This is the second of a two-part series.
One year ago today Donald J. Trump surprised pollsters and pundits to win the U.S. presidential race, becoming the republic's 45th president several months later. On that date creator/producer Jeff Deutchman led a team of 16 documentary filmmakers in recording hundreds of hours of footage of how that unusual election day was perceived across the country, what it looked like to a diverse range of voters, and also non-voters bearing in mind that 47 per cent of voting-age Americans did not cast a ballot. The result is 11/8/16 ( http://www.11-8-16.film/), available on Netflix. Deutchman calls it an exercise in “critical empathy” — “allowing yourself to be humble enough to understand other people's points of view without abandoning your own perspective and accumulated experience.”
Deutchman, who admits to being a troubled Clinton supporter, calls the film an invitation “to stare directly into the ugly, chaotic, messy nature of American democracy . . . how we often pay lip service to democratic values without confronting or acknowledging the darkest aspects of what living in a democracy means; namely that we must live under an enormous tent, full of a broad spectrum of different types of people with vastly different experiences, many of whom are confused, ill-informed, or mentally unstable. And that system, as Churchill famously said, is better than all the other ones.”
Speaking of “darkest aspects,” it’s worth delving further into the conditions under which the emergence of what might be called Trumpism was enabled, and into the circumstances under which it managed to succeed politically. In the following I look at several other documentaries and a particularly insightful book that go behind the scenes of this phenomenon.
Trumpism, while it aligns on the right of the political spectrum, should not be confused with a consistent or coherent philosophy or ideology of conservatism. Indeed that is why many traditional American conservatives have been dismayed by its apparent takeover of the Republican Party. At the same time, Trump’s success also did not just come out of the blue. Especially during the Obama years the party embraced those who took it in a more polarizing and extreme rightward direction from the Tea Party movement to the “alt-right” media (the Drudge Report, Breitbart, Infowars, talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh, Fox’s Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter et.al). Charles Sykes’ new book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, laments that, prior to Trump, conservatives had already “outsourced our thought leadership to the loudest, angriest, most vulgar voices on the right.” As a longtime conservative he sees Trump’s modus operandi as being purely self-serving with no real commitment to conservative principles. He worries that the “capitulation to Trumpism” will do lasting damage to the conservative movement.
One of the operatives with decades-long experience who got behind the Trump bandwagon is Roger Stone, who rose to prominence in Republican circles during the Nixon and Reagan eras. Stone is an aggressive self-promoter who prides himself on a mastery of dirty tricks and his skills as an agent provocateur and Machiavellian manipulator. Anything goes under “Stone’s rules.” He is a boastful in-your-face presence in the Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone that premiered at the Tribeca film festival. Directors Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme have put together an eye-opening profile of this fascinating and revolting character who believes in winning at any cost and that it’s better to be infamous than never famous at all. One can see his attraction to a fellow egomaniac in Trump.
Stone may be a purveyor of “anti-establishment,” “populist,” far-right views, but he is also a longtime Washington insider and backroom dealer whose D.C. firm represented some of the world’s worst dictators. You might say he was swimming in the “swamp” Trump promised to drain.
Like Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager during last year’s Republican convention, Stone saw great opportunity in Trump’s challenge. (Manafort, under investigation for shady Russian-Ukrainian connections, currently faces a 12-count indictment by a federal grand jury including a charge of conspiracy against the United States.) According to Manafort: “Roger’s relationship with Donald Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald. While it will be a Trump presidency, it is influenced by a Stone philosophy.”
Manafort and Stone may seem to have been discarded as Trump’s chaotic campaign attempted a late course correction. But Stone is effusive in his admiration for the incoming Steve Bannon as “a bomb-thrower.” When Trump pulls out a win, after whining for months how the election would be “rigged,” Stone exults that “it’s the manifestation of a dream I’ve had since 1988.” He sees the triumph of Trumpism as a personal vindication.
Asked on camera what message he has for viewers who will loathe him, Stone shoots back: “I revel in your hatred because if I weren’t effective you wouldn’t hate me.”
The dynamics of how Trump and his team pulled off last November’s surprise is the subject of Trumped: Behind the Greatest Political Upset of All Time, an equally fascinating and revolting story put together by another trio of directors — Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson, and Banks Tarver. Premiering at the Sundance festival that coincided with Trump’s inauguration, it offers clues as to why he gained such a rabid following that for the most part continues to stick with him.
Trumped was assembled from footage shot for the "Showtime" television series “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth” led by reporting from Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, and Mark McKinnon. It covers the raucous Republican primaries with Trump as the “chaos candidate” and the subsequent raucous campaign in which Trump capitalized on voter anger while inciting venomous attacks on “crooked Hillary.” Roger Stone is among the Trump confidantes shown operating in the back rooms and encouraging Trump to double down on taking the low road.
Trumped, which unfolds in a series of punchy chapters, may be a rushed job that shows more the how than the why of Trump’s ultimate success, which seemed so unlikely at the outset yet kept defying predictions. What it does is underscore the depth of discontent manifest at his campaign rallies, whipped up to a scary intensity as he proclaimed “I am your voice” and delivered bombastic “America First” tirades against a host of targets at home and abroad.
Part of a deeper explanation, as explored in Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain, lies in the rise of “alt-right” influence within Republican circles in which Steve Bannon plays a central role, becoming Trump’s winning campaign manager and then “chief strategist.” Bannon may have left in August, returning to his perch at the helm of the incendiary Breitbart News website. But Bannonism remains at the core of the Trumpist challenge and shows no signs of retreating; quite the contrary. Indeed Bannon insisted to a correspondent for The Economist that his departure had been voluntary, adding: “In the White House I had influence. At Breitbart, I had power.”
Bannon is a complex, bizarre character whom Green has followed and interviewed extensively since doing a profile of him for Bloomberg Businessweek. His checkered background has taken him variously through the Harvard Business School, Wall Street and Goldman Sachs, Hollywood and the production of propaganda documentaries, a Hong Kong videogame venture that gave him an appreciation for the arts of Internet trolling.
Bannon’s background may be as odd as his appearance is unkempt, but he holds to a core of beliefs that veer rightward. Raised in a traditionalist Tridentine (i.e. opposed to Vatican II) Irish-Catholic family, he attended a conservative Benedictine military academy. He became attracted to reactionary philosophers of “Traditionalism” such as Réné Guénon and Julius Evola, who inveighed against the perils of secular modernity. In Bannon’s dark clash-of-civilizations worldview, Islam poses another mortal threat to the West and its national identities. Green points out that Bannon has cited Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist, Aleksandr Dugin, who developed a Russian-nationalist version of Traditionalism. Bannon’s Catholicism is diametrically opposed to Pope Francis whom he dismisses as a “liberal-theology Jesuit” and “pro-immigration globalist.” Bannon established Breitbart Rome to support Catholic traditionalists.
Politically Bannon gravitated toward the world of billionaire backers of hard right causes like Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Clinton haters (Hillary’s complaint about a “vast right-wing conspiracy” wasn’t far off the mark), and a rogues gallery of rightist operators like Roger Stone and David Bossie of Citizens United, the front behind the notorious legal battle that opened the floodgates for corporate campaign cash. The “Tea Party” insurgency and the success of outlets like Breitbart signalled a growing discontent in the country ripe for exploitation. When Donald J. Trump, who had long flirted with presidential ambitions, decided to go after Obama and get serious, there was a well of disaffection with the “politically correct” Washington “establishment” and distrusted “elites” to draw from.
Green pegs Bannon as “a political grifter seeking to profit from the latest trend.” At the helm of Breitbart he saw opportunity in the extreme-right “populist” movement that provided the impetus for Trump’s offensive first on other Republicans and then the Clintons. (Bernie Sanders’ aggressive grassroots challenge to Hillary and her own sense of entitlement underscored her vulnerability to such an attack.) Bannon got his big chance to become the right-hand man when the Trump campaign seemed to be in disarray and Corey Lewandowski and Manafort had been dumped. (That Trump’s two previous campaign managers loathed and schemed against each other is among many engrossing details in the book.)
Bannon was called a “human hand grenade” who would “encourage Trump’s worst tendencies.” He didn’t care. His advice to Trump: “Darkness is good. Don’t let up.” He urged Trump to brazen it out even after the release of the tape of Trump bragging about his impunity in sexually assaulting women, which some thought fatal to his chances. The strategy was shamelessly to shift the media focus back to Bill Clinton’s sexual misdeeds and the investigation of “crooked” Hillary’s emails.
That, plus Clinton’s miscalculations, was enough, just, to give Trump a narrow path to victory in the anachronistic Electoral College. If there was some attempted Russian interference of a pro-Trump anti-Clinton nature (as U.S. intelligence agencies claim), Green doesn’t mention it as a significant factor. The reality is that an aggrieved political climate had emerged that was receptive to Trump’s message. White nationalist rage had been stoked, elevating to Trump’s side the Bannon described as “the Republican establishment’s worst nightmare come to life.”
Now what? Opposing and obstructing is one thing; governing quite another. It’s not a one-man show. The presidency isn’t like being an all-powerful CEO. So far Trump’s vaunted agenda has achieved very little in the Republican-controlled Congress as his fractious administration becomes a revolving door. Trump, of course, blames everyone but himself and is said to have resented the spotlight on Bannon’s role. Small wonder that Bannon, the radical ideologue, is happier returning to a public attack mode. At a “Values Voters Summit” in mid-October he openly declared “war on the Republican establishment.”
As indicated earlier, a strong element of Bannonism still runs through Trumpism. Frank Bruni in the New York Times of Oct. 7 cites a dismayed longtime Republican strategist: “The formula is to be more aggressive, more outrageous, don’t back down from crazy statements . . . “any disruption is a good thing, and that the best way to get what he wants — a white-centred, nationalist America — is to blow up the establishment.”
The problem with that reckless approach is not only its failure as a philosophy of government, and its political deafness to demographic trends (the declining percentage of white voters), it is that the “devil’s bargain” on which it rests has been made with a vainglorious empty vessel whose only allegiance is to his own aggrandizement. Bluntly stated, writes Green in bold face: “Trump doesn’t believe in nationalism or any other political philosophy — he’s fundamentally a creature of his own ego. . . . At heart, Trump is an opportunist driven by a desire for public acclaim, rather than a politician with any fixed principles.”
The Trump presidency, already beset by drift, departures and scandals, may be limited in effect by institutional checks and balances (the Bannon-reviled “deep state”), which is not to say it won’t do considerable damage. Can we hope for containment and redress? Trump’s dubious history gives grounds, concludes Green. Because “in the end, it’s hard to imagine that Bannon and the legion he spoke for will wind up anything other than the latest partners disappointed when the deal with Trump turns sour.”