Joshua Greene’s Devil’s Bargain is ostensibly about Steve Bannon, arguably mainstream Democrats biggest boogeyman not named Vladimir Putin.
The book, of course, covers his evolution from the Navy to Goldman Sachs, to World of Warcraft, to Hollywood, and to (supposedly) anti-Goldman right-wing crusader. However, the book is really about how three well-financed forces coalesced and resulted in the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States.
Force 1: Hatred of Hilary Clinton
“Bill and Hillary Clinton,” Greene writes, “had been prominent Democratic fixtures on the national political scene for so long that it was possible for a conservative to build an entire career out of specializing in devising ways to oppose and attack them.” No one epitomizes this better than David Bossie. Bossie started as the chief investigator for the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, and within weeks he had quickly politicized which was once a fairly non-partisan oversight committee. His handiwork included doctoring testimony transcripts to make the Clinton’s look guilty of fraud and shooting a pistol at a watermelon to somehow prove that the Clinton’s murdered Vince Foster. After a disastrous appearance on Meet the Press, where he was confronted with the original transcripts, the Republican Party banished him to the fringes. “One of Bannon’s great skills,” Alex Shepard wrote in the New Republic, “…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.”
Force 2: Ample Funding
Bossie spent the next decade or so building an entire career demonizing the Clintons. It culminated when he produced a documentary titled, Hillary: The Movie. The film spent 90 minutes re-litigating corruption charges that were exonerated by Federal investigators, but Bossie looked to offer the movie to gullible conservatives via cable television and On-Demand sales. However, when reviewed by broadcast lawyers the documentary was so laughably one-sided that it was “electioneering communication” and banned from broadcast. Bossie’s employer sued, and the result was Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that equated free speech with money and opened the floodgates for corporate influence on elections.
Billions of dollars flooded into the political system. Hundreds of millions came from the Mercers, a finance family obsessed with the aging properly of human urine. Steve Bannon became connected to the family and helped invest in a three-pronged propaganda attack on liberal democracy.
- Breitbart, the platform of the alt-right
- Government Accountability Institute, a right-wing think tank 100 percent devoted to discrediting Hilary Clinton
- Cambridge Analytica, a UK based data science firm that is at the center of the 2016 Russian hacking controversy
Force 3: Disintegration of the Media
Steve Bannon is one of the most overrated people in modern American politics. However, he is one of the few who successfully figured out how to manipulate the media at a mass-scale. This isn’t really evidenced at Breitbart, which is nothing more than a content mill for the worst impulses of American society. His real insight was in the Government Accountability Institute. Here’s why.
Technology killed the print media. With it, it killed the news. In the last 15 years, more than half of the jobs in the news industry have simply disappeared. Reporters, the bedrock of any investigative journalism, have suffered as well. In 1996 US newsrooms employed nearly 54,000 reporters. In 2015 that number was 32,900—a decline of about 39%. Newspapers don’t have the resources to devote to in-depth reporting, which is why the often rely on think-tanks and industry groups to do the grunt work of news reporting.
Enter Steve Bannon. He realized that if he did the dirty work, he could feed raw data and loose facts for newspapers to launder to the public. And he did.
Hilary Clinton has a perception of being corrupt. The causes are many and complex: E.g., frauds like Bossie, sexism, Republican polarization, and of course actual corruption (see Democratic Nomination Process 2016). However, Bannon succeeded where past anti-Clinton zealots failed because he realized it had to at least be rooted in truth. You couldn’t simply claim Clinton had an aid murdered to cover-up fraud and prove it by shooting a watermelon. “Back then,” Bannon told Greene, “they couldn’t take down Bill because they didn’t do that much real reporting, they couldn’t get the mainstream guys interested, and they were always gunning for impeachment no matter what. People got anesthetized to outrage.”
Bannon and his team set out to comb through nearly all of Clinton’s actions in the last ten years. Greene explains:
As with so many of the Clinton’s troubles, the couple’s own behavior provided copious material for GAI’s investigators. When Clinton became secretary of state, the foundation signed an agreement with the Obama White House to disclose all of its contributors. It didn’t’ follow through. So GAI researchers combed tax fillings, flight logs, and foreign-government documents to turn up what the Clinton Foundation had withheld.
The think-tank would then take those findings, those facts, and package them into a narrative that fit right-wing aims. Often the narrative was wrong, but it didn’t matter. Some of the basic facts were right and with limited funding to check sources, the mainstream press published. “We’re not going public,” Wyton Hall, the ghostwriter who works for the think tank, “until we have something so tantalizing that any editor at a serious publication would be an idiot to pass it up and give a competitor the scoop.” It’s why the New York Times originally published the discredited Uranium One story. They were effectively laundering right-wing propaganda based on a germ of truth. A newsroom with a full staff of editors and fact-checkers would never publish the story, but that doesn’t exist. Plus, GAI created the impression of scarcity—forcing the companies hand.
The Bottom Line on Joshua Greene’s Devil’s Bargain:
Joshua Greene’s Devils Bargain is a surprisingly quick read. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t offer much deep insight into the election itself. Instead, I’d recommend reading Greene’s magazine profile on Bannon, which highlights the bulk of the book.