Steve Bannon Sees #MeToo As An 'Existential Threat' To Trump, Journalist Says

Feb 13, 2018
Originally published on February 13, 2018 2:01 pm

Though six months have passed since Steve Bannon left his position as White House chief strategist, he continues to follow the drama inside the Trump administration.

Journalist Joshua Green says the right-wing provocateur is particularly attuned to the #MeToo movement, which he has dubbed "the matriarchy." Green notes that Bannon sees the movement as "an existential threat" not just to President Trump, but also to Republicans in Congress.

"Bannon, despite his many flaws, is a very shrewd analyst of American politics," Green says. "And what he seemed so upset about was the power of this rising women's movement."

The #MeToo movement, begun on social media, aims to show the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.

Green profiled Bannon and explained his role in Trump's election in his 2017 book, Devil's Bargain. The paperback release of the book, available Tuesday, describes what Bannon has been doing since leaving the White House.


Interview Highlights

On the tense dynamic between staffers in the White House

The glimpse I've gotten into the White House through Bannon, through all the other White House officials and campaign officials that I interviewed for this book [is] that on a day-to-day basis what's really going on there is a kind of Darwinian fight for survival. Everybody in there is busy either stabbing other people in the back or trying to protect their own back.

One of the themes I touch on in the new preface is why it is that this whole populist/nationalist project failed — the one that got Trump elected — once he got to the White House. And I think the answer is that Bannon ultimately decided to spend his time pursuing his internal enemies and nursing his own grievances. And that is the way that a lot of other senior people in the White House have behaved and continue to behave.

On Bannon's public persona and unkempt appearance

He cultivated this image of himself as a kind of behind-the-scenes Machiavelli, because I think he was shrewd enough to know that if you're out in front of the cable news cameras, Trump is eventually going to turn on you. ...

Bannon was delighted with his portrayal in the popular culture. I remember him calling me up one Sunday morning — this would be probably back in the spring or the summer when Saturday Night Live had just done their little skit where the Bannon character is Death who comes out as the Grim Reaper — and Bannon just thought it was the greatest thing in the world, thought it was hilarious.

So all of this, I think, is a very carefully crafted image that is meant to distinguish him as someone different than kind of the lickspittle sycophants who are often representing Trump on cable news, people like Corey Lewandowski who kind of go on and shower Trump with obsequious praise. I think Bannon has much more of an ego than that, views himself as not just a serious figure but as a historical figure who was the brains behind the ideas that got Trump elected.

On Bannon leaking to the press

Bannon was notorious for leaking to the press. He was on the phone with reporters all day every day in the transition and in the White House. The idea that Bannon is hostile to the press — he famously dubbed us "the opposition party" — is a complete fiction and meant to cultivate this idea that Trump and the people around him were constantly and unfairly under assault by reporters.

Bannon loves talking to reporters. He loves trying to shape the narrative, and ultimately, I think his sloppiness in talking to reporters and authors is what cost him his job. But he would use the press not only to kind of shape the daily news, but to go after his enemies and try to plant a dagger in the back of whoever it was that he was upset with these days.

Everybody in the White House knows this. Everybody in the press knows this. And I think Trump knew it too, which is why he ended up leaving as early in the Trump administration has he did.

On the falling out between Trump and Bannon

What Bannon wanted to do when he left the White House was essentially to move the nationalist movement, as he thought of it, beyond just Donald Trump. The real cause of their falling-out — Trump's and Bannon's — was Bannon thought that presidential election was a referendum on a set of ideas, this kind of vision of right-wing populism, and Trump thought it was a referendum on Trump.

And Bannon knew when he left the White House that he needed to advance this movement beyond Trump, who wasn't really committed to it anyway, as we've subsequently seen. And so what he wanted to do was elect a set of Senate candidates who were essentially mini-Trumps who would oust Mitch McConnell, the establishment-friendly Senate majority leader, and give Bannon a base of support within the Congress to essentially change Washington and change the Republican party in a way that would make everybody Trumpist.

On Bannon's willingness to come back to the White House

There isn't an obvious outlet for him to be able to speak and say things, and I think that's one reason why he has let reporters like me and a few other folks back into his world — to essentially have a megaphone to spread this idea and to try to get back on Trump's radar as someone who is still in his corner and is still willing to fight for him if Trump wants to reach out and repair that relationship. One thing is clear is that Bannon is willing and eager to go back, despite all the ignominy heaped on him by the president.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Seth Kelley adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Steve Bannon was forced out of the White House last August, the first phone call he made to the press was to my guest, Joshua Green. Green's best-seller about Bannon and Trump, called, the "Devil's Bargain," had been published just a few weeks earlier. Today it came out in paperback with a new preface. The book also has a new subtitle, "Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising." We're going to talk about how and why the alliance between Trump and Bannon ended, how far Bannon was able to get in his goals of deconstructing the administrative state and overturning the Republican establishment, and what power, if any, he has now that he's lost his position as the president's chief strategist and then after returning to Breitbart News was ousted from his position there. Joshua Green is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and a CNN political analyst.

Joshua Green, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So why were you the first call that Steve Bannon made after being forced to resign?

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, you know, I'd like to think it was because he thought I'd written a good and fair book, but I think the real reason was that Bannon had a message to deliver. And he knew that because I'd authored this book that had gotten a fair bit of attention that, you know, if he spoke to me and I wrote about it, it would be a message that everybody would read. You know, on the outside, in the White House. It would get back to Trump himself. And Bannon was very intent on being portrayed not as somebody who had failed and then been fired, but as somebody who was launching off on this new crusade to try and help Trump from the outside rather than the inside.

GROSS: OK. But in terms of him calling you, Bannon tried to delay your book from being published. The Washington Post reported that every time you were on CNN, Trump grew unhappy with your references to Steve Bannon as a thinker and a strategist and was upset that the conversation wasn't about Trump himself. (Laughter). So do you think your book in some way contributed to Steve Bannon's firing?

GREEN: Yeah. I think pretty clearly it did. You know, I went through an interesting period in the relationship there with Bannon where, as you mentioned, he twice tried to delay publication of this book because he thought it would be deadly to him. But then the book came out and did very well, and Bannon, for a time, managed to cling to his job. And, you know, I think that his ego really liked the fact that this book had been written that gave him a lot of credit, which I think he deserves, for getting Trump elected president. And so, you know, once he left, I think he was looking to convey the message that he was carrying on that he had a plan, you know, to continue being relevant and kind of fighting this nationalist fight from the White House on the outside.

One of the stories I tell in the new edition of the book is that although Bannon presented this as being something he was doing on Trump's behalf, what he was really trying to do was advance this nationalist movement beyond Trump. And he really saw himself as the leader of this movement, not Trump. And so he knew that if he were going to build a movement that he would need to, you know, explain that in the press, that he would need to, you know, summon armies of supporters the way he'd managed to do for Trump during the primaries and during the general election campaign.

GROSS: Do you think that Bannon thought of running for president or for some other office himself?

GREEN: He very much did, yeah. And this was a fairly tightly held secret amongst some of his advisers for a while. But, you know, Bannon, as he said to me in the book, views himself as the leader of the nationalist movement, not Trump. And so it stood to reason from Bannon's standpoint that if Trump were for whatever reason to decide not to run for re-election in 2020 or if Democrats were to impeach him that, you know, it made a certain kind of sense to Bannon that why wouldn't he be the one to step into the fray, to, you know, carry the mantle of Trump's populist nationalism, or, what Bannon thought was Trump's populist nationalism, and just run himself?

And if you look at what Bannon did after he left the White House, you know, he basically was a presidential candidate. He was flying all over the country delivering speeches, campaigning on behalf of fringe Republican candidates like Roy Moore, the failed Senate candidate in Alabama. And Bannon would get up on stage and give these stem-winding speeches. I was in the audience or backstage for a lot of them, and they were very popular with kind of the Trump base. So I think it made, from Bannon's standpoint, a certain kind of sense that, you know, he could be the guy to step in and inhabit this role if for whatever reason Trump couldn't occupy it going forward.

GROSS: Now that his candidate Roy Moore did not win the Senate seat, do you think Bannon is still considering running for office himself?

GREEN: You know, it's hard to believe at this point after his falling out with Trump, you know, after he was ousted from Breitbart News and lost his Sirius XM radio show, that he could really mount a presidential campaign...

GROSS: Lost his major funder, Rebekah Mercer.

GREEN: And lost his great benefactor Rebekah Mercer, yeah. I mean, it does take a platform and a lot of money to run a successful presidential campaign. But on the other hand, you know, there is a long-established pattern of fringy outsider candidates running for president as a way to get a platform and a venue. And we've seen this in everybody from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain, you know, Ralph Nader. All of these people ran for president and were rewarded with essentially a megaphone. So it wouldn't be that surprising if Bannon were to decide, you know, the way to have a voice in national politics is to run a presidential campaign. That was the pitch that he'd made to candidates in the past, from Sarah Palin to Jeff Sessions, trying to get them to run on these populist ideas.

One other thing that might be worth mentioning, Bannon had given it enough thought that he'd even war-gamed out a path where he wouldn't have to win the Republican nomination. He'd given some thought to starting a third party, and he'd already picked a name for it, the National Union Party, which he had swiped from Abraham Lincoln. The National Union Party was the temporary name that the Republican Party had given itself in the election of 1864 to try and unify war Democrats and unionists. Bannon, who loves nothing more than dramatic historical precedents, had thought, you know, he could start this party and win over populists on the left and the right. I don't think he got any further than picking a name, but it was clear he had given some thoughts to how he could enter national politics as a candidate himself.

GROSS: So is there anything else you want to tell us about that first phone call after being forced out of the White House, the phone call that Bannon made to you?

GREEN: Well, I think that, you know, this was Bannon's attempt to establish a public narrative that was favorable to him that would create a role for him going forward, the outside agitator on behalf of nationalism, on behalf of Donald Trump. But I think privately - and I described this scene in the book - Bannon was furious at Trump for having pushed him out and initially refused to take Trump's phone calls when Trump called to check in on him. Right after Bannon had left, there had been some concern in the White House and some concern with Trump himself that if he were seen as breaking with Bannon on unhappy terms that it might cost him with his base. You know, Bannon was thought to be the guy who could channel the true Trumpian grassroots folks in the party, and Trump worried about losing Bannon as an ally. And so he'd called to check up on him and, Bannon, in his anger, didn't take the calls, initially, and told associates at the time that he had chosen to leave the White House and that he was sick of Trump. In particular, he said, I'm tired of playing wet nurse to a 71-year-old man.

You know, to me that's striking because it really is the meta story of Trump's presidency. It's what Michael Wolff tried to reveal in his book, that everybody around Trump, even the staunch public defenders like Bannon, are privately frustrated with his inability to focus, to get anything done. I think a lot of people around him think he isn't fit to be president, and most of their energy is spent trying to manage him in a direction that won't be harmful.

GROSS: I think a lot of America is wondering why don't some of those people, or at least one of those people, step forward and say that in public instead of just, like, leaking it, you know, to people 'cause that's a pretty strong statement to make. If you think that the president - if you work with the president and you don't think he's up to the job, do you owe it to the American people to say something?

GREEN: Well, I think you do, but there are a couple of cautionary tales I think prevent people from doing this. If you look at the Senate, there have been a few prominent never-Trump Republicans who have come out and said this very publicly and very clearly - Bob Corker, the Senator from Tennessee, Jeff Flake, the senator from Arizona, who wrote an entire book last fall largely about Trump's unfitness to be president. If you look at what happened to them, they were immediately attacked not just by Trump but by the base of their party, by their own voters.

What has happened is that Republican voters by and large have decided that Trump is their guy, that, you know, despite all the problems he creates, despite his inability to get a lot done, despite the fact that he insults or offends people, countries, racial groups every day, that he is the leader of their party, and they're basically OK with what he does.

There was a Gallup Poll that came out about a week ago that showed that Trump had a 90 percent approval rating among self-identified Republicans. Well, that's not really much different than what you would have seen from, you know, a Mitt Romney when he was running for president in 2012 or, you know, a George W. Bush when he was president.

Republicans have accepted Trump as their leader, and so it's difficult if you want to have influence in politics going forward - and Steve Bannon very much wants to have influence with Trump going forward - it's difficult - it's impossible to do that if you come out and criticize him directly. I think everybody in the White House recognizes that.

And so what you get are, you know, senior aides essentially calling up and sometimes, you know, confessing and unburdening themselves off the record to reporters or, if they're not careful as Steve Bannon did, you know, with me and certainly with Michael Wolff, on the record with reporters. And you can see from Bannon's excommunication last month after Wolff's book came out the cost of doing that sort of thing. You know, you can come out and warn the country, but it's probably going to be the last time you're going to speak with Donald Trump or have any ability to influence him from the inside.

GROSS: I will refresh people's memory about what Trump had to say about Steve Bannon after Michael Wolff's book came out. (Reading) Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job. He lost his mind. Now that he's on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn't as easy as I make it look. Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of the country, yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than 30 years by Republicans. Steve doesn't represent my base. He's only in it for himself. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue whom he helped write phony books - which I assume includes you (laughter).

GREEN: Oh, yes, oh, yes

GROSS: Yeah, well, those are harsh words. So do you think they do not speak at all now 'cause people who leave have - I have read people who leave even on bad terms still have something of an open door with Trump. Is that correct? Yeah.

GREEN: Well, and this is why I think personally that the Trump-Bannon relationship is not over by a long stretch. There's a saying in the West Wing. Trump's doghouse has a revolving door. And what that means is that Trump has fired a whole series of former chiefs of staff and campaign managers - people like Corey Lewandowski, his first, Paul Manafort, his second, Reince Priebus, his chief of staff - but then continued to call them and take advice from them once they were on the outside. You know, and often these people kind of cycle back into his life.

So, you know, nobody has been quite as publicly, you know, excoriated and curb-stomped as Steve Bannon (laughter) has been by Donald Trump in that statement - not only in that statement but in getting him fired from Breitbart News and from SiriusXM Radio and essentially robbing him of his platform and his financial benefactor. Now, but having said all that, I could certainly envision a scenario where, you know, flash forward to November, and Republicans get slaughtered in the midterm elections, which is what polls seem to suggest is going to happen.

Well, Trump himself isn't going to take the blame for a defeat. That's not in his character. And he'll look around for someone to blame. And pretty clearly the people he's going to blame are the Republican establishment, people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, you know, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who he has cozied up with over the last couple months because they've been able to deliver for him the historic corporate tax cut, you know, and other things. And I think Bannon thinks that if he just waits and bides his time, that Trump will eventually turn on the people close to him now as he tends to do.

And, you know, should that happen, should Democrats win back the House, I think Trump will be very angry, and I think he'll be afraid because there is this scenario whereby, you know, Democrats begin investigating him. He could potentially be impeached. And so he's going to look for, you know, an alternate set of advisers. And it would certainly make sense that somebody like Steve Bannon who has this connection to his base, who is openly hostile to the Republican establishment and who really can't be blamed if Republicans lose in November because he's not really on the scene anymore would be a guy that Trump would reach out to and bring back into the fold.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joshua Green, and his book "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising" is now out in paperback with a new preface. And he's national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and a CNN political analyst. We're going to take a short break here, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF COFFIN AND THE MU'TET'S "LOW HANGING FRUIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Joshua Green, and his book "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising" has just come out in paperback. Green is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and a CNN political analyst.

So something from your introduction that I think has really caught the imagination of the American public, at least those people in the American public who've heard about it (laughter), is that you actually watched the Golden Globes with Steve Bannon. So before we get to some of the provocative things that he had to say, how did you get to watch with him?

GREEN: Well, actually I was there the next day. I recreate the scene of him watching the Golden Globes. I had showed up early in the morning for a private breakfast to tell him, you know, look; I'm writing this paperback preface. I'm essentially telling the story of how it was that your relationship with Trump fell apart. And as Bannon is wont to do, he, you know, ranged into what was on his mind. And what was on his mind was the Golden Globe Awards, which had pretty clearly been a pivotal moment in the culture because Oprah and a lot of the actresses had gone up and kind of brought this #MeToo movement to national attention on a platform that everybody was watching that night.

And Bannon was utterly convinced that what this represented was the backlash against Donald Trump. I said, well, you know, what do you mean? What do you mean, the backlash against Donald Trump? Why is that a problem? Nobody in the White House seems to care. And Bannon essentially described this to me. He called it a Cromwell moment. You know, all these women in their long, black dresses - they reminded him of Puritans from the 17th century.

And to me this is interesting because, you know, Bannon, despite his many flaws, is a very shrewd analyst of American politics, I think, and has a very good understanding of our kind of sublimated collective anxieties. And what he seemed so upset about was the power of this rising women's movement. He dubbed it the matriarchy, which I thought was a great name. But as he got going, you know, describing what this envisioned, he told me he thought it was an existential threat not just to Trump but to Republicans in Congress. And I said, well, what do you mean? He said, well, look at Oprah. You know, if she were to go out tomorrow and start campaigning for House Democrats, there's no way that Republicans would be able to hang on to the House, which is an interesting thought because the next morning, most people were looking at Winfrey as a potential presidential candidate.

But as he kept going - there's a wonderful scene in the new preface, a kind of moment of Freudian angst where Bannon is describing all these kind of alpha male movie stars. One of the scenes from the Golden Globe is The Rock. The, you know, muscular movie star at one point was sitting there kind of gazing up from the audience reverently as Oprah was up there, you know, shaming sexual harassers and so on. And Bannon was absolutely convinced that that was the end of The Rock's political career, that essentially, you know, he had been gelded. And I laughed, and I said, what do you mean? And he said, well, look; if you rolled out a guillotine, they'd chop off every set of balls in the room.

GROSS: Well, you know, one of the things that Bannon said to you about the Golden Globes and the #MeToo movement - he said, like, the anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo 10,000 years of recorded history. Women are going to take charge of society, and they couldn't juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch. So here's what I couldn't figure out. Does Bannon think these women have a point and they should topple the patriarchy; they deserve equality? Or does he think, this is a threat to everything I stand for?

GREEN: Oh, very much the latter. I don't think Bannon is at all concerned about the rights of women. But I think he perceives a backlash that threatens the whole rise of Trump and the nationalist politics that he's associated with. These are the ideas that Bannon really cares about. It was really what caused his falling out with Donald Trump to begin with.

You know, and I think there's something poignant about the fact that, you know, Bannon, who came from nowhere - you know, the far-right fringes of Republican politics, recognized this anti-establishment backlash that gave rise to Trump - has now been so thoroughly excommunicated that he's all the way back out on the fringes. You know, and here he is watching the Golden Globe awards, recognizing the next great American backlash coming. And it's against him and people like him and the guy that he got elected.

GROSS: My guest is Joshua Green. His book "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising" has just been published in paperback. After a break, we'll talk about what's become of Bannon's vision of a nationalist uprising now that he's no longer in the White House or at Breitbart News. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "I MEAN YOU")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Joshua Green. His bestseller "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising" has just been published in paperback with a new preface. We're talking about why Bannon was ousted from the White House and how far Bannon got in his goal of overturning the Republican establishment. When we left off, we were talking about how after the #MeToo moment at the Golden Globes, Bannon told Green that what Bannon described as the matriarchy poses an existential threat not just to Trump but to Republicans in Congress.

I'm going to do a partial list - I think it's only partial - of people in the Trump administration who have been accused of sexual harassment, sexual molestation or sexual assault. We'll start with Steve Bannon himself, who was charged with three misdemeanor counts of domestic violence in 1996 by his now ex-wife - violence, battery and dissuading a witness - recently staff secretary Rob Porter; Corey Lewandowski, the former campaign manager; Andrew Puzder, who was the first choice for secretary of labor but the charges - the allegations against him nixed that; speechwriter David Sorensen; OK, Bannon's candidate to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate, Roy Moore - all those women coming forward and saying that they were molested by him as teenagers.

So I'm not even sure what my question is here, but this seems to be - like, Trump seems to have surrounded himself and Bannon seems to have surrounded himself with people who assault or harass women.

GREEN: Well, and let's not leave Trump himself off that list, right?

GROSS: Oh, oh, I'm sorry. (Laughter) I did not mean to leave him off.

GREEN: Credibly accused of sexual assault by 13 women, you know, not to mention the hush money to the porn star and so on. Look, I think it is an epidemic among, you know, White House and White House-affiliated Republicans. Clearly, this is not something that matters to people in the White House or didn't matter anyway until it became public in the last week or so.

The charges against Rob Porter were well-known within the White House to Chief Counsel Don McGahn, to Chief of Staff John Kelly. You know, the FBI had investigated them and come back and said they were credible and yet nothing happened until a literal actual photo of one of his ex-wives with a black eye, you know, showed up on the Internet and in the Daily Mail and, I think, The Intercept. And it took that image, I think, to get people to understand on a visceral level, you know, how serious these charges actually are.

And it's clear that they were not taken seriously by people in the Trump White House and I think still aren't. You know, there's been this fitful effort over the last week or so to come out - initially, it was to defend Rob Porter, who Kelly, the chief of staff, described as a man of integrity. Sara Sanders, the White House spokesman, said from the podium that, you know, nobody fired Porter. It was his own choice to resign.

You know, and then a couple of days later, they flipped around and were busy defending Kelly once it was clear that it was unacceptable to allow somebody like that to continue to serve. But the problem is Trump himself came out in a tweet and rather than express any kind of solidarity or sympathy for the ex-wives, who'd allegedly been abused, you know, he expressed sympathy for his former aide, Porter.

So I think it just shows a blindness or an unwillingness to accept that this is a serious issue among the most important Republicans in the country. And again, I do think it's interesting that Bannon seems to be the only person in the Trump orbit who perceives an existential threat, which I very much think this is if it continues on through November.

GROSS: First of all, I want to say that I recognize that the White House isn't the only place in which there are sexual harassers, molesters or assaulters. You know, there's been sexual harassment allegations within public radio. So I just, you know, I don't want to sound clueless about that. But getting back to your point that Bannon is the only person who seems to perceive that this could be an existential threat, that all these allegations could be an existential threat for the Republican Party, I find it interesting that Bannon doesn't express concern for the women either.

He's concerned about the votes.

GREEN: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And, you know, he is chiefly interested in propping up Donald Trump and in finding a way back to power and influence within Trump's orbit. And, you know, it's pretty clear if you watch the White House and watch senior officials and how they behave, you know, even this last weekend on the Sunday shows, you had people out there, you know, not defending Porter but essentially isolating their adversaries within the White House saying, well, you know, Don McGahn might have known about it.

You know, John Kelly might have known about it, but the president didn't or I didn't. The glimpse I've gotten into the White House through Bannon, through all the other White House officials and campaign officials that I interviewed for this book are that on a day to day basis, what's really going on there is kind of a Darwinian fight for survival. Everybody in there is busy either stabbing other people in the back or trying to protect their own back. You know, one of the themes I touch on in the new preface is why it is that this whole populist-nationalist project failed, the one that got Trump elected, once he got to the White House.

And I think the answer is that Bannon ultimately decided to spend his time pursuing his internal enemies and nursing his own grievances. And that is the way that a lot of other senior people in the White House have behaved and continue to behave.

GROSS: So after leaving the White House, Bannon launched what he described as a season of war against the Republican establishment. Did you know what was on his agenda in this season of war? Obviously getting Roy Moore elected, and he failed on that, but what else?

GREEN: Well, what Bannon wanted to do when he left the White House was essentially to move the nationalist movement, as he thought of it, beyond just Donald Trump. The real cause of their falling out, Trump's and Bannon's, was Bannon thought that presidential election was a referendum on a set of ideas, this kind of vision of right-wing populism and Trump thought it was a referendum on Trump.

And Bannon knew when he left the White House that he needed to advance this movement beyond Trump, who wasn't really committed to it anyway, as we've subsequently seen. And so what he wanted to do was go out and elect a set of Senate candidates who are essentially mini Trumps, who would oust Mitch McConnell, the establishment-friendly Senate majority leader, and give Bannon a base of support within the Congress to, you know, essentially change Washington and change the Republican Party in a way that would make everybody Trumpist.

GROSS: OK, so what was his plan to do that, to use Breitbart News to do that?

GREEN: Yeah. I mean, Breitbart News was essentially a vehicle - almost a propaganda vehicle to launch this campaign. If you go back to November and December, you know, one of the people Bannon chose to back was Roy Moore. And Breitbart ran I think literally hundreds of articles on Roy Moore, you know, propping him up, attacking his accusers, besmirching the reporters who reported the allegations from young women who had said that Moore had molested them.

You know, in Bannon's mind, he was going to line up, you know, 12 or 13 populists. What he really wound up doing though was pulling together a lot of kind of retreads and fringe figures, who really didn't share any coherent belief in populism that I could detect and just chose people who would be hostile to Mitch McConnell.

Bannon's real goal was to oust McConnell and thereby shatter the Republican establishment and open up a space for more Trump-friendly and more Bannon-friendly senators to get in there. I think that by doing that, Bannon thought he could be a kind of a Karl Rove, a kind of right-wing Karl Rove. You know, but as we've seen from his subsequent rise and fall, I think he's turned out to be more like an alt-right Icarus, who burned brightly for a time but now has kind of fallen out of public life almost completely.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joshua Green, and his book "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising" has just been published in paperback. We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joshua Green. And his best-selling book "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising" has just been published in paperback with a new introduction. And he's also a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and a contributor to CNN. So I don't know if you know the answer to this or not.

I don't know if you talked to him about this or not. But I was wondering what it was like for Steve Bannon to become a public figure because he really looks like the kind of guy who stays behind the scenes. He pays no attention to his clothing or his hair or his visual presentation in any way.

He's widely mocked for that on, you know, comedy shows and even Trump calls him sloppy Steve.

GREEN: You know, I disagree with the premise that he doesn't care. He cares very much. You know, he cultivated this image of himself as a kind of behind-the-scenes Machiavelli because I think he was shrewd enough to know that if you're out in front of the cable news cameras, Trump is eventually going to turn on you. But Bannon was delighted with his portrayal in the popular culture.

I remember him calling me up one Sunday morning - this would be probably back in the spring or the summer - when "Saturday Night Live" had just done their little skit where the Bannon character is Death, who kind of comes out the Grim Reaper. And Bannon just thought it was the greatest thing in the world, thought it was hilarious.

So all of this, I think, is a very carefully crafted image that is meant to distinguish him as someone different than kind of the lickspittle sycophants who are often representing Trump on cable news, people like Corey Lewandowski who kind of go on and shower Trump with obsequious praise. I think Bannon has much more of an ego than that, views himself as - not just a serious figure but as a historical figure who was the brains behind the ideas that got Trump elected and thinks ultimately the credit ought to accrue to him.

And I think that's why Bannon was so active in the White House talking to reporters, talking to book authors, trying to shape the public perception of himself. You know, the idea that other people were attacking him or insulting him, I think Bannon took that as proof of his importance.

GROSS: So a couple of days before Bannon was forced out of the White House, Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect published a piece about Bannon and about the conversation that they had just had. And in spite of the fact that a lot of Bannon's base is anti-immigrant, a lot of, like, white nationalists within there, he told Kuttner in terms of ethno-nationalism, he said, it's a fringe element.

I think the media plays it up too much and we've got to help crush it. These guys are a collection of clowns. The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I've got them. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the leftists focus on race and identity and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.

So it's an interesting message he's sending there, which is basically insulting a lot of the people who he fired up and made into his base, the ethno-nationalists and saying if the left focuses on that, then we've got them because we're really about economic nationalism.

GREEN: Yeah, there's two things that were going on in that interview with Bob Kuttner. One is what you saw Bannon doing - and let's recall for listeners. Bannon had out of the blue as a White House official called, you know, a liberal economist, who's the head of a liberal policy journal where I used to work, The American Prospect, essentially because he thought Kuttner would be an ally when it came to proposing more hawkish policy against China.

Bannon is always looking to broaden this nationalist-populist coalition and bring in people like that. And I think he was just utterly tone deaf to the fact that somebody like Kuttner would consider Bannon repellent, despite his ideas on China, because of his ideas on race and anti-Semitism and all the things that we saw in the Trump administration.

The other thing that was going on there is that Bannon knew and knows at some level that if he's going to broaden this political movement, he is going to have to shake loose the, you know, anti-Semitic white nationalist element. People like, you know - in the book, we discussed Richard Spencer, the prominent white supremacist, who's been very supportive of Trump and Bannon.

And Bannon sort of snorted and said, you know, these guys are losers. I think of them as "F Troop." You remember the movie "F Troop." But these were basically people, you know, rubes that you had to activate and get fired up to do your bidding but not important. And once nationalists had taken power in America through Donald Trump or taken control of Congress, you could kind of sweep those people aside, you know, and bring in more polite advocates of your ideas.

GROSS: But what had he done to cultivate the, as he calls it, ethno-nationalists?

GREEN: Well, what he'd done to cultivate it, I think, was to attract them to Breitbart News, to, you know, be a venue that focused very much in a very negative way on immigration, on issues of race, someone who supported and cheered Donald Trump when he said things like, you know, Mexicans are all rapists, as he said in his introductory speech when he became a candidate, and cheered him along the way.

I mean, I think on the one hand, Bannon consciously attracted and exploited those sentiments because they did have real electoral power, and they did get Donald Trump elected. But on the other hand, recognize that, you know, it wasn't going to be tenable going forward if that was how you were identified. If Trump's coalition is viewed as, you know, white nationalists and racists and anti-Semites, it's going to be difficult, obviously, to attract the kind of suburban voters that you need to maintain a political movement, to maintain control of the White House and Congress, you know, over any meaningful period of time. So I think he was always - Bannon was always torn between needing to appeal to these people, needing to exploit their political power, but also needing to distance his movement. And so depending on who he was talking to, he tended to change his tune about, you know, whether he supported these people or whether, as, he told Bob Kuttner, they were clowns and losers who were just doing his bidding.

GROSS: So Steve Bannon lost his position as chief strategist in Trump's White House. He was fired from Breitbart News. He lost his funding from the Mercers. What does he have now?

GREEN: Well, it's not clear that he really has much. You know, Bannon was very effective even before Trump because he had the platform of Breitbart News, which really did coalesce, you know, an insurgent group of readers and kind of right-wing activists and gave him real power in Republican politics. And of course when he was in the White House and then left, he was a famous figure who was thought to speak for Trump and had a national profile of his own. But now that he's been robbed of that profile, robbed of his radio show, there isn't an obvious outlet for him to be able to speak and say things. And I think that's one reason why he has let reporters like me and a few other folks, you know, back into his world to essentially, you know, have a megaphone to spread this idea and to try and get back on Trump's radar as someone who is still in his corner and is still willing to fight for him if Trump wants to reach out and repair that relationship. The one thing that's clear is that Bannon is willing and eager to go back despite all the ignominy heaped on him by the president.

GROSS: Well, Joshua Green, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

GREEN: Thanks so much. It was wonderful to be back.

GROSS: Joshua Green's book, "Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Nationalist Uprising," has just been published in paperback. He's a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.