Donald Trump is losing and he knows it. The Republican presidential candidate now has just a 15 per cent chance of winning in November, according to the statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight prediction model. Silver, who called every single state correctly in the 2012 election, has joined a chorus of commentators describing this as Trump’s “lowest moment” in his 15-month campaign.
Gaffes – ranging from his feud with the parents of a Muslim-American marine killed in Iraq to his appeal to Russia to “hack” Hillary Clinton’s private emails – have given Trump a two-thirds unfavourable poll rating. At last, after a year of outrageous and offensive remarks, he seems to be feeling the consequences.
At such a moment in a campaign, it is customary for a candidate to make some changes to his team to try to fix the problem. Trump has done just that, promoting the Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager, and bringing in Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart News, as campaign chairman.
There have been departures, too. A month before Trump’s nomination was officially confirmed at the Republican National Convention in July, his then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was fired. Soon after Bannon was brought on board, Paul Manafort resigned as the senior campaign adviser; he is now linked to an FBI investigation into whether US companies aided alleged corruption by Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president.
Commentators and supporters looked to the new hires for some hint of Trump’s resurrection strategy. Bannon, in particular, attracted a lot of attention. Aged 62, the media mogul grew up in a Democratic-voting family in Virginia. He has had a hugely varied career, getting an MBA from Harvard Business School at the age of 29, serving in the US navy, producing documentaries with titles such as Fire from the Heartland: the Awakening of the Conservative Woman, and working for Goldman Sachs.
Part of his considerable personal fortune derives from the media-focused boutique investment fund Bannon & Co, which he founded in 1990, and a deal it struck that gave him a share in the profits of the hit sitcom Seinfeld. Last year, Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek that he had underestimated “by a factor of five” how much the royalties and syndication fees from the show would net him.
Following the death of Andrew Breitbart in 2012, Bannon began to steer his friend’s conservative media network. The Breitbart site, which has been described as “a haven for people who think Fox News is too polite and restrained” and claims to attract 12 million visitors a month, was founded by Andrew Breitbart in 2005 after a stint working as an editor for the influential conservative aggregator site the Drudge Report.
In recent months, Breitbart News became mired in internal controversy after a reporter made an allegation (since withdrawn) that Lewandowski had grabbed and bruised her while she was asking Trump a question. Several journalists and executives resigned in March, arguing that Bannon had embraced Trump’s campaign too wholeheartedly, compromising the site’s editorial integrity. Bannon has stepped down temporarily from his role there while he works for Trump.
The day after hiring Bannon, Trump posted a tweet that confused international media. “They will soon be calling me MR BREXIT!” it said. It was a reference to Bannon being an early predictor of Leave’s victory in the EU referendum. He set up a London bureau for Breitbart News in February 2014 and invited leading Republicans to a dinner with Nigel Farage in Washington, DC in September 2015. There can be no doubt that Trump is very pleased with his new chairman – but will Bannon’s work be enough to take him to the White House?
Bannon, like Trump, is a true believer in the anti-establishment, anti-politics ethos the Republican candidate has espoused throughout the campaign. But above all he is a media manager, not a political operative. Like Trump, Bannon knows how to create outrage to attract attention, yet there is little evidence that he knows how to convert that outrage into votes. He was one of the people “whispering in Sarah Palin’s ear” back in 2008, but he never managed to translate her political infamy into national power.
The New York Times called Trump’s hiring of Bannon the “political equivalent of ordering comfort food” – something familiar that Trump can count on not to challenge him. But is reassurance what a struggling presidential candidate needs, fewer than 100 days from the election? Trump is trailing Clinton in almost every one of the US’s demographic groups, with the exception of white men with a college degree, and there aren’t enough of them to win him a nationwide majority. Bannon, with his “Rottweiler-like” personality, has a reputation for getting the best out of people, at any cost. It remains to be seen if Trump’s best will be good enough.
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser