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In his best-selling book, political journalist Joshua Green ’94 delivers an inside look at the 2016 presidential campaign and the mysterious adviser who got Donald Trump elected.
By Doug Daniels
n the spring of 2011, Joshua Green ’94 had just returned from a trip to Alaska. A political writer for The Atlantic at the time, he was working on a story about Sarah Palin and her potential to energize an underrepresented, populist movement that was simmering within the grass roots of the Republican Party. While the purveyors of conventional wisdom were mostly dismissive of Palin’s presidential ambitions, and deeply skeptical that her ideology could ever hold mainstream appeal, Green sensed a burgeoning political realignment.
Palin was tapping into a potent brew of economic, racial and cultural resentment that would ultimately find a more effective electoral vessel five years later in the form of Donald Trump. But the conservative, antiestablishment populism Green caught an early glimpse of during his 2011 reporting paved the way for Trump to stage the greatest upset in the history of American politics. If Trump’s hostile takeover of the establishment GOP was a virus, Sarah Palin was Patient Zero.
Soon after Green’s story was published, he received an unexpected invitation to attend the screening of a pro-Palin documentary in Washington, D.C. The producer of the film was a colorful character named Steve Bannon, who had worked on Wall Street and in Hollywood, but now harbored a fiery contempt for both. Bannon was so impressed with Green’s piece that he wanted to meet him—a rare stroke of luck for Green in an industry where reporters usually have to search far and wide for writing material.
Having made a fortune in finance and entertainment, Bannon’s focus had shifted to producing films that advanced a far-right, nationalist agenda—one that identified immigration and trade agreements among the issues anathema to his particular strain of conservative populism. When Green first encountered Bannon, he never could have predicted that the man, whom Saturday Night Live depicts as the Grim Reaper, would later lead the Trump campaign to victory and serve as chief White House strategist in the administration.
“Here was this wild, disheveled guy, unshaven, wearing a military field jacket,” Green says. “But what I quickly saw, and what you don’t get from Bannon’s public persona, is that he has this manic charisma. He’s very sharp and witty, and even optimistic.”
Over the next few years, Green got to know Bannon, who became executive chairman of the right-wing website BreitbartNews in 2012. Bannon was quietly becoming an increasingly influential figure in politics. In 2015, Green, who is now the senior national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and a CNN political analyst, wrote the profile about Bannon that turbo-charged his career and led to his The New York Times best-selling new book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.
Green says Bannon’s talent was using Breitbart to marshal several disparate, right-wing factions into a single movement capable of taking over a GOP traditionally dominated by “country club” Republicans. Appropriately, Breitbart’s mascot is the ornery, scrappy and tough honey badger, an animal personified by Bannon, who revels in smashing Washington etiquette, and who adheres to the mantra, “Attack, attack, attack.”
“Everybody in the elite Washington media realm considered Bannon and his Breitbart team to be an irrelevant, fringe element of oddballs and racists,” Green explains. “But in reality, they were becoming a powerful political force. Under Bannon, the site would use offensive, sometimes racist headlines as dog whistles to some very undesirable people, who could then be weaponized against both Democrats and establishment Republicans.”
Green was born in New London and grew up in faculty housing at Connecticut College. His father, Garrett Green, was a professor of religious studies from 1970 until 1996, as well as department chair for a time. Feeling he should branch out from his hometown, the younger Green attended Trinity College in Hartford for two years before realizing that Conn was where he really wanted to be. He transferred as a junior and double-majored in English and economics.
When I call Green’s cell phone in early August, he very apologetically says that he needs to call me back. He’s about to jump on air for a last-minute CNN spot to discuss his book and the latest palace intrigue surrounding Bannon. “The demands of cable news are never-ending,” he jokes.
Green reacts to the huge success of his book and the attention he’s receiving with sincere modesty. But in truth, these days, he is in high demand. He functions as a counterbalance to the typical 24-hour cable news echo chamber that covers every tweet, utterance or gaffe committed by leaders in Washington, and the media world is catching on to the appeal of Green’s in-depth work.
“By far the most well-read story of my career was my 8000-word, long-form profile I did on Bannon” for Bloomberg Businessweek, he says. “So there’s still a real appetite for that type of journalism.”
In August, Academy Award-nominated producer Jason Blum optioned Devil’s Bargain with plans to make a limited TV series or movie based on the book. Green will be involved directly in the development.
The timing of his book couldn’t have been better, debuting at number one on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and coinciding with arguably the most controversial period of Bannon’s tumultuous White House tenure, in which there were almost daily reports of his internal feuds with other top Trump aides. But good timing or not, the real reason for Green’s success is that his reporting and writing are just plain good.
His gifts as a political analyst, both in print and on TV, are noticeably sharper than the vast majority of partisan cable news pundits and columnists. Aside from being a talented storyteller, it’s clear from Devil’s Bargain that he’s genuinely interested in uncovering the whole story behind a politician or an ideological movement. His Bannon book paints an incredibly comprehensive portrait of a man and a presidential campaign that, until now, have been largely covered on a superficial level. Beneath the surface, Bannon is a complex personality who requires a far deeper examination to better understand how and why Trump is the president, and Hillary Clinton isn’t.
“What drew me to Bannon initially was his distinct brand of politics,” Green says. “At the time, that type of ideology was associated with the Tea Party, but even then you could tell it was something different and unique, and it certainly wasn’t being represented in Washington.”
Today, that brand of politics, termed the “alternative right,” has scrambled the political landscape, and Green has been the first mainstream journalist to chronicle the movement’s ascension from the fringes to the presidency. What distinguishes Green from so many other political writers in the Twitter era is his appreciation for long-form journalism. While many reporters place an emphasis on providing bite-size pieces of information that can be quickly shared on social media, Green takes the time to do a deep dive into a story that other media outlets are moving too fast to pick up on.
“My job as a political magazine writer is to find unusual characters with interesting ideas, and then write about them,” Green says. “I just really liked Bannon as a literary subject, because he’s such a colorful guy. So I decided to start hanging around with him at political functions and parties that Breitbart hosted, and I was always fascinated by the people who swirled around in his orbit.”
In Devil’s Bargain, Green describes one particularly memorable Breitbart party in which one of the cast members of Duck Dynasty delivered a thundering, red-meat speech to the adoring conservative attendees. In a media environment that is divided by a self-imposed partisan segregation, being embedded in situations like this is what makes Green’s writing so compelling.
“People will always love narrative storytelling,” he says. “Good long-form journalism takes time and effort and can be costly, but I’d argue that over the past five years or so, the political stories that have gotten the most attention have been long, thoughtful pieces that you see in The Atlantic or the The New Yorker. It’s just a matter of making them work economically, and some outlets are learning to strike that balance, mixing longer pieces with other forms of journalism.”
Green wasn’t always a political junkie. After graduation, he moved out to Boulder, Colorado, with 10 of his Conn rugby teammates. They worked a variety of restaurant jobs and Green picked up some freelance writing assignments, which soon led to a job with the Boulder/Denver edition of The Onion, the legendary satirical news site.
“For a couple of years, I was a writer, a delivery boy, a waiter, and I learned a lot,” says Green.
Journalism wasn’t even on Green’s radar screen until he came to Conn.
“I wanted to be a big-shot Wall Street stockbroker,” he remembers, laughing. “But that was a terrible fit. I interned at a brokerage firm and absolutely hated it. Then my economics adviser suggested I consider journalism, since I was a strong writer. I suspect that was his way of gently telling me I had no future as an economist or stockbroker!”
As for any fallout from his book, Green is unsure if it played any role in Bannon’s ouster a few weeks after its release, but the former White House strategist and Trump confidante is still taking Green’s calls, so apparently there aren’t any hard feelings.
“I haven’t spoken to him directly about the book, but I’ve heard from people around him that he’s pleased with its success, even though he was initially upset and worried when it was released that it would bring too much attention to him,” explains Green.