Trump’s Debt to ‘Brilliant’ Rachel Maddow

(Bloomberg) -- Many political consultants have a guru they turn to for wisdom and aphorisms—Sun Tzu, say, or Machiavelli. Steve Bannon, the new CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has one, too: It’s Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.

“I watch her show every night,” Bannon told me. “I’m a huge fan.” 

Trump’s Debt to ‘Brilliant’ Rachel Maddow
In this Jan. 24, 2013, file photo, Stephen Bannon poses at the premiere of “Sweetwater” during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Photographer: Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP, File

At first blush, this seems a strange choice. Maddow is an outspoken liberal. Bannon is a populist conservative—until last week, he was executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News (he took leave when he joined the Trump campaign). But as I discovered last fall, while shadowing Bannon for this Bloomberg Businessweekprofile, his choice of Maddow as a guiding light makes a certain odd kind of sense. 

Bannon’s approach to politics is shaped by his critique of why conservatives failed to stop the Clintons in the 1990s. He believes they relied too heavily on rumor and opinion—and too little on facts—and wound up turning off voters and the mainstream media who dismissed the right as wacky conspiracy theorists. He developed his own aphorism, a kind of 21st Century Sun Tzu: “Facts gets shares, opinions get shrugs.”

He grew to admire Maddow’s signature polemical style, in which she marshals reams of hard evidence to build a crescendoing fact-based indictment of her target. “I think the way she goes through stuff is brilliant,” Bannon exulted. “I won’t say I agree with it. But we study Huffington Post, we study Maddow. We don’t study the right. We study the best from the left. That’s who we try to model ourselves after.”

I neglected to include Bannon’s Maddow fixation in my profile. But when I was invited on her show Monday to talk about Bannon, I figured I would mention her biggest fan. She seemed...surprised (you can jump ahead to the 2:15 mark):

MSNBC@MSNBC
.@maddow chats with @JoshuaGreen about Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon's complicated relationship with GOP brass https://t.co/Lg8yVXzN5D
Twitter: MSNBC on Twitter

Whether or not Maddow’s style can carry over to the Trump campaign is anyone’s guess. But it's hard to argue that Breitbart News hasn’t succeeded with it, at least against conservatives targets. As Bannon put it to me a few weeks ago, “Look where John Boehner is: gone. Look where Eric Cantor is: done. Look at Paul Ryan: f---ing trashed him.” (Bannon believed that Ryan was angling to replace Trump as the nominee at the GOP convention.) All of these politicians were brought down, or in Ryan’s case held back, Bannon believes, because they were subjected to a fusillade of negative facts.

He has no qualms about crediting Maddow for inspiration. “[We] deconstruct her show basically every day to look for insights,” he told me. “She leaves marks on people.”

As a devout viewer, Bannon was aware that I occasionally appear on Maddow’s show. He asked me to deliver a message: “Tell her, hey, this guy’s not a cloven-hoofed devil.”

To contact the author of this story: Joshua Green in Washington at jgreen120@bloomberg.net.