The incoming Trump Administration remains embroiled in a controversy over the appointment of former Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon as senior advisor to the President and chief White House strategist. Bannon, the 62-year-old businessman and activist who resigned from the website in August to become Donald Trump’s campaign manager, has been slammed by Democrats and by many journalists as a “white nationalist” and an avowed racist and anti-Semite. Esquire politics writer Charles Pierce has asserted that “hiring Steve Bannon is exactly the same as hiring [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke.”
Yet some prominent Jewish voices, such as conservative radio talk show host Denis Prager, have risen in Bannon’s defense. The Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition have praised him as a staunch champion of Israel, though several other Jewish groups have strongly criticized his appointment. Bannon himself has lashed back at the accusations, describing himself as an “economic nationalist” who believes in “America first,” not in ethnic division, and pointing to Breitbart’s pro-Israel stance and coverage of anti-Jewish violence in Europe.
So, is Bannon a misunderstood patriot unjustly smeared by the left — or a man who, whether or not he harbors personal prejudices, has promoted some troubling views in his public life? And what does his presence in the White House portend for the administration?
First things first: The case for Bannon’s supposed anti-Semitism is indeed pretty weak, a fact acknowledged by the Anti-Defamation League. The main source for this incendiary charge is a 10-year-old allegation by his ex-wife Mary-Louise Piccard, made when they were going through a divorce and child custody battle. In a sworn statement to the court, Piccard asserted that Bannon had made several anti-Semitic comments during their search for a private school for their twin daughters, even saying that he didn’t want them to attend a particular school because it had too many Jews. A spokeswoman for Bannon has denied these claims, pointing out that the girls did, in fact, end up attending that school. And, while a school principal (who is Jewish) has confirmed one of the remarks attributed to Bannon — a question about Hanukah books in the school library — she recalls it in a different context than reported in the press and does not think it was anti-Semitic.
The only other piece of evidence is the infamous Breitbart headline that ran on Bannon’s watch branding conservative pundit William Kristol a “renegade Jew.” However, author David Horowitz — himself Jewish — says he was “totally responsible” for the headline and was referring to Kristol’s perceived betrayal of Israel by his opposition to Trump.
A number of Bannon’s current and former Jewish associates — including some who are highly critical of him, such as former Breitbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro — have also said they have never seen any anti-Semitism on his part. However, Shapiro does not quite let Bannon off the hook, charging that his ex-boss “openly embraced the racist and anti-Semitic alt-right” during his final year at Breitbart. And that gets us to the crux of the matter.
The alt-right, or “alternative right,” is a loosely knit movement that was born around 2010 and gained mainstream visibility last year — thanks in no small part to Breitbart’s efforts. It includes many different shades of right-of-center ideology that reject mainstream conservatism. But a look at alt-right websites, statements explaining its philosophical underpinnings, and its leading figures shows that the alt-right is predominantly a racist movement in the classic sense of the word: It rejects human universalism and believes that people and cultures are defined first and foremost by race and ethnicity. There are, no doubt, those who consider themselves alt-right and do not share this view. But at its core, the alt-right is folks who think that the spirit of America is found not in the Declaration of Independence with its proclamation that “all men are created equal,” but in a 1790 law that limited United States citizenship to “free white person[s].”
To be sure, that’s not an outlook you will find overtly expressed on Breitbart. But while Breitbart is not quite an alt-right website, there is no question that it began to court that fringe movement in the summer of 2015, shortly after the launch of Trump’s presidential campaign — mostly via the site’s most visible contributor, flamboyant anti-political correctness crusader Milo Yiannopoulos. (Disclosure: I was on amicable terms with Yiannopoulos until last spring and was a guest on his Breitbart Tech webcast twice.)
In July 2015, Yiannopoulos penned a column defending the epithet “cuckservative,” a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative” and the alt-right keyboard warriors’ slur of choice for mainstream conservatives. Conservatives such as Erick Erickson and The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis denounced the term as a white supremacist coinage, noting that it was often used to attack conservatives as race traitors for being too sympathetic to minorities and/or immigrants. (It also alludes to a racially charged pornographic trope of a white man forced to watch his wife in sexual congress with a black man.) However, Yiannopoulos argued that while some “cuckservative”-slingers might be “Twitter obsessives yelling about Jewish conspiracies and white genocide,” they were an irrelevant minority and that the word was a “gloriously effective” insult against conservatives too spineless to fight back against the left.
Several months later, Breitbart ran a lengthy essay by Yiannopoulos and his frequent co-author Allum Bokhari titled “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt Right.” While Breitbart editor-in-chief Joel Pollak has defended the piece as “journalism” in a National Public Radio interview, it smacked more of unabashed boosterism. Yiannopoulos and Bokhari had nothing but praise for the alt-right’s “dangerously bright” and “eclectic” thinkers, such as blogger Steve Sailer, whom they credited as a pioneer of “human biodiversity” (the belief that inherent racial and ethnic differences in intelligence, criminality, and moral judgment not only exist but should inform public policy). While they mentioned that alt-right websites such as VDARE, The Unz Review, and Alternative Right (now Radix Journal) had been “accused of racism,” the clear implication seemed to be that such accusations were a politically correct reaction to heretical opinions. The authors also took a sympathetic view of the movement’s rank-and-file followers who felt betrayed by mainstream conservatism and looked to the alt-right for a “new identity politics” championing the “tribal concerns” of white people.
Yiannopoulos and Bokhari acknowledged that a large contingent of alt-right posters on social media were trafficking in blatantly racist and anti-Semitic material, often using it to harass Jewish critics of Trump. But they not only hand-waved this conduct as mere rebellious antics by young people fed up with PC nannyism but lavished compliments on the alt-right “meme brigades” known for anti-Jewish caricatures and gas chamber jokes: “fresh, daring and funny,” an “outburst of creativity and taboo-shattering.” Real neo-Nazis, the article assured readers, were a tiny percentage of the alt-right, openly derided and scorned by the rest of the movement.
In fact, as I wrote at the time, a look at alt-right Twitter profiles shows that most of its active posters seem to be quite serious about their white supremacist and anti-Semitic beliefs. And it’s not just a handful of marginal users: One of the leading alt-right accounts, “Ricky Vaughn,” who made MIT’s list of 200 top “election influencers” before being banned from Twitter in early October, tweeted regularly about “feral blacks” and the evil of Jews.
What’s more, the websites mentioned by Yiannopoulos and Bokhari as the alt-right’s intellectual hubs are full of blatantly bigoted content. Regular VDARE contributors include retired California State University-Long Beach psychology professor Kevin MacDonald, who believes that Judaism is an “evolutionary strategy” by which Jews seek dominance and that Jews living in majority-gentile societies pursue their collective interests by working to subvert and weaken their host cultures. Sailer, too, has suggested that Jews “use their influence over the media … to depress, demoralize, and divide other groups’ children.” Richard Spencer, the founder and editor-in-chief of Alternative Right and later Radix Journal, advocates all-white “homelands” — off-limits to Jews, whom Spencer does not regard as truly white.
Defending Bannon on NPR, Pollak asserted that the Yiannopoulos/Bokhari “Guide” was Breitbart’s “only alt-right content.” Yet a search of the website turns up numerous other items promoting and glamorizing the alt-right and even using its own jargon to mock its conservative critics as “cucked.” In May, Breitbart also published a piece by an actual alt-right social media figure, “Pizza Party Ben,” attacking Shapiro for his failure to board the Trump Train and mocking him for talking about his anti-Semitic harassment (of which a later study found he was the top target). “No one hates Jewish people,” scoffed “Ben,” who must not have been paying attention to his comrades-in-virtual-arms.
No one knows to what extent Bannon personally greenlit or supervised Breitbart’s alt-right lovefest. But it is a fact that last July, he told Mother Jones’ Sarah Posner, “We’re the platform for the alt-right.” He also insisted that the alt-right was not racist or anti-Semitic, conceding only that there were some racists and anti-Semites involved in the movement. Meanwhile, Spencer has told The Daily Beast that “Breitbart has acted as a ‘gateway’ to Alt Right ideas and writers.”
To be sure, publicity for the alt-right makes up a fairly small portion of Bannon-era Breitbart. However, the site has also run numerous materials that echo alt-right themes: hyping the racial angle in black-on-white violent crimes and hailing the Confederate flag as a symbol of a “patriotic and idealistic cause”; Muslim-bashing that goes far beyond legitimate critiques of radical Islamism or even Islam itself; portraying even legal immigration in an exclusively negative light. It has repeatedly showcased Jason Richwine, a scholar who was forced to resign from the conservative Heritage Foundation three years ago after it came to light that he had argued for limiting Hispanic immigration on the grounds of differences in IQ and had written for Spencer’s Alternative Right site in its early days. Last January, Bannon himself interviewed Richwine on his Sirius XM radio show, Breitbart News Daily, and praised him as “one of the smartest brains” on immigration issues.
And there’s another eyebrow-raising tidbit that comes from Bannon himself, in a radio interview with Trump last November, and that seems to contradict Bannon’s claim that his nationalism is focused on America’s economic interests. At one point, Trump suggested that immigration laws should be revised to make it easier for foreign students attending top U.S. schools to here after they graduate, since “we have to keep our talented people in this country.” But Bannon demurred, offering a startling objection: “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think… A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
Is there any reason to think that Bannon actually leans toward the alt-right in his personal beliefs? Those who have known him say that he is simply using the movement for his political agenda. An August profile of Bannon by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic suggests the same thing, concluding that he has previously latched on to a number of causes in pursuit of his ultimate goal of destroying the left.
Some more interesting glimpses into Bannon’s thinking are offered by the transcript of a talk he gave via Skype at a Vatican conference in the summer of 2014. Bannon’s main pitch was for a right-wing populist, pro-entrepreneurship, anti-Wall Street, religion-based vision of capitalism. During the question period, he was asked about the rise of European far-right populist parties with a “tribalist” and “neo-nativist” bent — and in many cases with ties to Moscow — such as France’s Front National. Bannon’s response was to defend them: “They have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial. … Over time it all gets kind of washed out, right?” Even Bannon’s evaluation of Vladimir Putin tilted toward the positive: Sure, the Kremlin strongman might be running a “kleptocracy” with imperialistic designs, but he was at least “standing up for traditional institutions” including “nationalism” and “sovereignty.” (This, while Putin was merrily running roughshod over the sovereignty of neighboring Ukraine.)
In the aftermath of Trump’s election victory, Bannon has already voiced a desire to work together with the Front National’s leadership — Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, whom he described as the movement’s “rising star.” Maréchal-Le Pen has accepted the offer on Twitter, though the terms of their prospective collaboration remain unclear.
— Marion Le Pen (@Marion_M_Le_Pen) November 12, 2016
Will Bannon use his White House position to push Trump into an alliance with Europe’s neo-nationalist leaders such as the Le Pens? That’s a disturbing prospect: While these political insurgents may raise valid questions about immigration and sovereignty, they are no friends of freedom. Marine Le Pen’s willingness to praise Putin’s Russia as just another European country and a positive model of nationalist statecraft shows the authoritarian heart of the new populism.
While progressive groups are stepping up the pressure for Bannon to be fired, so far there seems to be little sign of the Republican establishment pushing for such a move. Ironically, the intemperate attacks on Bannon from the press and the left — the attempts to paint him as a dyed-in-the-wool bigot, the absurdly exaggerated claim that Breitbart is “nothing but breathtaking racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic garbage” — may have backfired in his favor, discrediting his critics and shielding him from more substantiated charges.
Famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, who has argued that it’s wrong to accuse Bannon of anti-Semitism “without compelling evidence,” nonetheless believes that his overall record is “disqualifying for high office.” He’s right. Aside from his personal views, there is no doubt that Bannon has helped raise the visibility of a white nationalist movement to the point where its leaders are now getting a hearing in the mainstream media; that he did this for his own political goals and not because he shares its beliefs is cold comfort at best. His presence in the White House will not help make Trump’s pivot to responsible leadership more believable. And his advisory role may encourage Trump to pivot in a very wrong direction.