At a glance, Steve Bannon looks something like a right-wing Jeff Lebowski. Frequently seen sporting a shaggy blonde mane and cargo shorts, the foul-mouthed, barrel-chested executive chairman of Breitbart News is tied to an inscrutable maze of power brokers and dirty tricksters.
And now, he is the new chief executive of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
"[Bannon] will oversee the campaign staff and operations in addition to strategic oversight of major campaign initiatives," the Trump camp said in a statement Wednesday, announcing a staff shakeup and a de facto demotion of campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Bannon is often hyped as an enigmatic master of the political dark arts. In its own press release, the Trump campaign courted that image, quoting the headline of last year's Bloomberg profile of Bannon, "The Most Dangerous Political Operative in America."
"I've known Bannon for years," tweeted Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa. "He is Trump's alter ego. A colorful, edgy figure. Nationalist, deeply anti-estab. Media focused."
In other words, an obvious fit. Breitbart News has been Trump's media champion ever since he declared last summer. But whether Bannon will live up to the hype as a campaign chair may depend on how much freedom Trump gives him.
Breitbart hates Paul Ryan so if anything triggers the RNC to back away further from the Trump campaign, it'll be hiring Bannon
— Gideon Resnick (@GideonResnick) August 17, 2016
Bannon's biography does not disappoint: "Mr. Bannon, who goes by Steve," as the Trump press release explains, began his career in the Navy. He worked as a navigator during the Iranian hostage crisis — a "goatfuck," as Bannon described the crisis and the Carter administration's handling of it — which sowed the seeds of his political leanings early on. He went on to earn a master's degree in national security studies from Georgetown University, and served as an assistant in the Pentagon.
In the 1980s, Bannon worked on Wall Street, earning a degree from Harvard Business School and attaining a perch at Goldman Sachs before forming his own capital firm. He went on to score a financial stake in a relatively new show called Seinfeld. He's reportedly still enjoying the royalties.
In the late '90s, Bannon transitioned more fully to the entertainment industry. He became an executive producer for films like Titus and got in on the ground floor of The Firm, a TV production house and talent agency.
Then came politics. After 9/11, Bannon started making his own films, beginning with the War-on-Terror-Ronald Reagan mashup In The Face of Evil. After that, he made documentaries like Border War, Battle for America, and the Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated.
His career of late has been defined by his leadership of Breitbart News. The eponymous founder, Andrew Breitbart, turned Bannon's political awakening into something of a manic episode, and more than any individual writer or personality at the organization, the site is driven by Bannon.
When then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski manhandled Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields earlier this year, Bannon's top brass ordered staffers to stop defending their own reporter against the slings of the Trump campaign.
"STOP tweeting about the story. Stop speculating about the story," editor Joel Pollak told employees. "You were given explicit instructions."
Fields, along with Shapiro and others, soon walked out after it became clear Breitbart put the Trump camp before its own reporters. Meanwhile, Breitbart News has seen traffic continue to rise since Trump declared last summer.
Bannon hiring likely to only exacerbate GOP discontent with Trump campaign / direction. RNC, et. al., want more discipline, not less
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) August 17, 2016
Perhaps because of Bannon's epic journey from the high seas to Washington muckraking, the media has already played into some mythologizing: the Bloomberg profile credits him with almost single-handedly ousting former House Speaker John Boehner ("Boehner just quit as House speaker because of the mutinous frenzy Bannon and his confederates whipped up.")
But even with his considerable platform, his rightwing Rolodex, and his Seinfeld money, Bannon is has not proved as potent a political force as the deep-pocketed Koch brothers network. And yet his bomb-throwing has helped make Breitbart the single most influential media outlet on the nationalist right.
The much-hyped project of Bannon's more straight-laced Government Accountability Institute was the book Clinton Cash, written by GAI's president Peter Schweizer and released last summer. Heralded as The Book That Will Bring Down Hillary for exposing her foundation's corruption, it enjoyed a fair amount of play on TV before succumbing to multiple corrections and its own author admitting he hadn't actually discovered anything new or incriminating.
If Trump was hoping to further his popularity with the anti-establishment, alt-right by hiring Bannon, he's no doubt done it. But the increasingly idiosyncratic character of Trump's political operations probably won't do much to comfort an RNC worried about down-ballot races.
"I keep hearing that this was driven by Trump," Costa wrote as the news unfolded. "He wanted to finish race on his own terms, w/ pals at his side."