WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s new campaign CEO is a flame-thrower in cargo shorts.
Steve Bannon’s career path has been an improbable journey from Goldman Sachs insider to conservative filmmaker to media provocateur to campaign chieftain.
The shaggy-haired Harvard MBA partial to shorts and Timberland boots is moving to the Trump campaign from the top of Breitbart News, a conservative website that has emerged in recent years as a social media colossus in politics — one that has been unabashedly supportive of Trump’s campaign lately.
The Breitbart website’s hiring section says it’s looking for media junkies willing to “walk toward the fire” — an apt description of Bannon himself.
His installation at the top of the Trump campaign offers fresh evidence that the GOP nominee has no intention of reining in his brash, outsider’s style or cozying up to the GOP establishment despite his campaign’s recent struggles.
“There has been no bigger cheerleader in the media for Donald Trump than Breitbart News, and he just hired his biggest cheerleader to continue massaging him,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor. Shapiro resigned in March, saying Breitbart had shaped the website into “Trump’s personal Pravda” and had failed to defend one its own reporters who said she’d been roughed up by Trump’s then-campaign manager.
Bannon “may focus Trump, because he’s good at working with talent,” Shapiro said Wednesday. “He may also just confirm to Trump that he ought to double down on being Trump.”
Shapiro described Bannon’s skill set as that of a knife fighter — one with a “vicious, unstable quality.”
“There are very few people who have ever worked with Steve Bannon who have escaped without a Steve Bannon thoroughly blue tirade,” Shapiro said.
Keith Appell, a political consultant whom Bannon hired to promote a movie he’d made about Sarah Palin, describes Bannon as a hard-driving perfectionist with both strong organizational skills and a film-maker’s gift for storytelling.
“He gets the need to personalize and humanize what Trump wants to do,” Appell said.
The Breitbart website’s founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, once admiringly described Bannon as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Bannon. Riefenstahl was a filmmaker vilified after World War II for her propaganda pieces about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Trump, who this week brought on Bannon and elevated pollster Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager, said he’d known both for a long time.
“They’re terrific people, they’re winners, they’re champs, and we need to win it,” Trump told the AP.
Bannon took over Breitbart News after the sudden death of its founder in 2012 left people wondering what would become of the website. By then, Bannon had left investment banking behind, capitalized on an entertainment industry deal that left him with a share of “Seinfeld” royalties, founded the Government Accountability Institute to ferret out “crony capitalism” and government corruption, and created a number of his own films, including paeans to Palin, the tea party movement and Ronald Reagan.
The Breitbart website has expanded under his tenure. It ranked No. 1 in Facebook and Twitter engagement on political content in May and June, with more than 9 million interactions over that two-month period, far outstripping both conservative and liberal rivals and mainstream news sites. That’s according trending news tracking site NewsWhip.
Unafraid to play favorites, Breitbart early last year prominently featured positive stories about Ted Cruz, including an exclusive behind-the-scenes photo shoot with his family the night before the Texas senator announced his presidential run. As Trump gained steam later in the year, the media site began pumping out pro-Trump stories.
Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said the website has figured out how to push political story angles that animate “an audience of a particular orientation,” in this case an angry subset of Republicans that predates the tea party movement and now overlaps with Trump’s base.
“It’s almost a throwback to an era when media outlets and political organizations were closely aligned,” Rosenstiel said.
He said it’s an open question whether Trump, in turning to Bannon, can use the Internet “as an animating structure” for his campaign without embracing more traditional methods involving party structure, get-out-the-vote efforts and a political ground game.
“There’s a larger question here,” Rosenstiel said. “Can you use the Internet to win a general election?”