Joshua Green ’94 Covers the Rise of Nationalism in American Politics

10/19/2017_Daybreak_Joshua Green, author of Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, discusses his book at Connecticut College's Evan's Hall on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (Tim Martin/The Day)

According to Connecticut College president Katherine Bergeron, “Joshua Green ‘94 is arguably one of the most influential long-form journalists in America today.” For the 20th annual Sound Lab Foundation lecture, Green spoke and engaged in a Q&A with the audience in Evans Hall regarding his recent book, Devil’s Bargain, and his other work in journalism and politics. Devil’s Bargain has reached number one on The New York Times bestseller chart, and has provided many readers with extraordinary insight into the 2016 election season, the Steve Bannon/Donald Trump relationship, and their success in gaining the highest office in the United States of America.

In 2008, Green spent several months following Sarah Palin and covering her tenure as the governor of Alaska. His eventually published piece caught the attention of a filmmaker named Steve Bannon, and after meeting him, Green knew that Bannon was a “vivid character” who would have an interesting future in politics. Green—a concise, confident, and engaging speaker—spent the first half of his lecture time explaining the timeline of the fairly recent rise of right-wing populist and nationalist politics in America. After witnessing the Tea Party’s vicious takedown of the Speaker of the House, John Boehner (a Reagan Republican who represented everything the Tea Party and Republican nationalists, including Steve Bannon, believed was wrong with the GOP), Green said, “it seemed clear to me that the ideas with so much energy on a congressional level would have the same energy in the presidential primary.”

Green’s book is mostly about the rise of populist-nationalism in the right-wing of the GOP. Bannon, Green stated, saw that the country was tired of globalist politicians, and knew that a populist approach would excite many voters in the Republican Party. “Bannon’s political genius was to call the standard GOP platform un-American, and his own populist, nationalist pro-American,” said Green during his talk. He discussed Bannon’s grooming of Trump as a populist candidate, and the brilliance of their using a populist and nationalist strategy during the campaign. Green explained that Bannon’s nationalism centered on two major issues: 1) anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment and policy, and 2) an anti-free trade/pro-blue collar economy. Green also pointed out that the second point of Bannon’s nationalism was very similar to rhetoric and policy espoused by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

An important point about the 2016 election that Green brought up was the way popular media covered Donald Trump. He explained that Trump’s use of hateful, discriminatory rhetoric acted as a shield that kept a large number of journalists and news outlets from analyzing the actual policy and content of his speeches. Green gave the example of Trump’s chastising many big, globalist bankers (like Goldman Sachs) who all happened to be Jewish. Instead of covering his nationalist agenda, journalists wrote about his anti-semitism and the responses Trump incited from organizations like the Anti-Defamation league. Green said that, when he interviewed Trump, right after winning the Republican primary, “it was clear that Trump understood this nationalist strategy,” emphasizing that Trump is not as clueless as he seems.

Despite the fact that Donald Trump won the presidency with a populist platform, he has not followed through with the second part of Bannon’s nationalism: the toppling of big banks and the white-collar economy. Green believes that this is the reason Bannon has left the White House and is now “leaving the shadows” to become a public figure who will lead the right-wing nationalist movement himself (Green added that Bannon is smart enough to maintain that he is doing so in the service of Trump). Green explained that “the future of economic nationalism lies with the Democrats,” specifically the left-wing, progressive end of the party (with paragons such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) and that Bannon himself is aware of the fact that the Democrats could easily take over a populist economic platform from the Tea Party and the Republicans.

Trump’s election marks a new chapter in American politics, one in which “globalists like Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton will no longer be nominated and elected,” said Green. Green added, at the end of his talk, that he is curious to see if populist nationalism is a strategy that can be used by many politicians for successful campaigns or if it is just a part of Trump’s “cult of personality.” He also added that, in order for a Democrat to be successful in 2020, someone needs to come from the left wing of the party and move to the center in order to appeal to moderate and conservative Democrats. As a centrist, Clinton’s strategy of attempting to move left was often mocked and seen as disingenuous by many of the Democrats who had supported Bernie Sanders.

During the Q&A session, Green’s expertise shone through his answers to questions that covered a wide range of topics. When asked about his opinion on the much-scrutinized state of contemporary journalism and its role in getting Trump elected, Green said that cable news in particular loves “spectacle,” and that is what Trump gave them. “I actually think the investigative journalism during the campaign was well-done,” said Green, “journalists did a good job of saying, this is who this man is and who you’re voting for.”

Green addressed the infamous TMZ recording of Trump discussing his proclivity toward sexual assault and harassment. He said that the tape might have made a difference in the outcome of the election if not for Bannon’s strategy of attacking Bill Clinton’s womanizing and for FBI director James Comey’s re-opening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email. “The FBI investigation gave many undecided voters an excuse to support Trump over Clinton,” said Green.  

When asked about Barack Obama’s lack of outward campaigning in support of the Affordable Care Act, Green provided the shrewd observation that a large part of the ACA’s lack of support came from its association with Obama, as it was commonly known as ObamaCare. By distancing himself from the ACA, Obama is able to keep people from rejecting it simply out of hatred for our 44th President.

The Q&A session went overtime, and the audience was still filled with raised hands when the facilitator announced the end of the lecture and the beginning of the reception to celebrate Joshua Green. Green ended his Q&A answering a question about how he sleeps at night, as a journalist, knowing that Donald Trump is the President of the United States. He referenced the President’s tendency to tweet in the late hours of the evening and the early hours of the morning and observed: “Trump doesn’t really allow reporters to sleep.”