How Steve Bannon won the election with one brilliant idea
There have been so many stories looking back and offering some interpretation of why Trump won. My favorite review of the issues that mattered is Paul Cantor’s joke that the Democrats were so focused on “race” and “gender” that they let Trump steal “class.” In this formulation, the word “class” definitely includes our own theme of the crushing effects of crony capitalism on the middle class and the poor. But let’s put aside the real issues for a moment and focus on campaign tactics alone.
Everyone understands that the Clinton Cash crony capitalist corruption revelations by Peter Schweizer broke the ring of media protection around Hillary Clinton. This in turn made it impossible not to cover the classified information email server scandal. The meeting of the Attorney General with Bill Clinton, which in turn gave the FBI greater independence in handling that case, also mattered. And the Wikileaks revelations added to Clinton’s problems.
But there has been very little subsequent focus on the Trump/Billy Bush tape story and how it played out. Without NBC publicizing that tape, it would seem that Trump would have won by a much wider margin. It almost capsized his candidacy.
My guess is that NBC planned to hold the story until a few days before the election and then drop it for maximum impact. This would have been like the Gore campaign holding back news of George Bush’s DUI conviction until a few days before the 2000 election, which seriously hurt Bush, and almost turned the election to Gore, but with potentially far more impact.
If I am correct, this is a glaring example of crony media, in that the network was in effect acting as an arm of one political party. Any network devoted to honest reporting would have run the story, if it ran it at all, just as soon as it surfaced, which NBC very clearly did not. NBC presumably held it back for many months because it wanted Trump to be nominated on the assumption that he would be the weakest candidate against Clinton. Apparently what prompted NBC to release the damaging tape before November was that someone was about to leak its existence, and the network didn’t want to be scooped on its own tape.
The story came out right before the second debate. The timing might have been entirely determined by the news starting to leak. Or it may have been chosen on the calculation that it couldn’t be held much longer and release at that moment would throw Trump off during the debate.
Consider the circumstances. Someone who had never run for office, much less for president, had survived the first debate. The media mostly scored the first debate a Clinton “win.” But for Trump just to survive was a triumph of sorts, especially since Clinton peppered him with so many attacks (often delivered in a single, memorized sentence), far too many to rebut, and figuring out which ones to answer and which to let go would have taxed the skills of the most experienced politician. Kaine did exactly the same in his debate with Pence, and you could see Pence trying to figure out what to respond to and what not, which he sorted out very skillfully. Now Trump had to go on stage a second time, with the enormous pressure of the NBC tape that had just been released.
The calculation that Trump would stagger under the attack was incorrect. He did well in the debate. The timing helped him in that it gave him an immediate opportunity to respond to the public and to rebut the idea that the tape defined him. Moreover, from that moment on, he was immunized against all the numerous allegations from many women that followed. The fact that they had not come forth during the primaries and the fact that this was now “old news” was very helpful for his campaign. If NBC chose that moment for release on the grounds that it would be the worst possible moment for Trump, apart from right before the election, it erred.
Perhaps the single most important tactical decision of the entire campaign was made right before that second debate. With virtually no time either to think or act, the Trump campaign managed to organize a press conference before the debate featuring accusers of Bill Clinton. It got the mainstream media to cover it by heralding it as Trump’s reply to the tape, with no mention of the women invited to join him. Once the cameras were already on, and the women filed in, it was too late for the networks to turn them off. Trump also used that occasion and the debate to launch the accusation that Hillary Clinton had attacked and harassed Bill’s accusers and he dramatically included the accusers in the debate audience.
It has been reported that all this was Steve Bannon’s idea. If so, it was a stroke of genius, perhaps without parallel in any presidential campaign since the advent of television. It also demonstrated a willingness to take risks. The Romney campaign had been notably unwilling to take risks, as had Hillary’s, and it is a general rule that no one can win any campaign (political, military, or business) without a willingness to bet it all at crucial moments. This particular piece of political theater must have greatly increased Trump’s confidence on that all important day. Even more importantly, it changed the story in a very dramatic way.
With all the talk of Russian hacking of emails and other alleged reasons for Clinton’s loss, this seems to be a story worth retelling, especially since it touches on crony capitalism (Clinton Cash) and crony media (NBC) as well as on how campaigns are really won or lost.