, Steve Bannon thought, shaking his head in disgust as the “Breaking News” alert raced across the television screens in the Trump Tower war room. It was 7:22 p.m. on Election Night, the polls hadn’t even closed, and yet here was CNN’s Jim Acosta breathlessly touting a damning quote he’d pried out of an anonymous senior Trump adviser: “It will take a miracle for us to win.”
Bannon didn’t have to guess at the culprit. He simply assumed it was Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, and how the hell would she know? Conway was a pollster by trade, but she tested messaging, not horse race, and the campaign had cut her off weeks earlier because Trump preferred to see her spinning on TV. If Bannon cared to—and right now, he did not—he could have watched Acosta’s full report and looked for the Tell. That’s what always gave her away. Because Conway was the only woman on Trump’s senior staff, reporters avoided using gender pronouns when quoting her anonymously, lest an errant “she” slip out and reveal their source. Instead, they employed the awkward but gender‑neutral “this adviser” or “this person,” and by the third or fourth reference what they were doing became pretty obvious. That was the Tell. Some of Trump’s advisers had long ago caught on and joked about it.
Sure enough, Acosta cited “a senior adviser from Donald Trump’s inner circle,” followed by a trifecta of “this adviser”s, with nary a “he” or a “she” to be heard. Even before he’d finished talking, CNN— Trump’s obsession and bête noire—had billboarded the “take a miracle” quote in a banner that stretched across the screen.
But Bannon had already moved on. He could never fathom why people like Conway worked so hard to win goodwill from reporters (most of whom, he thought, were idiots with no earthly idea what was really going on) or why they cared so much about appearances.
It took only a glance to see that Bannon himself cared not a whit for appearances—at least not his own. This was, in fact, one of his defining traits. He had spent most of his life donning the uniform of the various institutions to which he belonged: the cadet’s uniform at Benedictine High School, the all‑male Roman Catholic military school he and his brothers attended in Richmond, Virginia; the naval officer’s starched whites during his eight‑year stint aboard destroyers in the Pacific and the Persian Gulf; and the banker’s expensive suits, a uniform of their own, which he’d worn during his tenure at Goldman Sachs.
But once he made real money and cashed out, Bannon gleefully threw off the strictures of the working stiff and adopted a singular personal style: rumpled oxfords layered over multiple polo shirts, ratty cargo shorts, and flip‑flops—a sartorial middle finger to the whole wide world.
Even now, at sixty‑three, having left a right‑wing media empire a few months earlier to become Trump’s chief campaign strategist, Bannon made only the tiniest concession to the Trump world’s boardroom ethos by swapping the cargo shorts for cargo pants and tossing a blazer over his many layers of shirting. Although it was Election Night and television satellite trucks stretched for blocks around Trump Tower, Bannon hadn’t bothered with a shave or a haircut, and he had a half dozen pens clipped to his shirt placket, like some bizarre military epaulet. “Steve needs to be introduced to soap and water,” said Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political adviser. He looked for all the world like someone preparing to spend the night on a park bench.
But Trump needed him. Practically alone among his advisers, Bannon had had an unshakable faith that the billionaire reality‑TV star could prevail—and a plan to get him there. “It’s gonna be ugly,” Bannon would tell anyone who would listen during the closing weeks of the campaign. “But there’s a path.”
In the days after the election, the world wondered: How could this happen?
Many people still wonder. No shortage of scapegoats and malefactors were offered up by way of explanation: James Comey, the Russians, the media, “fake news,” sexism—the list went on and on. Yet none was entirely satisfying, or big enough to encompass the scale of the shock, or capable of unwinding the sense of dislocation so many people felt when they awoke to the realization that something so seemingly unlikely—so utterly extreme
—as Trump’s election could happen in plain view of everyone, without anyone really seeing it coming. It was like the opening scene of a Hollywood thriller, the sudden jolt that makes you sit upright in your seat, and after which some remarkable, winding backstory is gradually revealed. But the revelation never arrived. Even now, there’s a sense that some vital piece of the puzzle is missing.
That piece is Steve Bannon.
From Machiavelli to Karl Rove, politics has a rich history of the genius figure whose plots and intrigues on behalf of a ruler make him the hidden hand behind the throne, the wily strategist secretly guiding the nation’s affairs. So familiar has this story become that it’s a trope of American political journalism: if you’re a presidential candidate without a brilliant strategist, the media will often take it upon themselves to anoint one you never knew you had. The strategists, aware of this narrative compulsion, openly jockey to win the position.
Although he’s been cast in the role, Bannon is no such figure— or in any event, he doesn’t fit the typical mold any more than Trump fit the mold of “typical presidential candidate.” What Bannon is instead is a brilliant ideologue from the outer fringe of American politics—and an opportunistic businessman—whose unlikely path happened to intersect with Trump’s at precisely the right moment in history.
For years, Bannon had been searching for a vessel for his populist‑nationalist ideas, trying out and eventually discarding Tea Party politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. At the same time, he was building an elaborate machine designed to destroy the great enemy whose march to the White House posed the biggest threat to those ideas and to everyone whose beliefs hewed to the right of center: Hillary Clinton. In 1998, when Clinton first posited a “vast right‑wing conspiracy” bent on ruining her and her husband, she was widely ridiculed. But she wasn’t wrong. By the time she launched her 2016 campaign, Bannon was sitting at the nexus of a far‑flung group of conspirators whose scope and reach Clinton and her campaign didn’t fathom until far too late.
At first, Bannon didn’t understand that he’d found the figure he’d been looking for. Trump wasn’t a serious candidate and would never deign to let some Rove figure govern his behavior—that much was clear from the outset. But Bannon soon discovered that Trump’s great personal force could knock down barriers that impeded other politicians. And Trump, for his part, seemed to recognize that Bannon alone could focus and channel his uncanny political intuition with striking success. Bannon didn’t make Trump president the way Rove did George W. Bush—but Trump wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Bannon. Together, their power and reach gave them strength and influence far beyond what either could have achieved on his own.
Any study of Trump’s rise to the presidency is therefore unavoidably a study of Bannon, too. It’s a story Trump won’t like, because he isn’t always the central character. And because, contrary to his blustery assertions, his victory wasn’t a landslide, didn’t owe solely to the force of his personality or his business savvy, and happened only due to a remarkable confluence of circumstances. This confluence occurred in large part because Bannon had built a trap that snapped shut on Clinton, and the success of this, too, was an incredible long shot. In fact, the whole saga of Bannon is every bit as strange and unlikely as that of Trump. He’s like an organism that could have grown and blossomed only under a precise and exacting set of conditions—a black orchid.
This book is the backstory of how those conditions came to be—it’s the part of the movie you haven’t seen. To understand Trump’s extraordinary rise, you have to go all the way back and begin with Steve Bannon, or else it doesn’t make sense.
Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Green. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.