How combative populist Steve Bannon found his man in Donald Trump


When Julia Jones arrived at her office in Santa Monica at 8 a.m. — by Hollywood screenwriter standards, the crack of dawn — she found Stephen K. Bannon already at his desk, which was cluttered with takeout coffees. They were co-writers on a Ronald Reagan documentary, but Bannon had pretty much taken it over. He had been at work for hours, he told her, writing feverishly about his political hero.

Today, with Donald Trump, whose election Bannon helped engineer, on the threshold of power, the 2004 film “In the Face of Evil” has a prophetic ring.

The message: Only one man was up to the challenge posed by looming domestic and global threats.

“A man with a vision,” the trailer says. “An outsider, a radical with extreme views.”

Like Reagan, Trump addressed the people he called “the forgotten men and women of our country” — the white working and middle class. He vowed to take on Islamic radicalism, as Reagan had faced off against communism. Echoing the sole-savior theme of “In the Face of Evil,” Trump declared of the nation’s predicament, “Only I can fix it.”

Jones, for one, had no trouble seeing the parallels. “Trump,” she said, “is Steve’s Reagan.”

'The outsider and the insurgent'

Trump, of course, is not Bannon’s creation. (Asked on Tuesday by New York Times journalists about Bannon, Trump praised him but said, pointedly, “I’m the one who makes the decisions.”)

But Bannon understood better than any other 2016 campaign strategist how many voters were seeking dramatic change, said Patrick Caddell, a veteran pollster. “His ideology is that of the outsider and the insurgent,” Caddell said.

Vociferous critics of his appointment, a diverse group that includes the conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, have variously called Bannon a racist, a sexist, an anti-Semite and an Islamophobe. 

'No one has called him nice'

Interviews with two dozen people who know him well, however, portray a man not easily labeled. (Bannon turned down a request for an interview, saying he was too busy with the presidential transition.)

Fans and foes agree that he is a “screamer,” a volcanic personality who sometimes resorts to offensive or hyperbolic language. One of his three former wives claimed in court papers that he had said he did not want their twin daughters to go to school with Jews who raise their children to be “whiny brats,” a claim Bannon denies. In a 2011 radio interview, he dismissed liberal women as “a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools.”

“No one has called him nice,” said Patrick McSweeney, a former chairman of the Virginia Republican Party who has known his family for years. “He is the least politically correct person I know. His overriding concern is getting the mission accomplished.”

'Steve’s not a racist'

Bannon encouraged clickbait incitement on Breitbart.com, and links to Breitbart articles are often spread on Twitter and Facebook alongside Nazi rhetoric and racial slurs. Bannon has only mildly denounced the bigots among his admirers.

“In the 14 years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard him utter a racist or anti-Semitic comment,” said Peter Schweizer, a conservative author and the president of the Government Accountability Institute, where Bannon was a founder.

Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who has been sharply critical of Bannon, called him “a manipulator” who had “mainstreamed” far-right extremists for cynical political purposes.

Jones, Bannon’s former film collaborator, who describes herself as very liberal, said, “Steve’s not a racist.”

But, she added, “he’s using the alt-right — using them for power.”

A life building a résumé

Robin Mickle, a fellow Navy officer of Bannon’s aboard the destroyer USS Paul F. Foster, remembers that he and some of his idealistic mates were struck by something Bannon told them in 1978.

“He said he joined the Navy so it would look good on his résumé because he wanted to go into politics someday,” said Mickle.

Bannon was the middle child of five in an Irish Catholic family from a leafy North Richmond, Virginia, neighborhood. His father, Martin, 95, to whom he remains very close, was a telephone lineman who had worked his way into middle management at the phone company.

Getting a foot in the door

Though his family had Democratic roots, Bannon, like most of his fellow naval officers, was scornful of President Jimmy Carter and entranced by Ronald Reagan.

When Bannon heard that the Reagan election night party was planned for a Los Angeles hotel, he worked the phones to try for tickets. Sonny Masso, a fellow officer who would eventually make admiral, recalled that when Bannon got the brushoff, he said, “Hey, listen pal, we just got back from the Persian Gulf.” Soon, he had Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger on the phone saying, “The governor would be honored to have you there.”

Harvard and a new life

Bannon was accepted at Harvard Business School, and he left the Navy in 1983 to begin a new life.

Friends at Harvard and later at Goldman Sachs were aware of Bannon’s conservative views, but politics was rarely discussed. “He was in mergers and acquisitions, I was in corporate finance, and we were both working 100 hours a week,” said Scot Vorse, who met Bannon on their first day at Harvard and joined Goldman at the same time.

After less than four years, Bannon left Goldman to start his own firm, Bannon & Co., which Vorse soon joined.
“We were the underdog,” Vorse said. “We were competing for the business of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, and we did well.”

'A battle of good and evil'

In 1998, Bannon & Co. was acquired by Société Générale, and Bannon ran a series of companies working at the intersection of entertainment and finance.
Through films, Bannon was turning his attention back to politics. Tim Watkins, his co-director on the Reagan documentary, said Bannon worked from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “changed the film radically,” Watkins said. Reagan’s Cold War battles merged with the coda, which showed the hijacked airliners hitting the World Trade Center and people jumping to their deaths.

“Steve crafted a lot of the big ideas,” Watkins said, notably that “life is a battle of good and evil, and history repeats itself.”

'Sent these kids into war'

When his eldest child, Maureen, got into West Point, Bannon was thrilled and he was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 2011 when she returned from a deployment to Iraq. But through his daughter’s service, he saw an inequity that fueled his anger at the privileged Americans among whom he had long worked.

At West Point, “he saw a complete, utter lack of people from the upper economic levels of American society,” said Schweizer, the conservative writer. “He thought it was appalling, especially because the elite set so many policies that sent these kids into war.”

Along comes the tea party

By the time of a Tea Party gathering in 2010 in New York, Steve Bannon had fully embraced a class-based diagnosis of the country’s woes: “In the last 20 years, our financial elites and the political class have taken care of themselves and led our country to the brink of ruin,” he said. By contrast, he said, the Tea Party was backed by “the people who fight our wars, pay our taxes, run our civic organizations, who build our cities and who hold our neighborhoods together."

In a revealing 2014 talk via Skype to a Vatican conference, some of his words might have come from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. or Sanders.

“Not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with the 2008 (financial) crisis,” Bannon fumed. “And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken.”

Exclusion 'not such a bad thing'

On other subjects, including race and religion, he made no concessions to political sensitivities. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,'” Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.'”

The takeover at Breitbart

Bannon took over as executive chairman of Breitbart News in 2012 after Andrew Breitbart died. Bannon’s critics assert that he sometimes put his political preferences ahead of fairness or even of the facts, directing that stories be rewritten to his specifications and shrugging off protests that his changes might make them inaccurate. Breitbart specialized in inflammatory coverage of police shootings, immigration and Islam in ways intended to prick liberal pieties.

Alex Marlow, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart, denied that Bannon ever deliberately permitted an inaccurate story to run on the site. 

“Breitbart represents certain values, like conservatism, populism and nationalism, and Steve Bannon wanted our content to reflect that,” Marlow said.

'Trump's personal Pravda'

Some Breitbart editors and reporters thought he was turning a news site into a propaganda platform.

“In my opinion, Steve Bannon is a bully, and has sold out Andrew’s mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump,” Shapiro wrote in a statement when he quit Breitbart in March in support of Michelle Fields, a Breitbart reporter who had been roughly grabbed by Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager. “He has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda.” (Pravda was the official newspaper of the communist party in the former Soviet Union)

In the final weeks of the campaign, Bannon was sure the polls pointing to a Clinton victory were wrong, other campaign officials said. His family made the trip to New York City for election night.

At 4:30 a.m., Vorse, his former colleague, reached him to offer congratulations. He was reminded of their Hollywood days, when “we would have victories and Steve would celebrate for two seconds, and then it was on to the next thing.”

“He said, ‘I got to go because we have a meeting in three hours. I got to hop.'”


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