Ringside With Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect's Strategist Plots "An Entirely New Political Movement" (Exclusive)
"I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist," Bannon tells THR media columnist Michael Wolff as the controversial Breitbart News chief turned White House adviser unleashes on Hillary Clinton, Fox News and his critics.
In late summer when I went up to see Steve Bannon, then recently named CEO of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, in his office at Trump Tower in New York, he outlined a preposterous-sounding scenario. Trump, he said, would do surprisingly well among women, Hispanics and African-Americans, in addition to workingmen, and hence take Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan — and therefore the election. On Nov. 15, when I went back to Trump Tower, Bannon, promoted by the president-elect to chief strategist for the incoming administration, and by the media as the official symbol of all things hateful and virulent about the coming Trump presidency, said, as matter-of-factly as when he first sketched it out for me, "I told you so."
The liberal firewall against Trump was, most of all, the belief that the Republican contender was too disorganized, outlandish, outré and lacking in nuance to run a proper political campaign. That view was only confirmed when Bannon, editor of the outlandish and outré Breitbart News Network, took over the campaign in August. Now Bannon is arguably the most powerful person on the new White House team, embodying more than anyone the liberals' awful existential pain and fury: How did someone so wrong — not just wrong, but inappropriate, unfit and "loathsome," according to The New York Times — get it so spot-on right?
In these dark days for Democrats, Bannon has become the blackest hole.
"Darkness is good," says Bannon, who amid the suits surrounding him at Trump Tower, looks like a graduate student in his T-shirt, open button-down and tatty blue blazer — albeit a 62-year-old graduate student. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they" — I believe by "they" he means liberals and the media, already promoting calls for his ouster — "get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing."
On that precise point, The New York Times, in a widely circulated article, will describe this day at Trump Tower as a scene of "disarray" for the transition team. In fact, it's all hands on: Mike Pence, the vice president-elect and transition chief, and Reince Priebus, the new chief of staff, shuttling between full conference rooms; Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and by many accounts his closest adviser, conferring in the halls; Sen. Jeff Sessions in and out of meetings on the transition team floor; Rudy Giuliani upstairs with Trump (overheard: "Is the boss meeting-meeting with Rudy or just shooting the shit?"), and Bannon with a long line of men and women outside his corner office. If this is disarray, it's a peculiarly focused and organized kind.
It's the Bannon theme, the myopia of the media — that it tells only the story that confirms its own view, that in the end it was incapable of seeing an alternative outcome and of making a true risk assessment of the political variables — reaffirming the Hillary Clinton camp's own political myopia. This defines the parallel realities in which liberals, in their view of themselves, represent a morally superior character and Bannon — immortalized on Twitter as a white nationalist, racist, anti-Semite thug — the ultimate depravity of Trumpism.
The focus on Bannon, if not necessarily the description, is right. He's the man with the idea. If Trumpism is to represent something intellectually and historically coherent, it's Bannon's job to make it so. In this, he could not be a less reassuring or more confusing figure for liberals — fiercely intelligent and yet reflexively drawn to the inverse of every liberal assumption and shibboleth. A working class kid, he enlists in the navy after high school, gets a degree from Virginia Tech, then Georgetown, then Harvard Business School. Then it's Goldman Sachs, then he's a dealmaker and entrepreneur in Hollywood — where, in an unlikely and very lucky deal match-up, he gets a lucrative piece of Seinfeld royalties, ensuring his own small fortune — then into the otherworld of the vast right-wing conspiracy and conservative media. (He partners with David Bossie, a congressional investigator of President Clinton, who later spearheaded the Citizens United lawsuit that effectively removed the cap on campaign spending, and who now, as the deputy campaign manager, is in the office next to Bannon's.) And then to the Breitbart News Network, which with digital acumen and a mind-meld with the anger and the passion of the new alt-right (a liberal designation Bannon derides) he pushes to the inner circle of conservative media from Breitbart's base on the Westside of liberal Los Angeles.
What he seems to have carried from a boyhood in a blue-collar, union and Democratic family in Norfolk, Va., and through his tour of the American establishment, is an unreconstructed sense of class awareness, or bitterness — or betrayal. The Democratic Party betrayed its workingman roots, just as Hillary Clinton betrayed the longtime Clinton connection — Bill Clinton's connection — to the workingman. "The Clinton strength," he says, "was to play to people without a college education. High school people. That's how you win elections." And, likewise, the Republican party would come to betray its workingman constituency forged under Reagan. In sum, the workingman was betrayed by the establishment, or what he dismisses as the "donor class."
To say that he sees this donor class — which in his telling is also "ascendant America," e.g. the elites, as well as "the metrosexual bubble" that encompasses cosmopolitan sensibilities to be found as far and wide as Shanghai, London's Chelsea, Hollywood and the Upper West Side — as a world apart, is an understatement. In his view, there's hardly a connection between this world and its opposite — fly-over America, left-behind America, downwardly mobile America — hardly a common language. This is partly why he regards the liberal characterization of himself as socially vile, as the politically incorrect devil incarnate, as laughable — and why he is stoutly unapologetic. They — liberals and media — don't understand what he is saying, or why, or to whom. Breitbart, with its casual provocations — lists of its varied incitements (among them: the conservative writer David Horowitz referred to conservative pundit Brill Kristol as a "renegade Jew," and the site delighting in headlines the likes of "Trannies 49Xs Higher HIV Rate" and "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy") were in hot exchange after the election among appalled Democrats — is as opaque to the liberal-donor-globalist class as Lena Dunham might be to the out-of-work workingman class. And this, in the Bannon view, is all part of the profound misunderstanding that led liberals to believe that Donald Trump's mouth would doom him, instead of elect him.
Bannon, arguably, is one of the people most at the battle line of the great American divide — and one of the people to have most clearly seen it.
He absolutely — mockingly — rejects the idea that this is a racial line. "I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist," he tells me. "The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver" — by "we" he means the Trump White House — "we'll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we'll govern for 50 years. That's what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It's not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about."
In a nascent administration that seems, at best, random in its beliefs, Bannon can seem to be not just a focused voice, but almost a messianic one:
"Like [Andrew] Jackson's populism, we're going to build an entirely new political movement," he says. "It's everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I'm the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it's the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We're just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement."
Bannon represents, he not unreasonably believes, the fall of the establishment. The self-satisfied, in-bred and homogenous views of the establishment are both what he is against and what has provided the opening for the Trump revolution. "The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what's wrong with this country," he continues. "It's just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no f—ing idea what's going on. If The New York Times didn't exist, CNN and MSNBC would be a test pattern. The Huffington Post and everything else is predicated on The New York Times. It's a closed circle of information from which Hillary Clinton got all her information — and her confidence. That was our opening."
At that moment, as we talk, there's a knock on the door of Bannon's office, a temporary, impersonal, middle-level executive space with a hodgepodge of chairs for constant impromptu meetings. Sen. Ted Cruz, once the Republican firebrand, now quite a small and unassuming figure, has been waiting patiently for a chat and Bannon excuses himself for a short while. It is clear when we return to our conversation that it is not just the liberal establishment that Bannon feels he has triumphed over, but the conservative one too — not least of all Fox News and its owners, the Murdochs. "They got it more wrong than anybody," he says. "Rupert is a globalist and never understood Trump. To him, Trump is a radical. Now they'll go centrist and build the network around Megyn Kelly." Bannon recounts, with no small irony, that when Breitbart attacked Kelly after her challenges to Trump in the initial Republican debate, Fox News chief Roger Ailes — whom Bannon describes as an important mentor, and whom Kelly's accusations of sexual harassment would help topple in July — called to defend her. Bannon says he warned Ailes that Kelly would be out to get him too.
It is less than obvious how Bannon, now the official strategic brains of the Trump operation, syncs with his boss, famously not too strategic. When Bannon took over the campaign from Paul Manafort, there were many in the Trump circle who had resigned themselves to the inevitability of the candidate listening to no one. But here too was a Bannon insight: When the campaign seemed most in free fall or disarray, it was perhaps most on target. While Clinton was largely absent from the campaign trail and concentrating on courting her donors, Trump — even after the leak of the grab-them-by-the-pussy audio — was speaking to ever-growing crowds of 35,000 or 40,000. "He gets it; he gets it intuitively," says Bannon, perhaps still surprised he has found such an ideal vessel. "You have probably the greatest orator since William Jennings Bryan, coupled with an economic populist message and two political parties that are so owned by the donors that they don't speak to their audience. But he speaks in a non-political vernacular, he communicates with these people in a very visceral way. Nobody in the Democratic party listened to his speeches, so they had no idea he was delivering such a compelling and powerful economic message. He shows up 3.5 hours late in Michigan at 1 in the morning and has 35,000 people waiting in the cold. When they got [Clinton] off the donor circuit she went to Temple University and they drew 300 or 400 kids."
Indeed, during the worst days of the campaign, even down to the last day when most in Trumpland thought only a miracle would save them, "I knew that she couldn't close. They outspent us 10 to one, had 10 times more people and had all the media with them, but I kept saying it doesn't matter, they got it all wrong, we've got this locked."
Bannon now becomes part of a two-headed White House political structure, with Reince Priebus — in and out of Bannon's office as we talk — as chief of staff, in charge of making the trains run on time, reporting to the president, and Bannon as chief strategist, in charge of vision, goals, narrative and plan of attack, reporting to the president too. Add to this the ambitions and whims of the president himself, and the novel circumstance of one who has never held elective office, the agenda of his highly influential family and the end-runs of a party significant parts of which were opposed to him, and you have quite a complex court that Bannon will have to finesse to realize his reign of the workingman and a trillion dollars in new spending.
"I am," he says, with relish, "Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors."