The morning after the presidential election, Trump campaign chief executive Steve Bannon called into the Breitbart.com radio show he had hosted when he ran the conservative website. His voice was rough, and slowed by fatigue, but there were scores to settle.
“The hobbits finally had a chance to speak,” Bannon said to the site's editor, Alex Marlow. He recalled a cable news segment on which some reporter asked why Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s successful campaign to quit the European Union, had introduced Trump at one rally. “Nigel Farage is a real hero to those people,” Bannon said, “and they know because they read Breitbart and they listen to this show.”
As most American media outlets analyzed the most shocking election since 1948, “Mr. Brexit” did not often figure in. But days later, Farage would fly to New York and post a Twitter photo with a tieless Trump, telling his followers that the new president had a “very positive reaction to [the] idea that Sir Winston Churchill's bust should be put back in Oval Office.” The next day, French National Front politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen tweeted that she too had been invited to meet with Trump.
Until mid-August, Bannon had never been part of any political campaign. Little of what he did made sense to political reporters looking for the normal tokens of a winning effort — not the Farage rally, not the surprise news conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers.
“Trump has gone from 2012 GOP style loss to a 2008 GOP style loss,” wrote Republican pollster Matthew Dowd on Oct. 10.
“The rhetoric that Bannon is feeding Trump makes it increasingly likely that Trump will lose in a landslide,” wrote the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza on Oct. 16.
A few weeks, an FBI letter and tens of thousands of WikiLeaked emails later, Bannon will be the chief strategist and senior counselor to President Donald Trump. Democrats have laced into him, accusing him of “anti-Semitic” views; Republicans, taking the lead of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, have not mentioned Bannon at all, not even to point out that many Breitbart staffers are Jewish. Some of the highest praise for the move came from the white nationalist thinker Richard Spencer.
“Bannon will answer directly to Trump and focus on the big picture, and not get lost in the weeds,” Spencer wrote last night on Twitter. “Bannon is not a ‘chief of staff,’ which requires a ‘golden retriever’ personality. He'll be freed up to chart Trump's macro trajectory.”
If Bannon’s past is prologue, he will not care about criticism. Under his leadership, Breitbart became an anti-“globalist” news site clearly aligned with the European far right. Under the site’s founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, accusations of “racism” were dismissed as “cultural Marxism.” The attacks lobbed at Bannon, one plumbing an 2007 divorce record for evidence of anti-Semitism, resemble the ones that failed to stop Trump’s rise. There is even talk of more Breitbart reporters joining Bannon at the White House, in roles that do not require Senate confirmation.
Since 2012, when Bannon became Breitbart’s chief executive, the site has defied doubts about what it could be without its charismatic founder and survived several tumultuous scraps with former staffers. The latest, just nine months ago, was telling of how Breitbart and Bannon viewed the press. After a Trump victory speech, Michelle Fields, then a reporter for Breitbart, was shoved out of the way by Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Within a week, she was gone; within a few months, Breitbart was running pieces about her being unable to defend her story.
From the outside, the moves looked chaotic. But chat logs published by BuzzFeed found Breitbart staffers agreeing that the scuffle looked bad but that going to “war” over it would reflect poorly on a greater cause. That cause was the Trump campaign. Bannon had joked a year before he was hired that he was effectively Trump’s campaign manager because the Republican front-runner was a “nationalist.” He identified Breitbart as a home for the “alt-right” for the same reason.
In a revealing August interview with Sarah Posner, Bannon allowed that, possibly, there were “some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right.” That, he said, could no more define “alt-right” than the presence of extremists on the left could identify their movement. By and large, the alt-right was not racist, he said.
“If you look at the identity movements over there in Europe, I think a lot of [them] are really 'Polish identity' or 'German identity,' not racial identity,” said Bannon. “It's more identity toward a nation-state or their people as a nation.”
In Europe, the far right was dealing with the same sort of media coverage as Bannon. Accusations of racism were constant; internal power struggles were seen as proof of the whole project falling apart. But Breitbart, which launched a London branch in early 2014, had seen this before. The site’s editor, Raheem Kassam, became chief of staff to Farage as his United Kingdom Independence Party surged.
The Brexit vote this summer was seen, at Breitbart, as nationalism’s great validation. In an analysis by Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos, two of the site’s U.K. writers, the failure of the “Remain” campaign in Britain — one that united most both of the country’s major parties and most of its experts — proved that the masses wanted a revolt against “globalism.” Warnings about what the wrong vote would do to markets, or that it would make people think of voters as racists, meant less than nothing to the antiglobalist working class.
“They think about political sovereignty, independence, and national pride,” Bokhari and Yiannopoulos wrote. “Elites sneer at these concerns as the foolish, provincial preoccupations of ‘low-information voters,’ yet they are deeply embedded in human nature, particularly in the search for belonging.”
For an American reader, Breitbart was the place for news on the revolt against the “globalists.” European far right politicians like Geert Wilders and the Le Pens earned regular write-ups on their doings. A typical headline: “Marion Maréchal-Le Pen: Either We Kill Islamism or It Kills Us.” Their politics were seen as necessary because of the litany of migrant crimes screaming across Breitbart. To name just four since the election:
Previously-Deported Illegal Alien Caught on Camera Destroying Trump Signs While ‘at Work’
Syrian Migrant Accused of Multiple Machine Gun Terrorist Murders
Police Warn of Child Rape Epidemic in Migrant-Occupied Malmo
Migrant who Kayaked to UK Accused of Raping Aid Worker
Coverage like that turned Breitbart into a powerhouse; according to the New York Times, it earned more Facebook impressions on election night than Fox News or CNN. More importantly, Bannon helped shape a Trump message that won the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League — and helped him in swing states. Trump’s closing ad, a two-minute edit of a speech he had given attacking the “global financial powers,” struck the ADL as hitting “anti-Semitic themes.” In the wider media, it was seen as stirring and populist.
“I played the clip for like five different people and I said, is that anti-Semitic?” said MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough last week. “No. There are dog whistles, but … play that ad to 100 Americans in Middle America, 99 of them will go, that's cool.”
Further on the political fringe, Bannon and Breitbart were credited with honing Trump’s message against globalism, and unleashing his say-anything approach to talking about terror and immigrant crime. On Alex Jones’s online show, after the election, sometime Trump adviser Roger Stone suggested that Bannon become Trump’s chief of staff to keep the momentum of the campaign going.
“I think he has the big picture viewpoint that Trump needs,” Stone said. “He knows exactly who the bad guys are. He knows exactly who those who won this victory are. And he knows the value of InfoWars.com. He is the right man to be the gatekeeper.”
In a separate video released this week, Jones — who has said that the attacks of 9/11 and the massacre at Sandy Hook were both hoaxes of one form or another — told subscribers that Trump was going to continue coming on his show.
“Donald Trump gave me a call, and I told him: Mr. President-elect, you’re too busy. We don’t need to talk,” Jones said. “But we still spent over five minutes. He said, to me: ‘Listen, Alex. I just talked to kings and queens of the world, world leaders, you name it, but it doesn’t matter. I wanted to talk to you.’”
Every modern president has tried to wind around the traditional media to spread his message. None has been as well-equipped as Trump, who generated headlines this week just by attacking protesters on Twitter.
Another preview of how Bannon’s network could help Trump came on the morning after the election, when Yiannopoulos — the site’s biggest star since the death of Breitbart himself — released a video of him running through the media rooms at Trump’s victory party. Gripping a Miller Lite in one hand, he rifled through an ice cream freezer at Fox News’s media section and bit into it while showing that most of the media desks had been abandoned. The reporters who had left were reporting and updating stories, but to Breitbart consumers, it looked as it they were trying, one more time, to sabotage the candidate that Yiannopoulos called “daddy.”
“Once the narrative falls apart, once it self-destructs under the reality of a Trump victory, they just leave,” Yiannopoulos said.
A few hours later, in the call-in to Breitbart’s radio show, Bannon was more circumspect. The election, he said, proved the limits of the major news networks when they tried to “weaponize media to mind control simple people.” The solution, said Marlow, the Breitbart editor, was to grow the site's readership as Trump took power.
“So long as people do what I recommend, and tell 10 friends and family members about Breitbart.com, I think we’ve got a fighting chance to gain some ground back in Washington,” Marlow said.