I recently read two books focusing on adjunct figures to the 2016 election: The Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency about Trump’s third campaign manager, and Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House by the former Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (Donna Brazile). They are parallel books: Brazile is a media personality and the book is obviously designed to improve her own image. Likewise, Bannon is so transparently the source of Devil’s Bargain the book is essentially written by him, except for some obvious sops designed to expand the book’s reader base.
Both books are more interesting than Shattered, the story about the inside of the Clinton campaign written by two professional journalists. While that book provided additional depth to the decision by the Clinton campaign to embrace identity politics as a campaign strategy, both Bargain and Hacks expand the discussion beyond what was commonly discussed.
I was impressed by the focus of both books on the new opportunities and threats presented by the internet and internet culture. For Bannon, the protagonist of Bargain, it is the communities that exist beneath the sites of the mainstream media. An early business opportunity, trying to professionalize the “gold miner” community in the popular online game World of Warcraft, failed because of an organized customer revolt that spooked the gamer’s manufacturer but never made the news. The shadow of this could be felt years later in the sub-cultural hashtag campaigns #gamergate, #sadpuppies, and even #maga. For Brazile, who was more involved with the operations of the Democratic Party fund-raising machine than the campaign itself, the previously unknown threat was “hacking.” I was impressed by the seriousness Brazile gave to this issue. She’s clearly not an information security professional, but she honestly expresses her fear and bewilderment at this sometimes confusing world. Hacks is the most accurate depiction of the CrowdStrike security I have seen in any book outside of a trade press.
It’s interesting that neither perspective is flattering to Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor whose career at MSNBC is now being covered by Bannon’s news company. “Trump’s toughest opponents in Cleveland were not his fellow candidates but the Fox News moderates, who went right after him” — writes Green — “none with more gusto than Kelly.” Brazile writes of an interview with Kelly, “It was less of an interview than an ambush. She was so eager to get to me that when she saw me approaching, her producers yanked Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway out of the chair almost mid-sentence so I could sit down right away. Megyn was gunning for me.” And Bannon reminisces about wealthy bullies at his old school: “They were the rich snobs. They’d always do the employer-employee joke at us: ‘When you grow up, you’ll work for us,’ And we’d punch them in the nose.”
Both books contain claims that are factually.. questionable. It’s obvious in Bargain the writer is surrounded by secular society and treats religion like an anthropologist would treat a remote tribe: for example, “the Latin-only Tridentine Mass, which was banned by the Second Vatican council.” Likewise, Donna Brazile is often more interesting to read between the lines than at face value, for instance when she was disinterested in building her own base of support: “” But here, Brazile’s book is better constructed. In the places that either leave the literal truth, Brazile’s writing still leaves it clear what message she wants sent (often it is to praise or blame specific allies or enemies). Green’s errors, by contrast, seem lazy. You can read a sentence from Brazile’s book, such as — “When [a Hatian AM radio host asked me when the campaign was going to start a dialogue with his audience, I knew what he meant by that. When were they going to spend a few hundred dollars in advertising there, which would encourage him to urge his followers to get out and vote?” — and it is clear that so-and-so is asking for a bribe. A sentence like this the Latin mass comment from Bargain, however, just leaves the reader with the impression that the writer is not versed in the relevant subject matter.
This is especially disappointing in light of the fact that both Bannon and Brazile are Catholics. Pope Francis, the author of Laudato Si, comes under attack by Bannon: Bargain quotes Bannon as calling Francis “a liberal theology Jesuit” and a “pro-immigration globalist.” Brazile does not discuss theology, but is interested in how Catholic rites can impact the everyday world: she prays for both victory and proper ordering and uses Holy Water on offices of the Democratic National Committee.
My high-level impression of Bargain is that it is a predictable result of a liberal journalist attempting to flatter a conservative source. Hacks, by contrast, is hatchet job by an insider against other insiders, combined with a surprisingly accurate outsider’s discussion of a security incident response operation. You can pass on Bargain. Hacks is great fun.
In an amusing twist, you can read a favorable comment on Hacks from Steve Bannon’s media company. I read both Devil’s Bargain and Hacks in the Kindle editions.