Steve Bannon, once depicted as the power behind President Trump’s rise, has seen his fortunes fade fast, ousted first from the White House and now from Breitbart, the right-wing website that he turned into the hub of Trumpism and the alt-right during his four-plus years as its executive chairman.
It was a steep fall for the erstwhile kingmaker. Featured as “The Great Manipulator” on the cover of Time magazine and depicted as the Grim Reaper on “Saturday Night Live,” Bannon leaned into the image of himself as a dark, all-powerful Svengali. “Darkness is good,” he told the Hollywood Reporter shortly after Trump’s election. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” Yet if Bannon was, for a moment, the face of the brutalist turn in American politics, that moment is over. Bannon may not have lost his mind, as Trump claimed in recent weeks , but he has decisively lost.
It’s not just Bannon on the decline, however. Breitbart itself has slipped from its place as left-wing bogeyman and right-wing powerbroker. The loss of Bannon once would have been seen as cataclysmic, a crippling blow to a site, and a movement, that drove so much of the tumult in American politics. But now it seems like the inevitable closing act. These days, Breitbart feels a lot like run-of-the-mill conservative media, not so different from Fox News or talk radio. That’s partly an unintended consequence of its triumph: Breitbart’s influence seeped into right-wing media on all platforms over the past two years. But if every conservative outlet sounds like Breitbart, is Breitbart still essential to Trumpism?
During Trump’s rise, Breitbart sat at the confluence of the issues and styles that would come to redefine the right: devotedly pro-Trump, anti-immigrant and sneeringly anti-establishment, all packaged with trollish headlines like “Does feminism make women ugly? ” and slurs such as “cuck” that were favorites of the alt-right, a movement known for its racist and sexist views.
The formula worked. A study by Harvard researchers published last March in the Columbia Journalism Review showed that as Trump moved toward the Republican presidential nomination, the conservative media ecosystem reoriented around Breitbart . Its prominence emerged from a series of related factors: its strong social media presence; its obsessive focus on the issues of immigration and Islam, which would dominate campaign coverage; and its early and ardent support for Trump.
That last piece is key, because it’s how Breitbart opened a war against Fox News, helping dethrone the cable behemoth in the middle of the campaign. In early 2016, Trump was regularly tangling with the network, especially anchor Megyn Kelly. Breitbart eagerly adopted the cause, publishing piece after piece in an attempt to discredit Fox and its occasional Trump skepticism. The one-two punch of Breitbart and Trump drew voters — and attracted an audience.
The primaries created an opening for Breitbart to skewer Fox as soft on immigration and insufficiently pro-Trump, a creature of the Washington Republican establishment that Bannon and his preferred candidate loved to lash out against. Those attacks subsided as Trump locked down the nomination, and as the Harvard researchers’ data shows, right-wingers allowed Fox back into the fold. Trump and Kelly made up in a private meeting followed by a one-on-one interview in May 2016, and Fox’s focus shifted to bashing Hillary Clinton and lamenting the media’s bias against Republicans.
Fox was going through its own troubles at the time — the week Trump officially accepted the nomination, Roger Ailes was forced out as chief executive and chairman of the network. It seemed plausible that if Trump lost, Fox would emerge very differently, seeking to distinguish itself from the Breitbarts of the world with Kelly as its leading star. Speculation in political and media circles had Ailes teaming up with Trump to launch a new conservative TV network to bash Clinton’s administration if he didn’t win the election.
But when Trump did win, Fox transformed itself into Trump TV instead, becoming the cable analogue to Breitbart. Trump skeptics such as Kelly, Greta van Susteren and George Will left. Trump boosters such as Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Nigel Farage joined or were promoted to more prominent slots. “Fox & Friends,” which had been known primarily for its goofy inanity, turned into the Donald Trump Cheerleader Show so enthusiastically that the president frequently live-tweets its broadcasts. Before running for president, Trump had a weekly guest spot, so the hosts know him well. They studiously avoid topics that might be upsetting to him — such as the indictment of his former aides — and spin everything else as an upbeat sign that in the Trump era, things are going A-okay.
Pro-Trump posturing isn’t the only similarity. Like Breitbart, Carlson slams Trump when he strays too far from his draconian promises on immigration. This past week, both Breitbart and Carlson went after Trump for appearing to fold on revoking work permits for some undocumented young immigrants and that “big, beautiful” border wall. After holding the line on immigration as a candidate, Trump was now capitulating to “the very swamp creatures he once denounced,” Carlson said. “. . . What was the point of running for president?”
Hannity, meanwhile, has waded into Breitbart’s waters by indulging conspiracies about the killing of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and the “deep state ” FBI that’s supposedly out to get Trump. Like Breitbart, he has breathlessly reported rumors and baseless theories about Rich’s death, relying on WikiLeaks , Julian Assange and Internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom as sources. Even after a source recanted and Fox retracted its own reporting on the topic, Hannity held firm: “I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.” (Under pressure from advertisers, however, he stopped talking about the story in late May, and a few weeks later, Breitbart quietly dropped it, too.)
Then there are the Daily Caller and Gateway Pundit, two of the 10 most-visited conservative sites , both of which can now be understood as mini-Breitbarts. The Daily Caller, founded by Carlson, reflects his anti-immigration stance. Like Breitbart, it has published alt-right and white-nationalist writers such as Jason Kessler, organizer of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and Peter Brimelow, founder of the white-nationalist site VDARE.
Gateway Pundit, when not peddling hoaxes, also runs many anti-immigrant, anti-Islam posts (and, like Breitbart, it has White House press credentials in this administration). The overall feel of the site is basically Breitbart, but by amateurs. It wallows in the muck of birtherism and “illegal voters,” slaps photos of “scary brown people” over stories about the growing U.S. Muslim population, and repackages other sites’ articles with inflammatory headlines that feature liberal use of all-caps and exclamation points.
These sites attract millions of visitors every month. Social media plays a big role: retweets, Facebook shares, message boards. So, too, does the insularity of the right-wing media ecosystem. The two biggest sites, Drudge Report and Breitbart, constantly link to stories at the Daily Caller, Zero Hedge, the Washington Examiner, Gateway Pundit and others (all of which regularly link to Breitbart and Drudge as well). The traffic bounces back and forth among these nodes, sending page views soaring. And then there’s Trump, who tweets out links to all of it — even, once, to Infowars, which promotes conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school shooting, 9/11, the moon landing and government weather-control schemes, just to name a few.
All of this has built a new right-wing media landscape, one where Trump sounds like Breitbart, which sounds like Gateway Pundit, which sounds like Fox, with no one voice rising above the rest. Right-wing media all seems alike not because Breitbart is all-powerful but because so many of the outlets have become so aggressively pro-Trump. At a certain point, all the cheerleading sounds the same.
But Breitbart has also changed, disciplined by the spotlight. As The Washington Post reported last summer , Breitbart’s traffic plummeted after the election, as did its advertising revenue, ushering in what could be “a kinder, gentler Breitbart.” Milo Yiannopoulos is gone, tossed out after his pro-pedophilia comments surfaced. So is Katie McHugh, a reporter who sent out an anti-Muslim tweet after a terrorist attack in London in June. The more overt appeals to the alt-right stopped around the time Richard Spencer started appearing in major magazines showing off his “fashy” haircut and racist theories.
Breitbart’s biggest problem, though, might be Trump’s victory, not Bannon’s downfall. What was seen in late 2016 and early 2017 as a triumph for the ideology that Breitbart and Bannon pushed was instead the start of a cult of personality around Trump, one without much fealty to specific political preferences. Yes, Trump put in place the Bannon-inspired ban on travelers from some Muslim countries and abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord. And yes, the president’s rhetoric continues to have that nationalist, populist and sometimes racist cast that Bannon helped shape.
But Breitbart is at risk now of falling back into being just another loud voice picking fights with liberal “snowflakes” and cheering on Trump’s erratic governing style. Once seen as the source of all of Trump’s policy ideas, Breitbart — even before Bannon’s final crash — couldn’t stop the president from veering toward more mainstream Republican positions, including an endorsement of Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate primary, support for the GOP tax bill laden with corporate lobbying priorities or recent wobbliness on hard-line immigration policies. Trump hasn’t gone mainstream, exactly, but he sure doesn’t seem that interested in going to war with the establishment right just for the sake of blowing it up.
So far, none of that has cost Trump the support of his base. They’re there for him, not his policies. If there’s a movement, it’s not Bannon’s or Breitbart’s — it’s Trump’s. And the site that helped put him in office is now just one more piece of the conservative mainstream, destined one day to become the establishment that a new upstart provocateur will take down.
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