Below, three Paste Politics writers—Jason Rhode, Shane Ryan, and Jacob Weindling—review Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, Joshua Green’s biography of former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon. Most of this exchange was written before Bannon was fired.
Imagine if “Monster Mash” was a heroic ode about overcoming, and you have this book. Of all the terrible secrets of grim meathook politics revealed in the Devil’s Bargain, the grossest of them is that Steve Bannon is somehow likable. What a genuinely Stephen-King-level fact to launch upon an unsuspecting world. Bannon is a disturbing, flip-flop wearing, unshaving white supremacist hustler.
At any given time, he seems two hours of jogging away from suffering the same fate as his lizard-souled pal, Andrew Breitbart. Yet it’s clear Bannon has a track record of winning people over, much as pimps are reportedly charming. If we’re honest—it nauseates me to type these words—whatever makes Bannon a winning dirtbag must have leaked into the text of this volume.
It cannot be his appearance; the man looks how chemo feels. But Trump, the germophobe who detests slobs, embraced Steve, calling him his guy, and other sundry blandishments. He’s anti-slick, anti-charm, anti-decency, and why should that draw us in? For the same reasons he convinced an family of blank-eyed Manhattan land mammals to trust him with power.
Just how this one scary, unhygienic right-wing Dracula managed to climb into power is a riddle for the ages, but the author explains it compellingly. Bannon seems to have the cannonball’s love for wrecking shop and spiting decorum. Watch the man climb upwards: from his reactionary boyhood to his outrageous Goldman Sachs career.
His rep as a financial wizard draws him into days of Hollywood hustling, and that ludicrous foray leads directly into Bannon the prudent gargoyle stumbling into the spider-web-drenched corners of the reactionary media ecosystem headed by Andrew Breitbart. Reading The Devil’s Bargain is like watching Forrest Gump mate with House of Cards. Like Gump, Bannon’s climb to fame and success seems both inconceivable, a freak of history … and preordained. In the same way a man escaping a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge seems inspired and immaculately stupid. Bannon is so much of our terrible econo-politics made unspeakable flesh. By the logic of American capitalism and retrograde politics, could the man have ended up anywhere else?
No matter how megalomaniacal his Napoleon fantasies, no matter how much the man may crave a picturesque death on a St. Helena, there is something in Bannon that compels, just as there was a zombie-movie quality about the Orangeman that drove observers to stare with mounting horror at the Inceptioning of the world. Animals such as we long to lean over barricades in high places, and wonder …. what if we put more of our body over? ... what if we only had one hand holding us to the building? It’s a hundred-story drop to the bottom … okay, now just two fingers …. now let’s hold on by one finger …
Some people get into the driver’s seat by careful plotting. Some people stumble into it blind, like Donald. And some people, like Bannon, fall into it through the agency of greater forces—half-steering, half-guessing at what will follow. Scrolling through this Lovecraftian-meets-Eighties vista of horror, I heard faint echoes of what Randall Flagg would have been like if Randall Flagg buckled down and told the truth. That’s Bannon; if the devil was your drinking buddy. A man like Steve lifted into influence and advantage is only possible (and compelling) because politics has derailed and made the trainwreck, world-killing authenticity of Bannon a vital advantage. Bannon is a creature of the world, and exception to it, and that paradox runs the gamut of this entire volume. Your thoughts, gents?
First off Jason, I LOVE your analogy of this book being Forrest Gump meets House of Cards. It’s perfect. A biopic of Bannon’s life could absolutely be a sequel to Forrest Gump. But alas, much of his later life would have to be fiction thanks to his heel turn during the Reagan Revolution. I had a bit of an epiphany as I read through Manafort’s story, and I realized how truly specific the term “radicalization” is. Bannon is a radical, he openly admits as much in the book, yet that language is almost never used to describe him or his ilk in mainstream American media.
We only talk about “radicalization” really in the context of Jihadist radicalization, while white mass killers are always “troubled” and “suffer from mental problems.” I’m not equating Bannon’s behavior to that of mass murderers, but he clearly underwent a process of disillusionment and some form of radicalization whose darker paths could lead to that end, but we don’t call any of it “radical.” As Bannon laid out his thinking in the book:
“It was not hard to see, as a junior officer, sitting there, that [the threat] was just going to be huge. We’d pull into a place like Karachi, Pakistan—this is 1979, and I’ll never forget it—the British guys came on board, because they still ran the port. The city had 10 million people at the time. We’d get out there, and 8 million of them had to be below the age of fifteen. It was an eye-opener. We’d been other places like the Philippines where there was mass poverty. But it was nothing like the Middle East. It was just a complete eye-opener. It was the other end of the earth.”
The logic behind this looming threat was basically “young Muslim men + widespread poverty = existential threat to the western order,” which is a pretty massive assumption to make given that the entire world is filled with masses of the impoverished. The youngest countries in the world are all in Africa, for many of the same reasons that Pakistan was filled with aimless young men, but that continent has not been included as an enemy in Bannon’s perverse worldview, and the central difference seems to be religion. I can’t help but wonder how he would have reacted to walking into Tijuana and seeing the same kind of abject poverty he’s describing, given that he was raised a strict Catholic, and Mexico has one of the highest concentrations of Catholics in the world
So at some point, the Bannon we gravitate to—the guy who “passed the time reading books on Zen Buddhism and playing basketball, where his ball-hogging style of play earned him the nickname ‘Coast to Coast’”—became a full-fledged Islamophobe, and we don’t really get a specific window into what spurred it outside of Jimmy Carter fucking up with Iran and Bannon seeing poor kids in Karachi, and we just have to accept that this is the way his mind works. It just doesn’t seem to occur to us that a white man can become “radicalized” by anything other than Islam, but the fact is that Bannon practically admitted that Jimmy Carter was the impetus behind his change in worldview, but “Jimmy Carter radicalizes Steve Bannon” will never ever ever ever be considered as a topic of mainstream discussion, because the logic under-girding that sentence sounds ridiculous to all of our western-trained ears. I even laughed at how absurd that sentence sounds even though I believe it to be true.
I can’t help but wonder how many Bannons are being created right now along the same path—being raised to think one way about the world and upon encountering another, believing that Their Way is the righteous path, and all others are traveled only by the wicked. Bannon isn’t wrong that Islamic radicalization is a major problem, but so are the forces on the opposite side of that coin. The Breitbarts of the world provide the caricature that allows groups like ISIS to recruit more disaffected young men to their cause, and vice versa. People like Bannon help to create an endless feedback loop of marginalization and hatred between two worlds that claim to represent larger swaths of humanity than they really do. Yet only Bannon’s enemies can become radicalized, because my gut feeling is that acknowledging that the Bannons of the world occupy a similar shade to the radicals who populate ISIS would strike far too close to home for many of those in the established Western order.
I have the pleasure of writing the first email in this exchange since we learned that our beloved Steven has been cruelly let go by his erstwhile stalking horse, Donald Trump. It’s a blow for a man whose ideology is based roughly 95% on projecting strength at all times, but the odd way Trump treated Bannon the way out—practically kissing his feet on Twitter, in contrast to his usual silence or outright smearing with which he’s treated other dispatched comrades—is also a display of how much Bannon meant to his success, and how much his support still matters.
The prevailing emotion in my heart right now is relief. As Devil’s Bargain made clear, Trump’s campaign found its true footing with Bannon at the helm, and it wasn’t just the ideology that terrified me—it was the dual approach. It can best be characterized as “never apologize,” and maybe the clearest indication that Bannon was on the outs was the way Trump was forced to make half-hearted concessions to our national horror following the events of Charlottesville. Yes, he backtracked, and yes, it wasn’t good enough, but it was still the latest crack in the edifice of arrogance and smugness that proved so attractive to so many people who were fed up with the establishment. This relentless show of strength, which Bannon understood intuitively his entire life, imbues followers with a sense of power, and when coupled with the racist ideologies they espoused, it had the potential to be a dangerous conflagration. But the ideas alone aren’t enough, and Bannon’s departure is a signal that Trump’s all-encompassing desire to be loved was greater than the path to success that Bannon laid out for him.
(Also, of course, there’s ego. The left’s most successful propaganda tactic of the Trump presidency was the #PresidentBannon movement, which led to his first demotion—Trump will not cotton to co-stars—and then the mystifying accidental-or-maybe-not interview, aka “The Scaramucci Error,” which was the immediate precipitating cause of Bannon’s ouster, and which proves in all its cluster-fucky glory that Bannon was never quite the three-dimensional chess player of popular imagination.)
That being said, there is absolutely nothing in this latest turn of events that diminishes from the pure compelling hate-slash-reluctant-love-read that is Devil’s Bargain. Joshua Green is an incredible storyteller, and Bannon is an incredible subject. You’ve both hit on the important and superficial highlights (Bannon, aka “coast to coast,” being exposed a chucker is the funniest and most predictable part of the entire book), and the way I try to explain it to leftist friends is that if we read this book in 100 years, divorced from the bleakness of our currently political reality, a main takeaway would be “holy shit, Bannon is fucking hilarious.” Even more than Trump, he’s the poster boy for a new era in which there’s strength and momentum to be found from simply speaking your mind and never apologizing. As Jake said, the man is totally radicalized, but the fact that he’s radicalized in “the right way” for a good chunk of the American population, and that he refuses to compromise even in the slightest way, gives him a raw strength.
And—I hate that it feels like I’m praising him, but it has to be said—he’s also totally free of bullshit. He is who he is, a radicalized creature of the American far right, and he feels no need to apologize or to make feigned attempts at respectability. Nor does he spare those who are nominally on his side. You can see it in the insults he directs at Richard Spencer (a “freak” and a “goober”) and Paul Ryan (“a limp-dick motherfucker born in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation”). You can even see his honesty in the recent leaked interview, in which he totally dismissed the idea of a military solution to the North Korea problem, since they could incinerate millions of South Koreans in minutes if push ever came to shove—a political reality that nobody else on the right is willing at admit.
To me, the legacy of the Bannon story—provided that Trump doesn’t restore him, an outcome which seems unlikely at this point—is the proof of just how entrenched the American establishment really is. He captured a certain zeitgeist, engineered the greatest political upset in our country’s history, and still couldn’t last more than a year because of the threat he opposed to the existing order. In the end, his weird gut brilliance was no match for existing power structures erected by the vast centrist oligarchy of our country. His loathsomeness is ideological, but once in power, he found himself butting heads with a loathsomeness that was systematic. This is the right-wing deplorable version of a David vs. Goliath story, and of course in real life David never has a chance. But that doesn’t make the audacity of his rise any less fascinating—this is a guy who took all the right chances, and ended up a loser even in victory.
Systematic is the way to think of it, as the tattooed crust punk said when he was explaining his ink. Bannon, the foaming pace-horse of the right-wing herd, wants race war but according to his schedule, like a pair of overachieving yuppies trying to conceive according to the tidal almanac. He has a plan, and he’s open about it. Unlike most of the “humans” inside the Trump Administration, Bannon seems to understand the real world. This makes him hazardous.
Dangerous and hazardous are not the same thing.
Dangerous is a dog you don’t know. Trump and his man-boy army in Charlottesville are alley hounds: odd and wild. Are they rabid? Will they strike? Do they dream of the taste of man-flesh? In the end, they are easily driven away by brandishing a big stick.
Hazardous is a trained guard dog. The guard dog is sociable in the right times. You could have him in your parlor. Children and clergy will not flee from him. But the guard dog will strike on his time, when he wants, according to some inscrutable protocol. Bannon is hazardous. That is the difference.
He had planned to leave the White House under his own steam, and perhaps according to some mysterious pact made with Trump. From a story in the Times on August 20:
John F. Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, told Stephen K. Bannon in late July that he needed to go: No need for it to get messy, Mr. Kelly told Mr. Bannon, according to several people with firsthand knowledge of the exchange. The two worked out a mutually amicable departure date for mid-August, with President Trump’s blessing. But as Mr. Trump struggled last week to contain a growing public furor over his response to a deadly, race-fueled melee in Virginia, Mr. Bannon clashed with Mr. Kelly over how the president should respond. Give no ground to your critics, Mr. Bannon urged the president, with characteristic truculence. ... By Friday, when he was forced from his job as Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Mr. Bannon had found himself wholly isolated inside a White House where he once operated with such autonomy that he reported only to the president himself.
Green’s book points out that Bannon has been isolated before. I don’t buy the hype about Bannon being the string-puller or the deep planner—or even particularly clever—but I know the strange luck of perpetually successful. His vacating the Trump Executive could be another Goldman Sachs departure: a circumstance where Bannon had the luck to jump ship before the real fire and famine began.
Overall, what are we to make of Stephen K. Bannon? The media has a recent, shameful history of platforming white supremacists. Richard Spencer, a marrow-deep Nazi, was described by the HuffPo as “a neat dresser.” And that was one of the milder praises. Until the bloodletting in Charlottesville, there was a new rehabilitation attempt for the Pepes every day by noon. The press normalized these race-baiting arthropods as only a story-hungry Fourth Estate could. It’s shameful, and we should avoid that game at all costs. Let’s be clear about this: Bannon is a bad hombre: full dark, no stars.
And yet with Bannon, we have a passing strange spectacle. Here’s a man who no amount of explanation or gloss can redeem, who is repellent in sight, word, and action. And deed. But the failure to disguise is also failure to equivocate. He is not pretending to be acceptable to human society, the way white supremacists always pretend to be normal.
Like most legendary abominations, like the characters of Sex and the City, Bannon does his own thing. While that is not exactly admirable, it does mark him as an alternate form of mutant from the broken-souled bloggers populating Trump’s Executive. Despite moving up along the usual standards of worldly success—Goldman Sachs, elite business school, Hollywood—Bannon is ghoul of his own shape.
How can I put this, without using any positive adjectives? Bannon is unique. What is unique about him? He does not seek, as vampires do, to ape human form. He shambles around in his own criminal aspect. Bannon is a Hunter Thompson character. He would have been sampled endlessly by the late Doctor, if he had been famous and involved during the Seventies. They might have even been friends; you probably can envision, as I can, Bannon playing a guest star role in the Las Vegas book.
Bannon is the werewolf without pretense. He walks in the daylight.
That is what we must reckon with, and the source of the complicated feelings he draws from people, including the writer of this book, Joshua Green. Listen to the way Green describes him:
In the meantime, we hung out at political events or at the Capitol Hill headquarters of Breitbart News, which he took over in 2012. Through the years, I discovered seemingly endless new dimensions (and contradictions): his admiration for Rachel Maddow, whom he considered a master of fact-based partisan polemics; his controversial stint overseeing the Biosphere 2 Project in Arizona; his deep interest in Christian mysticism and esoteric Hinduism; and his particular fascination with an obscure, early-twentieth-century French intellectual, René Guénon, who became a Muslim and observed the Sharia—a jarring contrast to the bombastic Islamophobia Bannon often espoused.
We’ve all known autodidact right-wing shitheads who pick up window dressing for their Reddit-formed politics. It’s the equivalent of forming your religion from mall stories. But Bannon is politics’ answer to the Minotaur: neither man nor beast, but some puree of both. What kind of Napoleon wears flip-flops, for God’s sake?
Bannon was a successful man before Trump, and he’ll be successful after him, horrid as that is to contemplate. The Devil’s Bargain is a sequel Horatio Alger never wrote. In Bannon, we see the spectacle of a racist who was successful on his own terms: every day is causal Friday, and every foreigner is your enemy.
The Green book is a story with the wrong ending, written by characters who never should have been protagonists. Worst of all, it makes us all into co-conspirators. The truly alien cannot be loathsome; it take some degree of familiarity to turn the stomach. We are repulsed by things which are close enough to recognize, and malformed enough to horrify. Bannon is one of those night creatures. And America made him.
He’s a monster, but he’s our monster.