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Review: “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency"

A new book provides the closest look yet at how a former Richmonder became Trump’s brain.

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Bannon, shown here on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, is effectively out of his role in the White House today, Aug. 18. Some commenters have speculated that the publication of "Devil's Bargain" angered Trump with stories of Bannon's strong influence.
  • Bannon, shown here on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, is effectively out of his role in the White House today, Aug. 18. Some commenters have speculated that the publication of "Devil's Bargain" angered Trump with stories of Bannon's strong influence.

Richmond-raised Stephen K. Bannon has been the dark knight of President Donald Trump’s tumultuous administration. He’s an alt-right Cardinal Richelieu whose manipulations fluster moderate Republican insiders as he eggs on Trump’s arrogance and baser instincts.

When white supremacists provoked a horrific melee in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 that left three dead and many injured, Bannon immediately was accused of creating the climate of confrontation that resulted in the tragedy. Once again, calls went out across the nation for the head of Trump’s chief White House strategist on a plate.

On Aug. 18, it came true. Bannon was pushed out, according to media reports, soon after he gave an interview ripping the Trump team to a left-leaning news outlet.

So who is Bannon, really? Where did this disheveled outsider with a genius for social media and ruthless politics come from? What are the roots of his extreme anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-GOP establishment views that clinched white voter rage and gave Trump his victory?

The most comprehensive, if still limited, account so far can be found in “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency,” by Joshua Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

When Green first met Bannon in 2011, he was working on a piece for the Atlantic about a documentary of Sarah Palin. Bannon, the film producer, was strutting around the Arlington sound studio in a military jacket.

At first, Green thought he was “forgettable,” but something clicked. Green thought that Bannon was so intriguing that he started following the trail of information about him for the next seven years. Green writes: “He was a human hand grenade, an Internet-era update of the Slim Pickens character in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ who rides the bomb like a rodeo bull whoopin’ and a hollerin’ all the way to nuclear annihilation.”

There’s no doubt about Bannon’s talent. Raised in Richmond’s Ginter Park neighborhood, Bannon attended Virginia Tech where he runs for president in a bitter campaign. Next came service as a Navy officer on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf during the Iranian Crisis.

Bannon then takes on a series of prestigious and eclectic roles as a Harvard Business School grad, a Goldman Sachs investment banker, a Hollywood mogul and an executive with a Hong Kong-based Internet gaming company.

This polyglot of jobs and keen knowledge of how the Web works primed Bannon for politics. So did his key association with billionaire Robert Mercer, often referred to as a Koch brother of the alt-right. Another tie-in was Andrew Breitbart, founder of the ultra-conservative website Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after Breitbart’s sudden death of a heart ailment in 2012.

Bannon also is linked to the Government Accountability Institute in Tallahassee, Florida, a hard-right think tank funded by Mercer. It gathered dirt on the Clintons that Trump found so useful in his campaign.

“Bannon’s cult-leader magnetism was a powerful draw for oddballs and freaks, and the attraction ran both ways,” Green writes.

This may seem ironic for a man who grew up in a devout, Irish-Catholic family that worshipped John F. Kennedy. But as Green explains, it might not be so odd given the class politics of Richmond at the time.

Born in Norfolk, Bannon moved to Richmond’s North Side when he was young. His family included a father who was a telephone lineman and a mother who was a homemaker. When not attending Mass in the traditional Latin, Bannon and his brothers attended what is now called Benedictine College Preparatory, an all-boys Catholic military school then in the Museum District.

According to Chris Pudner, a childhood friend of Bannon whom Green quotes, Benedictine cadets were very conscious of their supposed “working class” status when they compared themselves to blue bloods at wealthier prep schools Collegiate School and St. Christopher’s School. “We’d battle them in sports; we’d fight them at parties. We were the blue-collar guys. They were rich snobs,” Pudner is quoted.

Another strong theme at Benedictine was the way in which Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella saved Western civilization from Islamic destruction by defeating the Moors. Green suggests that this helped spark Bannon’s staunch anti-Muslim views, along with his naval service in the Persian Gulf during the Tehran hostage crisis.

Later, Bannon, an autodidact, read extensively of Christian mysticism, eastern metaphysics and once practiced Zen Buddhism in the Navy. He was present at every stage as social media developed, mastering its use and understanding its enormous potential to bypass usual political channels. That gave him the clout he wields today.

One problem with the book is that Green doesn’t tease out enough of Bannon’s fascinating formative years. That’s probably because he hasn’t had enough time. Green’s work is also troubled by too much recitation of Trump and his team during the campaign and in the White House. Readers go on for pages without running into Bannon.

In all, Green does a good job with Bannon, whose self-styled personal slogan is “Honey Badger, he don’t give a shit.” Bannon lasted only a year as a campaign adviser and top Trump strategist. But he's still key to understanding Trump. That is, if anyone can understand Trump.

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