Paul Manafort Failed to Tame Donald Trump, and Now It’s Going to Get Real
Honey badger don’t give a shit—and Donald Trump don’t give a shit now, either.
Breitbart’s “honey badger” motto—created by the fringe website’s patriarch Steve Bannon—may well be the guiding principle for Trump’s general election campaign, because on Wednesday, Trump lured Bannon away from the propaganda-as-news business and to the propaganda proper business when he announced Bannon would be the CEO of his White House bid.
Whether this is a sign of the campaign’s internal disarray or an indication that Trump is getting smart is a matter of dispute among those inside and on the periphery of Trump’s operation. But one thing is clear: Trump, with his polls sinking and his strategy of chaos backfiring with only 82 days until Election Day, needed to make a change—and fast.
Until 5:37 a.m. on Wednesday, Bannon was primarily known as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the deranged, far-right publication founded by the late Andrew Breitbart that, in recent months, seemed to function as an unofficial arm of the Trump campaign. Breitbart frequently parrots his talking points and publishes articles with headlines like “Politico’s Army of Democrats Driving Anti-Trump Narrative” and “Exclusive: Donald J. Trump: Hillary Clinton’s Plans for More Illegal Immigration Into America a ‘Disaster for Our Country.’”
But amid what is reportedly his intense dissatisfaction with the state of his sputtering campaign, Trump decided a cheerleader was exactly what he needed.
In a press release sent to reporters early Wednesday, Trump introduced Bannon as the CEO of his presidential campaign, “a new position designed to bolster the business-like approach” of the operation. Trump jointly announced that he had promoted strategist Kellyanne Conway, a longtime Trump confidante who worked in support of and donated to Ted Cruz during the primary, to serve as campaign manager, filling the role vacated with the firing of Corey Lewandowski in late June.
The wisdom of hiring the mastermind behind Trump’s Russia Today, a site that caters to people who already agree with and plan to vote for him, was not immediately clear on Wednesday. At this stage in the election, Trump should be making appeals to voters outside of his core constituency of white working- and middle-class voters who fear the country will slip away from them. He can’t win with his base, which is narrower than Mitt Romney’s was, alone.
Never mind that Bannon is not an experienced presidential campaign operative. A cargo-shorts enthusiast who looks like the spawn of The Dude and late-era Jack Nicholson, he’s hopscotched among investment banking, TV production (earning some Seinfeld royalties in the process), and the far-right blogosphere with a penchant for conspiracy entrepreneurs.
These traits make him an obvious Trump hire, but not an obvious hire for someone who wants to win the general election.
But Bannon has a reputation for being what Michael Caputo, a former Trump aide, called “an ideas guy.” Another source with knowledge of the campaign machinations said Bannon was valuable because of his understanding of new media. In Trump Tower, the hope is that Bannon will help the campaign devise a more focused message that stays true to Trump’s character, which the American public is intensely familiar with.
Trump won the Republican primary by following his gut, aided by a staff of amateurs who served only to act as yes-men and abided by the rule of “Let Trump Be Trump.” But it seemed obvious that strategy wouldn’t work for the broader electorate. That’s partly why, in March, he brought on some experienced political operatives, like Paul Manafort, an establishment Republican who’d worked for George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, to help Trump professionalize his operation and soften the hard edges of his message.
In the new structuring, Manafort retains his title of campaign chairman, but the matter of his clout with the boss is uncertain. The decision to hire new strategists seemed to be an admission that Manafort had failed to change Trump, who at 70 is stuck in his ways.
Trump never really gave “pivoting” a shot. There were days when his output of outrageous statements was tempered somewhat, or when he dutifully recited words from a TelePrompter—phenomenons. This reliably resulted in speculation that perhaps we were about to see a whole new Trump. But the statesman-ish act could only last as long as Trump could stand to exist without the sound of cheering from the fringe right and the cheap seats, which turned out to be not long at all. And when Trump’s small compromises didn’t result in improved numbers, it seemed he began to question the wisdom of the people advocating for them.
Caputo said he didn’t buy the notion that Trump’s decision to add more staff members reflected negatively on Manafort, with whom he is close. Caputo blamed that narrative on Lewandowski, who now works as a commentator for CNN.
“This is Corey’s spin, on the record,” Caputo said. “Corey Lewandowski is working overtime to try to promote this buildup as Manafort on his way out. Corey Lewandowski is out, not Paul Manafort.”
Reached for comment, Lewandowski denied the accusation that he had done anything to influence opinion on the subject.
“I haven’t spoken to the media, and Caputo was fired,” Lewandowski, who was also fired, said in a text message. “I can’t respond to something that is so patently false it shouldn’t be reported because it can not be verified.”
Caputo wasn’t alone in blaming Manafort’s obvious misfortunes on the former campaign manager, however.
“It’s not the demotion that Corey is spinning furiously,” another source, who asked not to be named, said. The source admitted that Manafort might be disappointed on Wednesday, but only because of the media. “Maybe he’s disappointed that the mainstream media has taken the bait with Corey’s spin,” the source said.
Breitbart had neither independence nor integrity. That’s why its writers were told to take the word of Lewandowski over one of its own reporters when she alleged that she had been manhandled by the man.
Whatever the reason for Bannon’s hiring, in many ways it blows away the last remaining illusion that hyper-partisan media and hyper-partisan politics aren’t an explicit reinforcing extension of each other.