President-elect Donald Trump’s new chief strategist and senior counselor, Stephen K. Bannon, has been called a racist, an anti-Semite and a white nationalist. And that’s just since Sunday, when Trump announced that he would be giving Bannon, the former head of the far-right website Breitbart News, a central White House role.
It’s true that Bannon has attracted legions of followers who describe themselves as white supremacists. It’s less clear whether Bannon’s own actions and words prove that he is one, too.
Bannon describes himself as a leader of the “alt-right,” a loose term describing a far-right ideology that includes opposition to immigration and “globalism.”
Bannon declined to comment on the record, but there is little evidence that the nationalism question – occasionally litigated in the campaign – slowed his path to a job that requires no Senate confirmation.
Shortly after joining Trump’s campaign in August, Bannon said in a revealing interview with Mother Jones 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.
But by and large, the alt-right is 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.”
Under the site’s founder, the late Andrew Breitbart, accusations of racism were dismissed as “cultural Marxism.”
Yet some of the highest praise for Bannon’s appointment came from white nationalists and white supremacists. According to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors far-right and far-left activity on the internet, a trove of comments celebrating the news have posted on Stormfront, a website for the “White Nationalist Community,” including this one from a reader called “Pheonix1993:”
“Stephen Bannon: racist, anti-homo, anti-immigrant, anti-jewish, anti-establishment. Declared war on (((Paul Ryan))) Sounds perfect. The man who will have Trump’s ear more than anyone else. Being anti-jewish is not illegal.”
Additionally, the white nationalist writer Richard Spencer posted this late Sunday on Twitter: “Bannon will answer directly to Trump and focus on the big picture, and not get lost in the weeds. Bannon is not a ‘chief of staff,’ which requires a ‘golden retriever’ personality. He’ll be freed up to chart Trump’s macro trajectory.”
Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart became an anti-“globalist” news site clearly aligned with the European far right. It attracts self-described white supremacists with such headlines as “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew.” It offers a steady stream of opinion essays, such as one by Milo Yiannopoulos in March describing anti-Semitic caricatures as the “long hair and rock ‘n’ roll” of 2016.
Direct evidence of racist or anti-Semitic statements by Bannon is harder to find. According to a 2007 court statement, Bannon’s ex-wife accused him of not wanting their twin daughters attending a California private school because its student body included too many Jews.
The scrutiny will only intensify.
Bannon left Breitbart in August to become chief executive of Trump’s presidential campaign. Until then, he 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 Mississippi rally with Brexit leader Nigel Farage, 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 is poised to be Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Democrats have laced into him, but 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.
And there is 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 media. 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 Europe, the far right has dealt 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 Brexit leader 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 Yiannopoulos, two of the site’s U.K. writers, the failure of the “Remain” campaign in Britain – one that united most of 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 anti-globalism 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.”
In America, too, 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. 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, such as this headline: “Previously-Deported Illegal Alien Caught on Camera Destroying Trump Signs While ‘at Work.’ “
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 terrorism and immigrant crime. Alex Jones, a Texas-based online host who has attacked “globalists” and called the 9/11 attacks an inside job, told viewers this week that Trump had thanked him for his coverage. On Jones’ 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.”