From the shadowy confines of the alt-right’s internet redoubt, one of the icons of the white nationalist movement has emerged to serve as the Trump White House’s strategy guru and propagandist-in-chief. Steve Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart Media, who headed up Trump’s campaign in its closing months, has been picked as “chief strategist and senior counsel” to the incoming president. He’ll serve as an equal to GOP chairman Reince Priebus, who’s been slotted into the chief of staff position.
With Bannon’s appointment, it is even clearer that fears about the whiffs of neo-fascism and authoritarianism surrounding Trump’s candidacy were not unfounded. The elevation of Bannon to the West Wing confirms that the problem is not just Donald Trump – it’s all of the unsavory elements being normalized and brought into the seat of power along with him.
When Trump announced Bannon’s new job, neo-Nazis and white supremacists celebrated. Tony Hovater of the Traditionalist Workers Party (one of whose members became notorious for shoving a young black woman at a Trump rally this summer) could barely contain his excitement, posting to Facebook, “What timeline are we even on anymore? We’re like one or two degrees of separation away from the fucking President.” When Andrew Anglin of the online Nazi newspaper Daily Stormer posted news of Bannon’s appointment, one supporter commented, “Bannon is our man in the White House.”
Platform for the alt-right
It’s not necessary to smear Bannon through guilt-by-association tactics though. His own words are enough to indict him and his Breitbart news (sic) machine as avatars of extremist ideology. In an interview with David Corn of Mother Jones magazine during the Republican convention this summer, Bannon proudly proclaimed, “We’re the platform for the alt-right.”
And just what is this nebulous alt-right that is so in fashion among commentators these days? The hate group watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center has defined the alt-right as “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.” Those who identify with it abhor “establishment conservatives” as much as they do feminism, the left, African-American groups, and other progressive movements.
In a self-explanatory guide to alt-right beliefs published on Breitbart in March 2016, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos said the movement sees culture and race as inseparable and believes “full integration” of races is impossible. “[S]ome degree of separation between peoples,” alt-righters believe, “is necessary for a culture to be preserved.” The article references, without criticism, Richard Spencer as one of the founders of the alt-right trend. The same Richard Spencer who coined the term “alternative Right” back in 2008 and recently said he envisions America’s future along the lines of a “renewed Roman empire,” complete with dictatorship and racial requirements for citizenship.
A former Breitbart editor who had a falling out with Bannon, Ben Shapiro, says that while it’s tough to say what Bannon may believe personally, “he’s happy to pander to the people” that believe “Western culture is inseparable from European ethnicity.” For Bannon, Shapiro says the goal is to “transform conservatism into European far-right nationalist populism.”
That’s what Breitbart is. A “platform” for the alt-right and all of its racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ ideology. And their biggest public figure just became the new chief strategist to the next President of the United States.
Extreme right advances within GOP
The announcement of Bannon as chief strategist and senior counsel to Trump came on the same day as the move of Priebus from the GOP chairmanship to White House chief of staff. But Bannon was named first, and in a city where hierarchy is still an indicator of influence, that matters.
Despite the rallying of many Republicans to the President-elect’s side after his surprise victory over Hillary Clinton, the fact remains that the party is divided between its neoliberal “establishment” wing and the populist base that joined Trump in crushing the other mainline GOP nominees in the primaries.
The Republican Party of course maintains great institutional and electoral strength, as evidenced by its hold over both houses of Congress and the majority of state legislatures and governorships. But the future direction of the party’s development is still an open question. The victory in the 2016 elections in enforcing a temporary ceasefire in that fight, but it will certainly return.
The fact that Bannon received top billing in the pecking order over Priebus is a sign that the most reactionary and neo-fascist segment of the far right is still in the ascendance. Economics and the spoils of power are holding the family together for now. Priebus, Paul Ryan, and others are not criticizing Bannon’s appointment, but neither are they eagerly embracing it. They surely remember his promise to “bitch-slap the Republican Party” back in 2010, as well as his pledge that the alt-right would “hammer” both the “progressive left and the institutional Republican Party.”
These fissures are being tamped down for now, but their strategic importance for resisting the Republican onslaught to come should not be discounted or forgotten.
Bannon’s non-descript job title of chief strategist and senior counsel leaves wide open the question of how extensive his influence and power may be in the Trump administration. Previous holders of such a position have included backroom political operatives like Karl Rove and Dick Morris. Bannon’s background as head of his own propaganda empire, however, suggests he may play an even more outsized ideological role under Trump.
The importance of free and independent media (such as this publication) is likely to become even more crucial as Breitbart transitions from being the voice of the alt-right opposition into a pseudo-state-run propaganda organ. One of Breitbart’s own former spokespersons, Kurt Bardella, has said that the entire outlet is “void of reality and facts.”
Breitbart, he argues, “has gone from being the propaganda arm of the Trump campaign to being the propaganda arm of the federal government and the the Trump White House. That should be concerning to all Americans.” Indeed it should.
As another propagandist-in-chief, Joseph Goebbels, said in the 1930s, “We enter parliament in order to supply ourselves, in the arsenal of democracy, with its own weapons. If democracy is so stupid as to give us free tickets and salaries for this bear’s work, that is its affair. We do not come as friends, nor even as neutrals. We come as enemies. As the wolf bursts into the flock, so we come.”
With the Trump victory, it appears the wolves have burst into the flock.