Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

View all my reviews

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Urgent: The sun rose today

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Image from Getty Images via New York magazine.

Per the Constitution by way of the 20th Amendment, at noon today Donald J. Trump took the oath of office and became the 45th president of the United States of America.

The earth did not open up to reveal hellfire and sulfurous caverns, nor did the clouds part for heavenly trumpets.

The temperature in Washington was 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It was cloudy with a band of rain moving through town. A friend tells me it’s been raining on and off with gray skies. It was a winter’s day.

Anyone who’s read this blog (both of you) know that I’m not a fan of the new president. I worry about his unpredictability and impulsiveness. I cringe at his bullying need for dominance. I disagree with many of the positions he’s espoused and with the stands of many of his cabinet appointees.

I find myself seeking comfort in one of the watchwords of the Jewish people — not the Shema, but a song from the great bard Mel Brooks, “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst.”

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Sunday read: Thanks, Obama

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Photo by Pete Souza/The White House.

In 19 days, Barack Obama will not be president anymore. Half the country will greet this news with profound sadness. The other half will greet it with glee.

Eight years after he took office, he remains a sometimes surprisingly polarizing figure. I say “surprisingly” because, despite being a mild-mannered, wickedly humored politician inclined towards the professorial, the conspiracy theories about him floated during his two terms — that he was a Kenyan Muslim Socialist Usurper; that he was going to revoke the Second Amendment and take away everybody’s guns; that he was gay (and his wife was a man) — all of these, on their face, were literally unbelievable. And yet millions of people — including some in Congress (and, yes, the incoming president) — couldn’t merely disagree with his politics or policies; they believed the conspiracy theories, too.

It’s because he’s the Other, of course.

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Sunday read: You’re a clever one, Mr. Trump

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Image from Time via today.com.
I hadn’t planned on reading another story about the election. The November 8 result, from my perspective, is depressing enough, and watching the parade of bankers, generals and industrialists make their way to Trump Tower to be anointed the president-elect’s cabinet is enough to make me take some Quietus.

But I started reading Glenn Thrush’s piece in Politico, overdramatically titled “10 Crucial Decisions That Reshaped America” (some editor has been staring at his Creasy too long), and was sucked in. And, frankly, I found it fascinating. It’s my Sunday read.

First of all, I give credit to Thrush for not engaging in the breathy recap we’re sure to get from Mark Halperin and that other guy, his partner, whatsisname. Thrush is generally fair and generally avoids twisting the knife with gossip and anonymous back-stabbing.

Also, he offers some interesting perspectives, particularly on the eventual winner. In private, it seems, Donald Trump was more clever than he seemed in public, even when he was spouting off. In the beginning, at least, he was clear-eyed about his chances and also opportunistic when the crowds started showing up, tweaking his applause lines for maximum effect.

And when it came to whether he should play to the head or the heart, he deliberately aimed lower. Roy Cohn taught him well.

But it wasn’t until the debate season began in late summer of 2015, by which time Bush had already plummeted to single digits in the polls, that Trump really found his voice: brutal, funny, fact-free, baiting and wildly quotable as he turned the well-mannered Bush into a 6-foot-3 human springboard for his own ambitions. And that was where Trump’s political imperative—to position himself as the ultimate outsider alternative in a field crowded with wannabes—fused with something more primal, even ugly, in Trump’s character. He didn’t just want to beat Bush; he wanted to prove his own manhood at Bush’s expense.

Bush is Jeb, of course. And he was more self-aware than I thought, too: After an adviser told him that his chances of winning were about 40 percent, Bush replied, “Oh, I think it’s a lot lower than that.”

How right he was.

Hillary Clinton comes off as Hillary Clinton: smart and on top of every issue … except herself. It’s not that she wasn’t aware of her poor personality as a candidate, it’s that she just couldn’t open herself up enough to put the most damning rumors — about the emails, of course — to rest. (Or at least as much to rest as possible, given her status among a certain percentage of the population.) In Thrush’s telling, she spent too much time listening to her lawyers and not enough to her campaign advisers. Too bad for her. Based on her own leaked emails, someone should give the straight-shooting Neera Tanden a TV gig.

Anyway, it’s well worth a read — devoid of sensationalism and arrogance. We’ll have enough of that when “The Hair Apparent: How I Predicted the Rise of Donald J. Trump” is issued from the bowels of some Washington insider.

You can find Thrush’s story here.

Sunday read: An elitist takes aim

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Image from Great Minds on Race.

In recent weeks, the chattering classes have been trying to come to grips with Donald Trump’s election win. Who are these people who voted for him? How could anyone who can walk and chew gum at the same time even consider casting a ballot for “Cheeto Jesus”?

But this is a story that’s as old as America. It’s a story of classes — the educated versus the uneducated, elite versus common man, cosmopolitan versus country bumpkin. In general, the former has laid into the latter.

In a famous essay by H.L. Mencken, the latter was the South.

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Jon Stewart: ‘This is the fight that we wage against ourselves and each other’

Jon Stewart was on “CBS This Morning” with Charlie Rose Thursday, talking about the election and what it revealed.

As always, he proved himself to be as insightful as anybody on the scene — perhaps more so, because he’s nothing if not honest with himself and doesn’t talk in that stentorian, overly dramatic cable-news tone.

Somebody should give this guy a show.

‘There is no longer any pretense that the America social fabric is a single cloth’

A letter to The New York Times by Edward Warren, a former Air Force nuclear weapon launch officer:

To the Editor:

Too many people are looking at this election through the wrong lens. They believe that electing Donald Trump was a decision point. They are wrong. Electing Mr. Trump was the manifestation of a split that already existed in our country.

I have spent the last year building a cabin in northern New Hampshire and have gotten to know my neighbors. Talking to them has made one thing clear to me: The identity of being an American, the “social fabric,” has been slowly tearing for years, if not decades. What makes these friends feel American and what makes my liberal friends feel American are two completely different cloths.

While my Harvard Kennedy School classmates tend to talk about microaggressions and systemic bias, my rural neighbors deal with opioid addiction, unfulfilling jobs and PTSD from a war they fought for a country that seems to be moving on without them.

This country needed a world-class tailor to stitch these red and blue fabrics into a proud American flag, but that wasn’t a skill set that either of our candidates possessed. And without a tailor on the ballot, America chose a candidate who didn’t mind ripping the last threads apart.

There is no longer any pretense that the America social fabric is a single cloth. And while that is a painful discovery, it is the first critical step in the long process of patching together a new American identity. Let’s get started.

May you live in interesting times

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Image from Mic.

I don’t even know where to begin.

Donald Trump is now the president of the United States. If his win wasn’t a landslide, it was solid, apparently including Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

I’m still in a state of shock.

When I lived in New York in the late ’80s, Donald Trump was a figure of fun — a caricature of a rich developer. He’d shown some talent in putting together projects and rebuilding Central Park’s Wollman Rink, but in general he was tabloid fodder: a blowhard who lived for the front page of the tabloids and painting his name on buildings, planes and casinos. The real New York builders were quieter and less ostentatious, even in an ostentatious age.

In the almost 30 years since, Trump had barely changed at all. He was nimble, certainly — you have to be to escape the jaws of bankruptcy and still maintain the illusion of incredible  (liquid) wealth — and an amazing marketer. But his essential personality remained all about him. I was genuinely stunned when his supporters said they believed he would fight for the little guy, that he would name the best people to his administration, that he would Make America Great Again.

Hadn’t they read the papers?

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Really, ‘Judge Parker’? ‘Three months’ later? THREE MONTHS LATER?

parker-moose
From ComicsKingdom.com.

Let me get this straight: The world of “Judge Parker” has gone to hell, and suddenly the strip skips three months into the future.

In today’s strip, we find Hank and Neddy sitting in snow-covered Alaska, with a moose haunting their rustic cabin.

Hank has a beard. Neddy is mourning … something. Sophie has apparently disappeared, not died. The moose isn’t talking.

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