you can read in publications such as the New Yorker. I like that the writing doesn’t draw attention to itself but flows well.
I have a greater appreciation now for how Trump won and for the role Bannon and other nationalists played in his victory.
Trump won by
- Appealing to nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and economic populism;
- Relentlessly attacking Hillary and Bill Clinton as corrupt;
- Saying outrageous things that generated free publicity;
- Firing Paul Manafort in late August of 2016, hiring Steve Bannon, and listening to advice from the Mercer family;
- Concentrating on the swing states; (A week before the election, Hillary was campaigning in Arizona.)
- Getting a lot of help from the Mercer family and Cambridge Analytics;
- Getting a lot of help from millions of angry, young white males who spend time on the Internet as trolls and in the Dark Web of right-wing hate groups;
- Getting a lot of help from Jame’s Comey’s announcement about email investigations a week before the election;
- Riding the wave of populist, anti-establishment anger related to the Tea Party; (The Mercers at first supported Ted Cruz, another outsider who wanted to overthrow the establishment.)
- Repeating many of the populist themes of Bernie Sanders’ campaign; (One of Trump’s videos sounds almost exactly like a Sanders video: attacking the corrupt corporations and political elites.)
- Taking advantage of solid opposition research that appeared in the book Clinton Cash, which exposed apparent corruption in the Clinton Foundation and which resulted in headlines in the New York Times and other legitimate media outlets.
Though Steve Bannon was an extremist, and though he later was kicked out of the White House, he was smart (a former Goldman Sachs executive) and played a large role in many of these strategies.
In fact, Green is convinced that Bannon departure from the White House in August of 2017 was largely due to Trump’s annoyance at being overshadowed by Bannon. Some people called Bannon Trump’s Karl Rove. Trump wanted people to believe that he is a self-made man. In a tweet, Trump ridiculed Bannon and said he played a small role in his win. Green suggests otherwise.
It’s easy to ridicule Trump as being dumb. In some ways he is. In other ways, he’s rather a genius. He is skilled at insulting and tearing down opponents. He beat Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christi and the other Republican candidates and then pulled off an upset win against Hillary. His repeated attacks against “Crooked Hillary” stuck. He had a knack for self-promotion and for appealing to voters’ primal views.
But he also appealed to economic concerns of the middle class. Green quotes Steve Bannon on Trump’s victory:
“Trump,” Bannon proclaimed, “is the leader of a populist uprising…. What Trump represents is a restoration—a restoration of true American capitalism and a revolution against state-sponsored socialism. Elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working- and middle-class Americans.” Bernie Sanders had tried to warn them, but the Democrats hadn’t listened, and didn’t break free of crony capitalism. “Trump saw this,” Bannon said. “The American people saw this. And they have risen up to smash it.”
Of course, as Green says, this spin is belied by the fact that Trump’s economic policies have favored the rich and have led to a dismantling of regulations that protect the public from predatory capitalism. Bannon was more anti-establishment and more anti-Wall Street than Trump turned out to be. Bannon and his cohorts hated the corrupt GOP establishment and wanted Trump to overturn it.
Several times during the election, Trump campaign staff and Republican operatives were convinced Trump was in serious trouble. Trump’s attacks on Megyn Kelly for her aggressive questioning at Republican debates led to a quarrel with Fox News owner Robert Murdoch; but Breitbart News and other far-right groups were able to come to Trump’s defense and attack Megyn as a traitor to the cause. The Access Hollywood tape (“Grab’em by the pussy”) almost ended Trump’s campaign, but WikiLeaks released DNC emails, and Trump pivoted to attacking the Clintons about Bill’s infidelities and apparent corruption in the Clinton Foundation.
Trump was the Teflon Don.
Up until election night, Republicans were expecting to lose, though their polls showed the race tightening after Comey’s announcement.
After Trump clinched the election, a reporter asked Bannon if the outcome was worthy of a Hollywood movie.
Without missing a beat, Bannon shot back with a reply worthy of his favorite vintage star, Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High.
“Brother,” he said, “Hollywood doesn’t make movies where the bad guys win.”
(The book has many such gems.)
Despite Trump’s relationship with Bannon and other nationalists, Green writes, “Trump doesn’t believe in nationalism or in any other political philosophy — he’s fundamentally a creature of his own ego.” Green predicts that Trump will disappoint most of his supporters, just as he disappointed and betrayed most of his business associates over the years. Green says that Trump’s presidency has mostly been chaos and failed policy initiatives.
Green seems wrong on two points. Trump’s anti-immigration policies are having a real, damaging effect. And he has launched an anti-globalist trade war with China. (This happened after Green wrote the book.)
42% of Americans still support Trump, according to some polls. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins re-election in 2020.