Buckle up, America: The 2016 election is about to morph into its final hideous form.
On Wednesday morning, Republican nominee Donald Trump announced the hire of Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of anti-establishment conservative website Brietbart News, as his campaign’s chief executive.
Bannon’s hire, first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, is expected to extinguish any semblance of Trump as a moderate candidate in line with the rest of the Republican Party—a move that will push the race between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton from a heated general election into a raging political dumpster fire.
Trump’s decision to elevate Bannon to the top of his campaign’s hierarchy coincides with the sidelining of campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has attempted to push Trump to set aside his controversial nationalism and combative techniques and pivot toward a more traditional GOP campaign. (Manafort, it should be noted, was accused on Wednesday of funneling at least $2.2 million from the pro-Russian party in Ukraine to Washington lobbyists in 2012, laying the groundwork for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.)
Bannon has convinced Trump that rest of campaign needs to be bare-knuckles brawl, w/ full-bore populism/movement politics— Robert Costa (@costareports) August 17, 2016
Huge rallies. Gloves off. Brutal fights with Clinton. Heavy emphasis on nationalism and populism. That's the Bannon strategy.— Robert Costa (@costareports) August 17, 2016
“Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, you’ve got to pivot,’” Trump told La Crosse, Wisconsin’s News 8 on Tuesday. “I don’t want to pivot. I don’t want to change. You have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people. No, I am who I am.”
A filmmaker, former Goldman Sachs investment banker, and naval officer with a master’s degree in national security from Georgetown University, Bannon is the “most dangerous political operative in America,” as an October 2015 Bloomberg Politics profile described him—a fact the Trump campaign touted in its press release about Bannon’s hire.
Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News has become the mothership of pro-Trump messaging online. Its reports regularly embrace the populist nationalism for which the Trump campaign has become famous, including racially charged attacks on immigrants, Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement; condemnation of progressive causes like the Occupy movement; and an express abhorrence for America’s politically correct culture in general. Breitbart reports also regularly rail against establishment candidates, like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
In addition to running Breitbart News—a responsibility he’s put on hold to grab the reins of the Trump campaign—Bannon is also the executive chairman and co-founder of the Government Accountability Institute, a conservative opposition-research nonprofit that feeds dirt on establishment politicians it opposes to news outlets. GAI famously published 2015’s Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, a controversial tome that laid the groundwork for a slew of anti-Clinton reports.
With the on-boarding of Bannon, the Washington Post reports, Trump is expected to “run more fully as an outsider and an unabashed nationalist”—meaning the businessman’s volatile rhetoric that made him a successful outsider candidate during the Republican primary and a cartoon-like figure mocked and feared by liberals will likely become the permanent persona of the GOP nominee for the remainder of the 2016 campaign.
What I hear: Bannon's calculation is that Trump can still win but only if he is truly seen as "change," as "the total outsider"— Robert Costa (@costareports) August 17, 2016
Some see this as a last-ditch effort by Trump to either save what many see as a faltering campaign—a characterization the Trump team rejects—or to go out surrounded by friends and allies.
Trump's campaign has now entered the Hospice Phase. He knows he's dying and wants to surround himself with his loved ones. #BreitbartCEO— Charlie Sykes (@SykesCharlie) August 17, 2016
Former Brietbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro—who quit the publication after Breitbart management defended former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski against his alleged assault on former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields—speculates that the Bannon–Trump relationship may be the start of a new Trump media empire, which Vanity Fair first reported on in June.
Clinton, meanwhile, has risen in the polls and currently holds a lead of 6 percentage points over Trump, according to the Real Clear Politics average. But she remains highly disliked by voters, with an average 53.5 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable view of the former secretary of state. Trump is even less liked, with an average unfavorable rating of 61.5 percent.
Still suffering from decades of political baggage—some of which is the direct result of Bannon’s work—Clinton has struggled to convince voters that she is trustworthy. An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released this week, for example, found just 12 percent of Democratic voters think Clinton is “honest and trustworthy.” That number dipped to just 2 percent among independent voters and 1 percent for Republicans.
Clinton herself has perpetuated this negative view through her use of a private email setup during her time as secretary of state. While the Department of Justice did not press charges despite the Federal Bureau of Investigation finding more than a hundred emails containing mishandled classified information, Clinton has continued to insist that FBI Director James Comey said her comments regarding her email were “truthful.”
Comey did say that there is no reason to believe that Clinton “lied” during her interview with the FBI. But Clinton’s assertion of truthfulness glosses over Comey’s claim that Clinton and her staff were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” and that there is reason to believe hackers at least attempted to breach her system—both of which directly contradict Clinton’s earlier statements on the matter.
All of this leaves us with a choice between two leading candidates whom the majority of voters dislike, third-party candidates who have virtually zero chance of winning, and 82 days remaining in an election that will almost certainly devolve into a vicious brawl the likes of which we have never seen.