Steve Bannon, the newly named chief strategist for the nascent Trump White House, boasts a resume packed with a series of seeming non sequiturs. He had a stint in the U.S. Navy, worked for a stretch at Goldman Sachs, became a Hollywood investor who made a fortune off Seinfeld reruns, and ran the secretive experimental community Biosphere 2 outside Tucson, Ariz.
Then there’s the line on the resume drawing all the controversy: Bannon’s time as executive chairman of Breitbart, turning the right-wing news site into the platform of the so-called alt-right, as he once told Mother Jones magazine.
That online community coalesced around the conviction that the Republican Party and establishment conservatives have sold out a vision of America deeply influenced by nationalist thought, some of which is overtly racist. Certain alt-right adherents have unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic, racist and misogynist vitriol online against supporters of Trump’s rival Republicans, Clinton voters, and journalists during this campaign.
In recent days, critics from the left and the right have charged that Trump has invited a modern face of racism into the White House. Consider these tweets from John Weaver, the former chief campaign strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich during this year’s Republican primaries, and Mark Salter, the longtime adviser and speechwriter for Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid:
Sen. Bernie Sanders, who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, urged Trump to reconsider Bannon in an interview with NPR for All Things Considered Monday. “I hope that he understands that in the year 2016, we are not going back to a society rampant with racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia,” Sanders told NPR’s Robert Siegel.
Bannon’s appointment has been cheered by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and other white nationalist groups.
Under Bannon, Breitbart spoke increasingly to that alt-right audience with headlines and stories seemingly designed to offend African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, transgender people and others. The site already had built a following among the more conservative wing of Republicans for its gleeful stunts and the outrageous rhetoric of its founder, the late Andrew Breitbart.
Bannon pushed the boundaries farther, according to Kurt Bardella, the site’s top public relations consultant for three years until his resignation earlier this year. I asked Bardella what he made of the criticism that the site published racist stories. “I thought [the criticisms] were all completely valid and all true,” he responded.
Bardella argued that Bannon sought to incite Breitbart’s more bigoted readers to generate more clicks and shares, more controversy and more pressure on Republicans to take nationalist and anti-immigration stands. Calls for corrections of fact or apologies for their rhetoric led Bannon to urge his writers to hold firm on their outrages, Bardella says.
“You look to the top for direction, for boundaries,” Bardella says. “And when there aren’t any, it empowers everybody beneath you to double down and do that to the nth degree. And that’s what really happened.” (Bardella is far from a liberal critic; he was previously the spokesman for the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that launched investigations of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton.)
One Breitbart headline declared: “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy.” Another called former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who suffered near fatal wounds during an assassination attempt in which six others died, “The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield.”
Some stories carried the designation “Black Crime” as though criminality were racial. Another headline proclaimed “Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage” less than two weeks after a racist white allegedly killed nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in hopes of igniting a race war. South Carolina’s Republican governor instead removed the Confederate battle flag from state Capitol grounds. Transgender people are referred to with the dated slur Trannies. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, was called a “Renegade Jew” for opposing Trump’s march to the Republican nomination.
Pollak says that Bannon built on Andrew Breitbart’s already extant plans to unify a series of interlocking Breitbart blogs into a single news site.
The presidency of Barack Obama served as a rallying cry for the right. But Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 became a pivot for the site. While Andrew Breitbart reveled in the Tea Party, he tended to urge coalescing around Republican nominees. Pollak says Bannon disdained the party’s conclusions that it needed to reach out more to Latinos and ease its stance on illegal immigration. Fox News pundits had become too cozy with the establishment, Bannon concluded. He became Breitbart’s executive chairman in 2012 after the death of Andrew Breitbart and he moved the site’s headquarters from Southern California to Washington, D.C.
Bannon’s own rhetoric could be severe as well.
“What we need to do is bitch slap the Republican Party, and get those guys heeding, too,” Bannon told the conservative talk show Political Vindication Radio in 2010. “And if we have to, we’ll take it over.”
On the same program a year later, Bannon denigrated liberal feminists with an anti-lesbian slur and praised instead conservatives such as Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. It was a rebuke to the women’s liberation movement, Bannon said, that “the women that would lead this country would be feminists, they would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children. You know, they wouldn’t be a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools up in New England.”
The new Breitbart under Bannon took flight from the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014 by an economist who opposed easing the path to immigration, and the subsequent resignation of House Speaker John Boehner.
According to former Breitbart editor in chief Joel Pollak, Bannon emphasized original reporting and expanded the site’s staff.
“Breitbart News is a conservative website. And we are not racist, we’re not anti-Semitic, we’re not anti-gay, we’re not anti-woman,” Pollak tells NPR. “We’re not any of those things.” Pollak is now the site’s senior editor at large and general counsel.
In an interview, Pollak sought to counter the accusations of offensive material piecemeal. The “Black Crime” designation was an error, placed on a relatively small number of articles, he said. Pollak noted the “Renegade Jew” headline was written by the incendiary Jewish conservative author David Horowitz, who this week blasted Bannon’s critics as “the losers of the left.”
And Pollak says the site should not be held responsible for the words or slurs or attacks of people citing, sharing or commenting on its articles — no more than NPR or the New York Times should be blamed for insulting words from their respective audiences.
The Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay right-wing provocateur whose called feminists “a cancer” and explicitly wrote against Muslim immigration, has lionized the alt-right while saying he is not a part of it.
Yet that misses how energizing Yiannopoulos has proven to young and gay conservatives, Pollak says. “Conservatives are used to having that kind of open debate and we are confronted all the time about our beliefs but we don’t riot in the streets about it,” Pollak says. “You have to develop a sense of humor.”
Pollak says Bannon is inclusive, pointing to his own status as an observant Orthodox Jew.
“I have Saturdays off, Jewish holidays off and Steve Bannon always wishes me a ‘Shabbat shalom’ on Friday afternoon — just in case you were concerned about that,” Pollak says.
The accusation of anti-Semitism is a sensitive one. During a custody battle, Bannon’s former wife accused him of making of a series of anti-Semitic remarks in arguing over their daughters’ schooling. He has denied making those comments. In 1996, before the divorce, police records show Bannon’s then wife accused him of physically attacking her. Bannon pleaded not guilty and the case was dismissed.
The moment had an echo earlier this year when then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski forcibly grabbed former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields to prevent her from approaching Trump after a rally.
Breitbart essentially backed Lewandowski’s denials over its own reporter — despite eyewitness accounts and videotape showing those denials were untrue.
Fields soon quit the site, as did Bardella, who called Trump a demagogue.
“Breitbart evolved to become the propaganda arm, a de facto superPAC of the Trump campaign,” Bardella told NPR. “And I think that was very evident if you looked at the homepage every day.”
Breitbart has been a sharp critic of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a conservative who has been trying to drive the party’s policy positions and who has close ties to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Priebus, the consummate establishment figure who has in the past promoted a more inclusive notion of the Republican Party has been named Trump’s White House chief of staff.
Former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro, who quit the site in March, has written he has no reason to believe that Bannon shares the beliefs of racists or anti-Semites. But, Shapiro writes, Bannon is “happy to pander to those people and make common cause with them in order to transform conservatism into European far-right nationalist populism.”
Bannon is to be Priebus’ equal in the Trump administration. Outsider no more, Breitbart News can now serve as a voice reflecting the Bannon wing of the new Trump coalition. If desired, Breitbart can serve as its enforcer too.