Trump's New Campaign Guru Stephen Bannon: 'Seinfeld' Insider, Polarizing Figure
The executive chairman of Breitbart News has decades of experience in entertainment, and he has ruffled feathers along the way.
Donald Trump's appointment of Stephen Bannon as chairman of his campaign for U.S. president unleashes a political and media operative with deep ties to the entertainment-media industry that dates back decades and includes plowing millions he banked on an early investment in the Seinfeld sitcom into a string of movies aimed at the political right.
Nevertheless, Hollywood is just now familiarizing itself with Bannon, and it will quickly learn he’s built a reputation as a brilliant yet polarizing figure — even among conservatives.
If there is a vast, right-wing conspiracy, as Trump challenger Hillary Clinton proclaimed years ago, Bannon could plausibly be considered its leader as head of right-leaning Breitbart News. Indeed, Bloomberg Businessweek in October dubbed him "the most dangerous political operative in America," and he has been judiciously raising his profile in media circles since then.
Bannon didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but The Hollywood Reporter last spoke to him at the GOP convention in Cleveland last month where he was pitching his latest film, Torchbearer, a documentary about godless societies that stars Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson. While there, Bannon also promoted Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart editor who became a rock star among the convention-goers after the gay conservative was banned for life from Twitter for politically incorrect tweets directed at Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones.
Bannon has been advising Trump in an unofficial capacity for months, telling him to be his combative self, while other experts have advised him to tone down the rhetoric and moderate his agenda, including his tough stance on illegal immigration. Asked to comment on Trump's hiring of Bannon, conservative writer (and arguably the candidate's earliest high-profile supporter) Ann Coulter gave a one-word answer: "Hallelujah!"
Insiders who know Bannon say it is his media-insider moxie that attracted him to Trump, also an entertainment insider who seems to fare best when he relies on his instincts over the advice of the political class. Bannon's Hollywood connections, though, are in many ways more significant than are Trump's, a real-estate mogul who became a household name as star of The Apprentice.
Prior to Torchbearer, Bannon produced, wrote, directed and helped to bankroll documentaries like Occupy Unmasked, which starred Andrew Breitbart and was a critical look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. He also made Unbreakable about Sarah Palin, and at the 2011 Iowa premiere Breitbart introduced the film. After Breitbart died in 2012, Breitbart News CEO Larry Solov named Bannon executive chairman of the company, and he helped turn Breitbart.com into one of the most popular conservative sites on the internet. He maintains it has been profitable for years, despite the death of its high-profile namesake.
"This is terrific for Trump because Bannon understands pop culture," says Lionel Chetwynd, a co-founder of Friends of Abe, the private group of conservatives working in Hollywood. "There's a division between those who think no Republican can win without shaping the message to each identity block and those who call that pandering and a recipe for losing. Bannon represents a victory for the latter group. Enough with the pandering!"
As Bannon’s profile has grown in recent months — in part due to him casting himself as host of a Breitbart-branded radio show on Sirius XM Radio while also becoming a fixture on Fox News — he became inevitably more controversial, as are many conservatives in the alternative media.
Controversy spilled over into rebellion when Breitbart.com veered obviously pro-Trump, and it came to a head when the outlet backed the candidate over one of its own reporters, Michelle Fields, who claimed she was manhandled by then-Trump campaign-manager Corey Lewandowski. Trump eventually fired Lewandowski (who has since joined CNN as a commentator), but the damage was done, as several Breitbart employees quit in solidarity with Fields.
But as of Wednesday, it appears Bannon's allegiance to Trump has paid off big time by putting him in position to possibly derail the presidential hopes of Clinton, a longtime political foe. "The Clintons are grifters. Never in history has anyone been more unqualified for president," Bannon told THR at the GOP convention.
The most high-profile defector over the Fields fiasco, meanwhile, was radio host and best-selling author Ben Shapiro. He wrote a blistering critique of Bannon on Wednesday, accusing him of using “celebrity conservatives to elevate his personal profile.” Shapiro also posited the theory that, should Trump lose the election, Bannon will help Trump launch his own digital media company, possibly with the help of ousted former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. It’s a theory also promoted by Glenn Beck during his radio show.
Bannon, a 63-year-old former naval officer, got his start in entertainment as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. He also executive produced movies, including The Indian Runner starring Sean Penn in 1991 and Titus with Anthony Hopkins in 1999.
Bannon and some Goldman Sachs colleagues launched Bannon & Co., and when he negotiated the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to Ted Turner, he accepted a stake in Seinfeld and four other TV shows as partial payment. After he sold his company, he became a partner at the film, TV and music management company The Firm, along with industry veteran Jeff Kwatinetz.
One of Bannon's earliest documentaries was about President Ronald Reagan, called In The Face of Evil, and it was during the making and marketing of that movie that he first met Breitbart, as well as Peter Schweizer, the best-selling author of Clinton Cash, a critical look at Hillary and former President Bill Clinton and their Clinton Foundation charity. At the GOP convention, Bannon also was marketing his movie based on that book. He told THR that the film will eventually appear on about five TV networks, as well as digital outlets. "The movie is a public service," he said.
Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but according to published reports, Wednesday's campaign shake-up does not affect Paul Manafort, who will remain campaign chairman, but his deputy, Rick Gates, is in line for a new title. Changes also include the hiring of pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager.
Conway, who was already a senior Trump adviser, is also a frequent guest on Fox News and was seen making the rounds on “radio row” during last month’s GOP convention. In essence, then, with the addition of Bannon and Conway, Trump's campaign is being run in part by people without traditional campaign credentials, which has some observers scratching their heads.
"Trump's latest move would be a masterstroke — in the bizarro world," said John Pitney, the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College. "He has a 66 percent unfavorable rating, so now he will do much more of what got him there. He needs to reach beyond his hardcore base, so he picks a guy who focuses on that base?"
But Dave Bossie, president and chairman of Citizens United, says that Bannon and Conway are a good fit with the Trump campaign. "They are a bolt of energy. Bannon is a data-driven new-media guy, and Kelly is a master of messaging," said Bossie, who has partnered with Bannon on several films over the course of a decade.
"Bannon and Conway will make the campaign very nimble. They adjust very, very quickly," added Bossie. "Bannon is incredibly passionate about what he believes in."
With Bannon, Trump has again tapped into executive talent with ties to the industry, after hiring as his national finance chairman Steven Mnuchin, the chairman of Dune Entertainment Partners. Mnuchin was also a controversial selection, given his past business relationships with billionaire progressive activist George Soros, who is financing efforts to defeat Trump.