Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect, got an unexpected interview with White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon on Aug. 15. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon tells the American Prospect that white nationalists are “a collection of clowns,” which I guess qualifies as progress. Last summer, he proudly declared in an interview with Mother Jones that Breitbart News, the website he left to join then-candidate Donald Trump's team, is “the platform for the alt-right.”

But “clowns” is nevertheless a problematic label. Though negative, it downplays the threat of an ideology whose adherents are determined to show they are much more — whose display of hate in Charlottesville last weekend led to three deaths.

“We are stepping off the Internet in a big way,” Robert Ray, a writer for the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, told Vice News in Charlottesville. “People realize they are not atomized individuals; they are part of a larger whole because we have been spreading our memes, we have been organizing on the Internet, and so now they're coming out.”

By the way, if you haven't watched Vice's Charlottesville documentary, you should.

Back to Bannon: Last year, with him at the helm, Breitbart published a 5,000-word “Establishment Conservative's Guide to the Alt-Right.” Much of the piece was devoted to promoting the notion that true racists are practically extinct and not worth fretting about.

A few key excerpts:

  • Just as the kids of the '60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock 'n roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish “Shlomo Shekelburg” to “Remove Kebab,” an Internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide. These caricatures are often spliced together with millennial pop culture references, from old 4chan memes like Pepe the frog, to anime and “My Little Pony” references. Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the '80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents.
  • Racism, for them, is a monster under the bed, a story told by their parents to frighten them into being good little children. As with Father Christmas, millennials have trouble believing it’s actually real. They’ve never actually seen it for themselves — and they don’t believe that the memes they post on /pol/ are actually racist. In fact, they know they’re not — they do it because it gets a reaction.
  • Those looking for Nazis under the bed can rest assured that they do exist. On the other hand, there’s just not very many of them, no one really likes them, and they’re unlikely to achieve anything significant in the alt-right. What little remains of old-school white supremacy and the KKK in America constitutes a tiny, irrelevant contingent with no purchase on public life and no support even from what the media would call the “far right.”

Such dismissiveness just doesn't make sense after Charlottesville. Ray specifically credited those supposedly harmless Internet memes with catalyzing the “Unite the Right” gathering, an event where one Nazi sympathizer killed a counterprotester and injured 19 others by driving a car into a crowd.

Afterward, white nationalist Christopher Cantwell told Vice that the vehicular attack “was more than justified.”

It is pretty hard to make the case, at this point, that white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis are nothing to worry about. Yet the American Prospect's Robert Kuttner, who interviewed Bannon on Tuesday, wrote that “he dismissed the far right as irrelevant and sidestepped his own role in cultivating it.”

“Ethno-nationalism — it's losers,” Bannon said. “It's a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much.”

To the extent that Bannon still influences Trump, it sure sounds like the president is getting the impression that the people who marched under swastikas and torches last weekend need not be taken seriously.