Donald Trump is shaking up his flailing presidential campaign — and in a way that makes clear he’s going "full Trump" in the election’s final months.
On Wednesday morning, Trump announced that he has installed Steve Bannon, the CEO of Breitbart News, as the new "chief executive" of his campaign. This basically means that Paul Manafort, who was brought in as campaign chairman months ago, has been demoted.
The move — which is paired with a promotion of Trump’s pollster Kellyanne Conway to a top role alongside Bannon — shows that Trump is unhappy with his declining poll numbers and has realized a change is necessary.
But it also very clearly indicates that Trump has no interest in running a traditional, scripted campaign in which he’d try to moderate his image, as Manafort has been advocating for.
Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker, has never run a campaign before. But under his leadership, Breitbart News has become known for its aggressive, controversial, racially charged, conservative populist/nationalist coverage — coverage that in the past year has consistently been incredibly pro-Trump and very critical of mainstream Republicans who aren’t on board with him him.
Indeed, Breitbart News has effectively positioned itself as the major website for Trump fans, which has helped it draw big traffic numbers while infuriating many traditional conservatives. Ben Shapiro, an editor at large for the site, resigned earlier this year and said it had become "Trump’s personal Pravda." Reporter Jordan Schachtel also quit, saying, "Breitbart News is no longer a journalistic enterprise, but instead, in my opinion, something resembling an unaffiliated media Super PAC for the Trump campaign."
And Bannon seems to think that what's worked for Breitbart News' traffic will work for Trump. According to the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Bannon has privately "been urging Trump for months to not mount a fall campaign that makes Republican donors and officials comfortable," and to instead "run more fully as an outsider and an unabashed nationalist."
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
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
Of course, this approach could also backfire — indeed, many would say it's likely to. If Trump’s rhetoric becomes even more controversial, more Republicans could denounce him, which could lead more voters to conclude that he’s a deeply unusual candidate who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the presidency.
Furthermore, it’s not clear that Trump really understands why his campaign has gone so badly off the rails. Though the first batch of polls that came in after the Democratic convention were good for Clinton, it took Trump himself to truly blow things up with his attacks on the Khan family. It was only after several days of raging controversy over the Khans that Clinton started posting truly eye-popping numbers, as voters were seemingly repelled by Trump’s behavior. "Letting Trump be Trump" may not be a great strategy when people don't like Trump very much.
Bannon is also a flamboyant character who resembles Trump in many ways — he’s rich, aggressive, and very, er, unusual. To learn a whole lot more about him, check out Joshua Green’s lengthy profile of him for Bloomberg from last year. Here are some representative excerpts:
"If there’s an explosion or a fire somewhere," says Matthew Boyle, Breitbart’s Washington political editor, "Steve’s probably nearby with some matches."
...Bannon’s life is a succession of Gatsbyish reinventions that made him rich and landed him squarely in the middle of the 2016 presidential race...
...I sip my "moonshine"—his wink at the [Duck] Dynasty guests—and wonder, as people often do, whether Bannon is nuts.