On Wednesday, Donald Trump’s campaign announced Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon as its new CEO — shocking no one in the conservative world.
Conservatives joked openly for months about “Trumpbart” and the transformation of Breitbart.com into, essentially, Bannon.com, but it was still something of a surprise that Trump would so publicly embrace Bannon, a man who helped transform a mainstream conservative website into a cesspool of the alt-right. It also comes as a surprise — or at least it should — that the Republican National Committee appears ready to go along with the Bannon-Breitbart-Trump takeover over the party, even as the Trump campaign’s latest move means RNC Chairman Reince Priebus now sits, effectively, side by side with alt-right Trump fans.
The takeover, now a virtual fait accompli, represents the dangerous seizure of the conservative movement by the alt-right.
Constitutional conservatives can’t stand the alt-right. Conservatives — real conservatives — believe that only a philosophy of limited government, God-given rights and personal responsibility can save the country. And that creed is not bound to race or ethnicity. Broad swaths of the alt-right, by contrast, believe in a creed-free, race-based nationalism, insisting, among other things, that birth on American soil confers superiority. The alt-right sees limited-government constitutionalism as passé; it holds that only nationalist populism on the basis of shared tribal identity can save the country. It’s a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.
Trump himself has flirted with the alt-right for months, from taking his sweet time distancing himself from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to failing to condemn alt-right anti-Semitic attacks on journalists. The alt-right association came into focus after I left the site in early March — I worked there as an editor for four years — with the elevation of alt-right cult hero Milo Yiannopoulos to a position of prominence.
I’d heard, of course, that the some of Breitbart’s comment sections had been occupied over previous months by a motley collection of white supremacists and anti-Semites (I generally never check the comments). I’d certainly felt their online wrath, accused by alt-righters of being an anti-Trump “cuck” — accusations that came with memes of gas chambers and “shekelmeister” cartoons that could have come directly from Der Stürmer. Such material flowed into my inbox and Twitter feed. That flow escalated dramatically after I declared that I would not support Trump, and it escalated again after I left Breitbart over its attempts to smear its own reporter, Michelle Fields, in order to shield then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski against charges that he’d yanked her by the arm at a campaign event.
But it wasn’t until March 29 that Breitbart’s full embrace of the alt-right became clear. That’s the day the site featured Yiannopoulos’s lengthy piece glorifying the alt-right. Yiannopoulos had already given interviews in which he stated that “Jews run the banks” and “Jews run the media,” dismissing anti-Semitic memes as merely “mischievous, dissident, trolly.” He wrote, along with co-author Allum Bokhari, this insane sentence: “There are many things that separate the alternative right from old-school racist skinheads (to whom they are often idiotically compared), but one thing stands out above all else: intelligence.”
And this is the cast of characters, and their enablers, to whom Trump has turned. Bannon is known, among other things, for his Sarah Palin documentary, “The Undefeated,” and his relationship with conservative patrons Rebekah and Robert Mercer. But he’s also the guy who ushered along the twisted turn at Breitbart.
If Republicans aren’t careful, he’ll inflict similar damage on their party now that he’s the top man running their standard-bearer’s campaign. If they don’t know it yet, the alt-right surely does. As one of its own, Richard Spencer, explained: “Breitbart has elective affinities with the alt-right, and the alt-right has clearly influenced Breitbart. In this way, Breitbart has acted as a ‘gateway’ to alt-right ideas and writers.” There’s now a path for this same kind of thinking to infiltrate the GOP.
None of this was Andrew Breitbart’s vision. He despised what he declared the dishonest, unspoken cooperation between the Democratic Party and major media outlets. In his memoir, “Righteous Indignation,” he wrote: “The left wins because it controls the narrative. The narrative is controlled by the media. The left is the media. Narrative is everything. I call it the Democrat-Media Complex — and I am at war to gain back control of the American narrative.” Andrew knew Trump wasn’t a conservative, and he despised racism — he routinely bragged about helping to integrate his fraternity at Tulane University, and was personally heartbroken over the accusations of racism directed at him after the Shirley Sherrod story.
But Breitbart News has become everything Andrew hated: a party organ, a pathetic cog in the Trump-Media Complex and a gathering place for white nationalists.
What does this mean for Trump’s campaign?
It means that like Breitbart, Trump will continue to tacitly embrace the alt-right, hoping, presumably, that adherents of its worldview will propel his campaign in the same way it has boosted Breitbart’s traffic by millions of monthly page views. Trump lives in a Breitbart fantasy world, and he’s now invited Bannon to personally decorate that world for him. The GOP establishment, too weak and cowardly to oust Trump earlier, risks displacing the true, constitutional conservatives for whom the party has been a natural political home, and now it looks prepared to ride the Trump train, next to alt-righters, all the way into the electoral ravine.