Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain is pitched as a book about Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive chairman who is now chief White House strategist, but it isn’t a biography per se. The now-familiar checkpoints of Bannon’s life—his working-class roots and Catholicism, his stints in the Navy (the source of his Islamophobia) and Goldman Sachs, and his stewardship of Breitbart—are mere fodder for an inevitable ending: the election of Donald Trump. Which is to say that Devil’s Bargain is really a campaign book.
As a result, the mangy Wario disappears for large chunks of this relatively short book, which also covers the bizarre workings of the “alt-Koch” billionaire Mercer family, the numerous institutions that have been created over the last three decades to take down the Clintons, and the inner workings of Trumpland prior to Bannon taking over the operation in August of 2016. The spotlight may be on Bannon, but Devil’s Bargain is really about how a bunch of sinister Bannon-esque forces aligned not just to win Trump the presidency, but to ensure that Hillary Clinton lost it.
Bannon’s exact role in all of this is in dispute. This April, two months after he demoted Bannon following a spate of stories alleging that Bannon was the real power behind the throne, Trump told The New York Post that Bannon was overrated, more Falstaff than Machiavelli. “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump said. “I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing Crooked Hillary.”
But Devil’s Bargain argues that, contra the president, Trump’s victory would not have been possible without Bannon. It was Bannon who brought decades of anti-Clinton knowledge and connections when he took over the Trump campaign and guided it through its burn-everything-down final act. It was Bannon who realized that a small group of aggrieved outsiders could change the future of American politics. And it was Bannon who gave an intellectual skeleton to Trump’s instinctive, ego-driven brand of white populism.
The deciding voters in the 2016 election mostly broke toward Trump in the last two weeks, following the now infamous letter from then-FBI Director James Comey that resurrected Clinton’s email scandal. Trump’s data team, Green reports, labeled these voters “double-haters” who despised both candidates equally. However, if the Comey letter ultimately gave these voters the reason they needed to vote against Clinton, Devil’s Bargain shows that the plot to make Clinton look unviable went back decades.
“Bill and Hillary Clinton had been prominent Democratic fixtures on the national political scene for so long,” Green writes, “that it was possible for a conservative to build an entire career out of specializing in devising ways to oppose and attack them.” David Bossie, the head of Citizens United, who brought Bannon into Trump’s orbit, was one of these people. So was Kellyanne Conway, who is now a White House apparatchik. One of Bannon’s great skills, both at Breitbart and as Trump’s campaign chairman, was to empower this long-standing fringe and to turn the campaign in its final weeks into the all-out assault that cost Clinton the presidency.
Bannon is notably not one of these career anti-Clinton fighters. But he did found the Government Accountability Institute, a think tank that existed to fund Peter Schweizer, the author of Clinton Cash. Bannon’s key insight was that the sheen of respectability goes a long, long way. Bannon fed Schweizer’s controversial, often flimsy findings to major outlets like The New York Times, making Clinton’s alleged corruption and untrustworthiness a legitimate target for inquiry rather than a font for conspiracy theories.
The Government Accountability Institute, Green writes, was only one cog in a machine built to bring Clinton down. There was also Breitbart News, where provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos fed raw meat to a rabid anti-Clinton, anti-globalist, anti-SJW, and Islamophobic base; Glittering Steel, where Bannon made Leni Riefenstahl-ish movies about the corruption of the Clintons and the need for populist outsiders; and Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that helped bring us Brexit and that could provide sophisticated analysis and targeting to campaigns like Trump’s. The Mercers funded all of these entities, and Bannon was involved with every one of them except Cambridge Analytica. “By the time Clinton launched her presidential campaign in 2015,” Green writes, “all four of these groups were up and running like the machine they were envisioned to be.”
Because Trump’s victory was so unexpected, his success has often been rooted in the force of his personality. “If I didn’t come along, the Republican Party had zero chance of winning the presidency,” Trump told Green in 2016. Nothing in Devil’s Bargain contradicts that claim, but Green argues that it was only by fully embracing Bannon’s white nationalist worldview and his win-at-all-costs anti-Clintonism that he could have won the presidency.
There are reasons to doubt that Bannon’s role was as central as Green sometimes makes it—Michael Flynn was leading “lock her up chants” at the Republican National Convention a month before Bannon took over the campaign—but the most salient takeaway from Devil’s Bargain is that Trump didn’t build that. It was fortuitous alliances with dark figures like Bannon and the Mercers, and decades of anti-Clinton work, that ultimately paved the road to victory.
And now that Clinton has been defeated, Bannon, like Trump, seems a bit lost. The glow of their unlikely victory, along with their rabble-rousing, storm-the-gates message, have faded amidst the Washington grind. “The kind of tragic, Shakespearean irony of the Donald Trump-Steve Bannon relationship,” Green writes, “is that Bannon finally did find the vessel for his ideas who could get elected president ... [but who] now doesn’t have the focus, the wherewithal, the self-control to even do the basic things that a president needs to do.” Trump also doesn’t have Hillary Clinton to kick around anymore–and neither does Steve Bannon.