In the wake of recent revelations about his campaign manager, Trump essentially demoted Paul Manafort and hired the former executive chairman of the right-wing media website, Breitbart. The new addition to the Trump campaign staff is Stephen Bannon, a former banker for Goldman-Sachs and would-be Hollywood movie mogul – who has been described as “The Most Dangerous Political Operative in America.” It’s part of a shuffling of Trump’s campaign staff in which former pollster and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway will manage the campaign itself and Bannon will become the campaign’s chief executive. Manafort would have been the campaign chairman, retaining his title. Conway told the Wall Street Journal that the latest shuffling was not a “shakeup” and denied that Manafort was being reduced in rank – but today, Manafort announced that he was resigning from the Trump campaign. Stephen Bannon will now be running the show.
These staff reassignments are part of an attempt to salvage Trump’s campaign, which has been running into trouble lately as he increasingly trails Hillary Clinton in national polls. This assumes that the narcissistic egomaniac that is “The Donald” was ever serious about his presidential bid in the first place – but more on that in a moment.
In addition to his film making and business activities, Stephen K. Bannon is the co-founder and executive chairman of the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a right-wing investigative research organization based out of Florida. According to the organization’s website, its mission is to “investigate and expose crony capitalism, misuse of taxpayer monies, and other governmental corruption or malfeasance.” Bloomberg reports that the GAI produces “rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then partners with mainstream media outlets conservatives typically despise to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience.” In other words, the purpose of Bannon’s organization is to expose the rot and corruption in government and spread the word as widely as possible.
On the surface, this seems to be reasonable and even admirable. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike have been outraged over political corruption and the bailout of Wall Street banks and large corporations while the “little people” are allowed to go under. Bannon appears to agree with and understand this. So why is he considered dangerous? Because, if Bannon was to have his way, those banks and large corporations would be allowed to run rampant over the rest of us – and we would be left to fend for ourselves against sheer, naked capitalist corporate power, unchecked by any sort of regulation or rule of law. He is an unabashed Ayn Rand Libertarian, as demonstrated by the kind of imagery he includes in his documentary films – such as wild carnivores savagely attacking their prey and devouring it.
That is Bannon’s vision for America: the Law of the Jungle.
There is also a bit of irony here, considering the history of Bannon’s support of Donald Trump. During Bannon’s tenure at Breitbart, the organization reportedly started taking payments from Trump in exchange for favorable coverage on the right-wing website. This is according to BuzzFeed reporter McKay Coppins, author of The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House. Over a year ago, breitbart suddenly turned into a virtual fan site for the billionaire real estate magnate. The home page was covered with glowing, sycophantic featured stories about Trump, while attacking his critics in no-holds-barred capital letters.
Not everyone at Breitbart was happy about it. According to Coppins’ sources, Bannon was virtually allowing Trump to write is own coverage, overruling decisions by the editorial staff in the same kind of “pay-to-play” schemes engaged in by the very corrupt politicians Bannon exposes. Speaking on conditions of anonymity, Coppin’s sources reported that Trump had paid “undisclosed amounts” to the organization and frequently called Bannon, requesting that stories be written about himself.
Of course, Bannon denied all of it – and Trump himself had “no comment.”
According to an article published in Bloomberg Businessweek last fall, Bannon wields tremendous influence from a place that is largely out of public view. In the past, he has supported Tea Party darling Sarah Palin, who, like Trump, has demonstrated poor judgment, a poor grasp on reality and a questionable background. His particular brand of attack journalism was a major factor in bringing down former House Speaker John Boehner. Last fall, Bannon’s exposé of Jeb Bush, Bush Bucks: How Public Service and Corporations Helped Make Jeb Rich, was released, helping to bring an end to the Bush Presidential bid. In May of last year, a book written by GAI’s president Peter Schweitzer, entitled Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, was published by Harper-Collins and went on to become a best-seller. This book went a long way toward shaping the public’s view of Hillary Clinton.
Now, Bannon is part of Trump’s inner circle – and given Trump’s instability, ignorance and willingness to stir up rage and even violence at his rallies with his racist, xenophobic rhetoric, that also makes him dangerous.
In a way, one can understand why a candidate like Trump would appeal to Bannon. Trump has established a reputation for speaking his mind (even if he fails to engage his brain before running his mouth), and he’s a political outsider as well. Bannon was described in a New York Times piece as a “bare-knuckled fighter” who isn’t afraid of conducting an aggressive attack campaign against Trump’s rivals. However, while Bannon has written and researched extensively on the backgrounds of corrupt politicians and candidates, he has virtually no experience in actual campaigning. And based on his choice to support and work for Trump (for which he very well may have been paid), Bannon has little understanding of government and its workings – beyond his hatred and suspicion of it.
Trump’s erratic behavior and dangerous demagoguery demonstrates that he too has little understanding of the art and science of statecraft. Current polling have a growing number of voters describing Trump as “unqualified” as well as racist. Yet this is the candidate with whom Bannon, a man of no little influence, has thrown his lot.
It remains to be seen if Bannon can salvage Trump’s floundering campaign, given the GOP candidate’s penchant for shooting himself in the foot and alienating significant numbers of non-white and women voters. There is even some speculation as to whether or not Trump was ever serious about his bid for the White House. Is it possible that the entire Trump campaign has been nothing more than an elaborate, costly publicity stunt pulled by a narcissistic egotist who has proven he’ll do anything to get attention?
A recent article in Vanity Fair provides a clue. In June, the publication reported that Trump has been giving serious consideration to starting his own news media network. It wouldn’t be the first time an election cycle has spawned a new media company or given it leverage to expand its reach. Breitbart itself was born in the wake of the contentious 2004 “election.” It was the offspring of the Drudge Report – which itself grew from a small email newsletter featuring celebrity gossip to a full-fledged right-wing news site after Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996. The late Andrew Breitbart himself was its first assistant editor.
Trump has clearly demonstrated his ability to manipulate media news cycles, getting uncounted millions of dollars in free publicity by playing on public fears and prejudices – as well as backroom deals with media outlets. All the attention has fed Trump’s already outsized ego to an extent that he could only have dreamed of a decade ago, and now it appears that he wants to capitalize on it in a big way. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, owner of the New York Observer, summed it up nicely.
Quoted in Vanity Fair, Kushner said, “Win or lose, we are onto something here. We’ve triggered a base of the population that hasn’t had a voice in a long time…you go to these arenas and people go crazy for him.”
That may have been Trump’s objective all along. If so, it would be interesting to see how those like Bannon, who actually believe in Trump’s candidacy (or at least has been paid for his support), would react knowing they were little more than minions in pulling off one of the biggest publicity stunts in history.