The leitmotif of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is the serial defiance of all the “rules” about how to be elected president. Now that he’s not doing so well according to most objective measurements, it is natural that we all begin to wonder if he even wants to win, or instead, as Michael Moore argues (and as my colleague Eric Levitz agrees is plausible), the mogul is just planning the next stage in his media career. His hiring of the self-consciously outlandish Stephen Bannon as campaign chairman reinforces that suspicion.
But I’d suggest a different interpretation of Trump’s conduct: He has become a living minority report objecting to the rules of politics, as embraced by political scientists, mainstream journalists, and political practitioners in both parties. The Trump campaign is a sort of right-wing version of Warren Beatty’s movie Bulworth come to life — a projection of the persistent belief of marginalized forces in American politics that a candidate who blew up all the verities and calculations and spoke blunt truths to the people would find a vast and overpowering audience among those who don’t usually vote. This “hidden majority” theory has been at the heart of nearly every ideologically driven presidential campaign, up to and including Bernie Sanders’s “revolution,” which irrationally claimed the power to end gridlock and enact a progressive agenda by the sheer force of passion and honesty.
It’s not an especially rational or coherent point of view, to be sure; it mainly reflects anarchic protest against the conventions of party unity, coalition-building, swing-voter persuasion, the median-voter theorem of messaging, the primacy of traditional media, and all that boring, well-established stuff.
What makes Trump’s campaign unique is the extent to which, as a major-party nominee, he has bought into unconventional theories about politics. And finally, in Stephen Bannon, the candidate has found a campaign chief who embodies the rejection of every bit of conventional wisdom. Under Bannon’s direction, Breitbart News has become the American Beauty rose of guerrilla politics, fertilized by every insurgent (and in the eyes of detractors, crackpot) notion involving the identification and mobilization of nontraditional coalitions. And Bannon himself has become almost a cartoon-character parody of the outsider come to redeem conservative politics from its elitist torpor, happy to invite the vandals of the racist Alt-Right in to respectable society to trash the furniture and steal the cutlery.
In Joshua Green’s profile of Bannon earlier this year, we learn that the symbol he chose for himself and for Breitbart News is the honey badger, the nasty little mammal that achieved viral fame in 2011 on YouTube for his, well, stubborn nastiness. “Honey Badger don’t give a shit” is the legend Bannon had engraved on sliver flasks handed out as party favors at a Breitbart event. The man has steeled himself against any advice he might be offered for running a campaign that makes any sense to the people who are experts on these things.
But there are good reasons the conventional wisdom became conventional — and what this turn in the Trump campaign will almost certainly accomplish is an acceleration of the flight of Republicans from the candidate at the top of the ticket. For serious lifelong Republicans, it’s like being introduced to a Hell’s Angel as their recently widowed mother’s new boyfriend.
It’s another question entirely whether down-ballot Republicans will be able to separate themselves from their new overlord and his thuggish subalterns. But a mention of Stephen Bannon will be plenty to justify any attempt to do so. And it’s unlikely Trump or Bannon will make much of an effort to dissuade them. After all, they don’t give a shit.