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.
“[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.