Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Trump's First Appointment Stirs Controversy

 Photo courtesy Kirk Irwin / Getty Images
Donald Trump's appointment of Stephen Kevin ("Steve") Bannon as Chief Strategist and Senior Counsel has met widespread criticism. But it may also turn out to have been an incredibly savy and smart move. We shall see.

Donald Trump the candidate was at times deplorable, nasty and vindictive. His tune changed completely last week and many people had hoped that really the rhetoric was gone and Donald Trump had reconciliation in store. He insisted he would be the president for all the people, saying it was time to for America to bind its wounds.

All the good will he may have earned over the last few days has probably just gone out the window. His appointment of Steve Bannon brings someone into the White House who is the darling of the "alt-right", a loose collection of far right political groups. Mr. Bannon has earned a reputation not only for his extremist views, but also for brass knuckle, nasty politics, back stabbing, double dealing, dirty tricks that stoke fear and mistrust in Washington. If the President elect somehow feels he needs a person at his side who can threaten political opposition through the use of right wing media channels, he must feel awfully weak and vulnerable.

Delve into the detail. This can be an incredibly smart choice.

As worrisome as the appointment can be, it is possible this is a politically smart, sophisticated and savvy choice. Steve Bannon obviously has the tools at his finger tips to influence opinion among the significant portion of the electorate that voted Mr. Trump into office. Potentially in four years their support will be needed again. Also in just 12 months time mid-term congressional elections will loom on the horizon. The House of Representative and one-third of the Senate run for election every two years.

Yet if Donald Trump wants a successful presidency, and we must believe he does, he must address political and economic realities that may lead him to make very different decisions and adopt very different policies than he promised on the campaign trail. In fact, he might struggle to get much of his agenda through the current Congress and his Supreme Court appointments may have to be more moderate than his supporters would prefer.

Reality might be that Donald Trump needs Steve Bannon not to defend from the left, but to defend from the right. Steve Bannon built a career on his ability to sell ideas to the far right. The counterpart to Steve Bannon on the left is David Brock, founder of Media Matters for America. According to political columnist Joshua Green, Brock’s attitude toward Bannon "isn’t enmity toward an ideological opponent, as I'd expected, but rather a curiosity and professional respect for the tradecraft Bannon demonstrated in advancing the Clinton Cash narrative."

Who is Steve Bannon?

Since 2012 Mr. Bannon was the Executive Chairman of conservative news and media website Breitbart.com. He was named to that job following the sudden death of Breitbart's founder Andrew Breitbart.

Mr. Breitbart was an American journalist who was among a generation of writers developing internet based news media websites including The Huffington Post and The Drudge Report. Journalists such as Nick Gillespie and Conor Friedersdorf have credited Breitbart with bringing new voices to debates about politics and culture. Breitbart developed itself as a conservative, sometimes right-wing counterpoint to the mainstream media.

In October of 2015 political columnist Joshua Green posted a commentary on Bloomberg Businessweek calling Stephen Bannon one of the most dangerous political operatives in America. The article focused on Mr. Bannon's stewardship of Breitbart, Mr. Bannon's work as founder of the non-profit Government Accountability Institute (GAI), and the tactics Mr. Bannon uses to discredit his political opponents both on the left and on the right.

Ben Shapiro, who left Brietbart in March 2016 after nearly four years as editor-at-large of Breitbart.com, wrote recently in the Daily Wire "Bannon....turned Breitbart into his personal domain, making himself a regularly bylined columnist (certainly rare for a major media company) and installing himself as a radio host on Breitbart Radio on Sirius XM....he used his role as Breitbart CEO to turn the outlet into Trump Pravda, creating a stepping stone to close connection with Trump."

According to Politico.com writer Hada Gold as CEO of Breitbart, Bannon regularly ordered subordinates to write stories that supported his allies and tore down adversaries.

In various news media accounts former employees accused Breitbart executive chairman Stephen Bannon of having "turned a website founded on anti-authoritarian grounds into a de facto propaganda outlet for Mr. Trump."

Here are 8 things you should know about Steve Bannon:

1. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 1976 and holds a master's degree in National Security Studies from Georgetown University.

2. He was an officer in the United States Navy, serving on the USS Paul F. Foster (DD-964) as a Surface Warfare Officer in the Pacific Fleet.

3. He holds an MBA from Harvard Univeristy, having graduated withhonors (cum laude).

4. He built a career as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs and then founded his own boutique M&A firm, Bannon & Co, which specialised in the media and entertainment industry.

Through Bannon & Co., Mr. Bannon negotiated the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to Ted Turner. As payment, Bannon & Co. accepted a stake in five television shows, including Seinfeld. Société Générale purchased Bannon & Co. in 1998.

5. He was an executive producer in Hollywood.

He has executive produced several feature films and worked with notable with actors such as Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer and Ed Harris. He's also written, produced and directed several political documentaries. Notable among them are Fire from the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman, The Undefeated (account of the career of Sarah Pallin), The Hope & the Change(about Democrats and Independents from across America who supported Obama in 2008 and were ultimately disappointed).

6. He was Chairman and CEO of right-wing conservative web-site Breitbart.com

Under Mr. Bannon's leadership Breitbart.com flourished and developed following among far-right conservative groups, also known as the "alt-right." Content and commentary were posted on the site that drew criticism as being white-supremecist, anti-semitic, and bigoted.

According to Ben Shapiro, former editor-at-large of Breitbart.com "I quit Breitbart News when it became clear to me that they had decided that loyalty to Donald Trump outweighed loyalty to their own employees....he has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda…Bannon turned Breitbart into his personal domain, making himself a regularly bylined columnist (certainly rare for a major media company) and installing himself as a radio host on Breitbart Radio on Sirius XM. Finally, he used his role as Breitbart CEO to turn the outlet into Trump Pravda, creating a stepping stone to close connection with Trump. "

7. He is the co-founder and executive chairman of the Government Accountability Institute (GAI)

GAI is a non-profit organisation that specialises in deep forensic analysis and inveIstigative journalism of public figures. According to GAI findings have been used in books written and sold commercially by GAI executives a network of media partners.

Writing about GAI for Bloomberg Businessweek Joshua Green says GAI "is set up more like a Hollywood movie studio than a think tank. The creative mind through which all its research flows and is disseminated belongs to a beaming young Floridian named Wynton Hall, a celebrity ghostwriter who’s penned 18 books, six of them New York Times best-sellers, including Trump’s Time to Get Tough. Hall’s job is to transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas that can be unleashed on a set schedule, like summer blockbusters. “We work very long and hard to build a narrative, storyboarding it out months in advance,” he says. “I’m big on this: We’re not going public until we have something so tantalizing that any editor at a serious publication would be an idiot to pass it up and give a competitor the scoop. ”

It's worth noting that Mr. Bannon is open about the purpose of GAI and its commercial uses. GAI is not so concerned about finding scandal or highlighting political hypocracy in any particular corner. Rather, it is concerned about providing the factual and investigate basis for journalists, and then finding the best (i.e. most profitable) way to put that story out to the public.

8. He targeted the political demise of House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans

According the political news website TheHill.com in December 2015, weeks after Ryan became Speaker, Bannon wrote in an internal Breitbart email obtained by The Hill that the “long game” for his news site was for Ryan to be “gone” by the spring.

The curious thing about this is that in the same breath that President elect Trump announced Mr. Bannon's appointment, he appointed Reince Priebus to the Chief of Staff position. Mr. Priebus is the Chair of the Republican National Committee. Importantly, he is the former chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, where he is credited with helping to bring nationally known figures such as Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, and Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, into power on the state level and prominence on the national stage.

So in the same breath Mr. Trump brought one of Paul Ryan's political opponents, he brought in one of Mr. Ryan's long time political allies.

We can expect one of two outcomes - either a political fight will get shelved and people will professionally focus on serious issues of government or the White House will be an place filled with mistrust animosity, and Machiavellian style politics.

The Bottom Line on Bannon

Steve Bannon is a controversial figure who caters to right wing groups that espouse racist, sexist views that many Americans find offensive and appalling. He's also been highly critical of the Republican party as well as the main stream media in general.

Critics also say the appointment of Mr. Bannon flies in the face of Mr. Trump's recent statements that he wants to heal the divide in America. They say that Mr. Bannon reflects the politcs of hatred that fueled Mr. Trump's campaign.

The even more sinister view is that Mr. Bannon will bring Nixon-style dirty trick's tactics back into the White House amounted to an abuse of presidential power. We shouldn't forget that Mr. Bannon is as much a business man as he is a political opinion maker. It's hard to imagine Mr. Bannon is not likely to find plenty of ways to use his new posting to his advantage, politically and economically.

On the other hand, there's something we can find reassuring in the appointment of Mr. Bannon. Mr. Trump can credit Steve Bannon in part for helping him win the election. Isn't it better to have the guy Mr. Trump is indebted to in plain view rather than lurking in some dark alley?

Having Mr. Bannon in the White House actually makes him less of a threat because he will clearly be under scrutiny and can be more easily publicly confronted.

It also possible that Steve Bannon's job is not to threaten President Trump's opponents either on the left or with the Republican party, but instead to sell President Trump's policies to the group of supporters most likely to be disappointed.

The appointment of Mr. Bannon highlights one of the beauties of an open society where there is freedom of speech and freedom the press. The alternative to free speech and free press is to drive opposing and hateful views underground and behind closed doors where they can fester and where they can haunt us where and when we least expect. I'd much rather know who my opponents are so I can confront them and defend myself than live in fear about what hides in places I can't see.

Breitbart senior editor and political author Peter Schweizer points out that political corruption and cronyism exists throughout the political spectrum. In 2016 he authored Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich,. Just a few months earlier in the fall of 2015 he authored an e-book Bush Bucks: How Public Service and Corporation Helped Make Jeb Rich.

“To me, Washington, D.C., is a little bit like professional wrestling,” he told Joshua Green. “When I was growing up in Seattle, I’d turn on Channel 13, the public-access station, and watch wrestling. At first I thought, ‘Man, these guys hate each other because they’re beating the crap out of each other.’ But I eventually realized they’re actually business partners.”

My father, may he rest in peace, always told me "the truth lies somewhere in the middle." One terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. What worries me most about Steve Bannon is that the White House of 2017 will begin to look like the White House of 1972 and that Capital Hill will see visit the days of the McCarthy hearings or that we are likely to see a repeat of the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill saga brought little and cost much.

What gives me hope is the notion that Steve Bannon will find the language and tools to generate support for a President Trump who finds support on both sides of the aisle and negotiates compromises that take America forward.

For me the issue not that Hillary would have been better, but that even if his intentions are good, Donald Trump's White House will come to represent the worst of America. In these difficult days we can't afford politcal theatre and a media circus organised by people who profit not matter what the outcome. Sadly, I struggle to see anything redeeming or decent in this appointment.

Michael Sonenshine is CEO of Symfonie Capital.com.

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