One of the many fascinating things to come out of my chat with Josh Green (for Episode 3 of the podcast) was the still largely unappreciated role of Steve Bannon looming over the 2016 race.
Obviously, being Trump’s campaign chairman in itself is a very big deal. Kellyanne Conway is the nominal campaign manager. But Bannon seems to be the top executive in the operation. And to the surprise of many (including myself), rather than signaling Trump going finally totally off he rails, Bannon is the first of Trump’s three campaign chiefs to bring some level of discipline to the operation. Not a high bar. But it’s been real and important. So that’s point one.
Bannon’s also the guy running the Breitbart media empire which, all the merited derision and lack of integrity aside, has had a massive impact on Republican base politics. This is one reason TPM has always focused so much on the far right and often what looks like the looney right. It is looney. But elites tend to think it doesn’t merit serious attention just because it’s crazy. That’s a big, big mistake, both journalistically and politically.
But then there’s a part I’d forgotten about entirely. Bannon is the guy behind the ‘Government Accountability Institute’, which funded Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash, the exposé which was the origin point of a huge amount of the coverage of the Clinton Foundation, Clinton speeches and all the rest.
Schweizer and Bannon managed to set up exclusive agreements with The New York Times and The Washington Post in addition to the more predictable Fox News to publish major series of stories based on Schwiezer’s findings. There’s simply no question, fair or not, that that project had a major effect on Clinton’s declining favorability numbers over the second half of 2015.
So in addition to taking over the campaign late in the game, Bannon was working through what amounted to two separate channels. Breitbart served up antic and frequently racist red meat to base Republicans which has helped reshape the GOP. At the same time he was underwriting the much tighter and more rigorously researched Clinton Cash, written in a language and format aimed at getting buy-in from media elites who see Breitbart as a joke.
Leave aside the validity of Clinton Cash for the moment. I would say it uncovered some clear conflicts of interest tying together Clinton Foundation work and policy questions Hillary Clinton handled as Secretary of State. By and large though it leveled accusations of impropriety without real evidence or purported quids with no clear quos. It was a profoundly political document rather than anything resembling journalism. But as a political project it defined a storyline about the Clinton Foundation which has dominated press coverage ever since. As a political project it was hugely successful. So the same guy who was published something close to a hate site with huge sections about “black crime”, “voter fraud” in inner cities, Mexican rapists and other racist garbage was also putting together a very different kind of project to appeal to this very different but critical audience. And just to pull it all together, in the final months of the election cycle, he took over the campaign which in many ways he had brought into existence.
My discussion with Josh will come out on Friday.