Last week, when Donald Trump tapped the chairman of Breitbart Media to lead his campaign, he wasn’t simply turning to a trusted ally and veteran propagandist. By bringing on Stephen Bannon, Trump was signaling a wholehearted embrace of the “alt-right,” a once-motley assemblage of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, ethno-nationalistic provocateurs who have coalesced behind Trump and curried the GOP nominee’s favor on social media. In short, Trump has embraced the core readership of Breitbart News.
“We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon told me proudly when I interviewed him at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in July. Though disavowed by every other major conservative news outlet, the alt-right has been Bannon’s target audience ever since he took over Breitbart News from its late founder, Andrew Breitbart, four years ago. Under Bannon’s leadership, the site has plunged into the fever swamps of conservatism, cheering white nationalist groups as an “eclectic mix of renegades,” accusing President Barack Obama of importing “more hating Muslims,” and waging an incessant war against the purveyors of “political correctness.”
“Andrew Breitbart despised racism. Truly despised it,” former Breitbart editor-at-large Ben Shapiro wrote last week on the Daily Wire, a conservative website. “With Bannon embracing Trump, all that changed. Now Breitbart has become the alt-right go-to website, with [technology editor Milo] Yiannopoulos pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”
Exactly who and what defines the alt-right is hotly debated in conservative circles, but its most visible proponents—who tend to be young, white, and male—are united in a belief that traditional movement conservatism has failed. They often criticize immigration policies and a “globalist” agenda as examples of how the deck is stacked in favor of outsiders instead of “real Americans.” They bash social conservatives as ineffective sellouts to the GOP establishment, and rail against neo-conservative hawks for their embrace of Israel. They see themselves as a threat to the establishment, far bolder and edgier than Fox News. While often tapping into legitimate economic grievances, their social-media hashtags (such as #altright on Twitter) dredge up torrents of racist, sexist, and xenophobic memes.
Trump’s new campaign chief denies that the alt-right is inherently racist. He describes its ideology as “nationalist,” though not necessarily white nationalist. Likening its approach to that of European nationalist parties such as France’s National Front, he says, “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. It’s more identity toward a nation-state or their people as a nation.” (Never mind that National Front founder Jean Marie Le Pen has been fined in France for “inciting racial hatred.”)
Bannon dismisses the alt-right’s appeal to racists as happenstance. “Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe,” he says. “Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe. Right? Maybe some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right? But that’s just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements.”
A Twitter analysis conducted by The Investigative Fund using Little Bird software found that these “elements” are more deeply connected to Breitbart News than more traditional conservative outlets. While only 5 percent of key influencers using the supremacist hashtag #whitegenocide follow the National Review, and 10 percent follow the Daily Caller, 31 percent follow Breitbart. The disparities are even starker for the anti-Muslim hashtag #counterjihad: National Review, 26 percent; the Daily Caller, 37 percent; Breitbart News, 62 percent.
Bannon’s views often echo those of his devoted followers. He describes Islam as “a political ideology” and Sharia law as “like Nazism, fascism, and communism.” On his Sirius XM radio show, he heaped praise on Pamela Geller, whose American Freedom Defense Initiative has been labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Bannon called her “one of the leading experts in the country, if not the world,” on Islam. And he basically endorsed House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary challenger, businessman Paul Nehlen, who floated the idea of deporting all Muslims from the United States.
During our interview, Bannon took credit for fomenting “this populist nationalist movement” long before Trump came on the scene. He credited Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)—a Trump endorser and confidant who has suggested that civil rights advocacy groups were “un-American” and “Communist-inspired”—with laying the movement’s groundwork. Bannon also pointed to his own films, which include a Sarah Palin biopic and an “exposé” of the Occupy movement, as “very nationalistic films.” Trump, he said, “is very late to this party.”
At Breitbart News, one of the most strident voices for the alt-right has been Yiannapolous, who was banned by Twitter during the RNC for inciting a racist pile-on of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. Published back in March, his “Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt Right” featured an illustration of a frog taunting an elephant—the frog image being a meme white supremacists had popularized on social media. The piece praised the anti-immigrant site VDare, the white nationalist site American Renaissance, and white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, as the alt-right’s “dangerously bright” intellectual core.
On the RNC’s opening day, Yiannapolous spoke at a “Citizens for Trump” rally. He also co-hosted a party featuring anti-Muslim activist Geller and the Dutch far-right nationalist politician Geert Wilders. Yiannopolous has proved to be Breitbart‘s most vitriolic anti-Muslim presence, erasing the distinction many conservatives draw between Islam and “radical Islam.” After the Orlando shootings, Yiannopolous told Bannon on his weekly radio show that “there is a structural problem with this religion that is preventing its followers from assimilating properly into Western culture. There is something profoundly antithetical to our values about this particular religion.”
Bannon has stoked racist themes himself, notably in a lengthy July post accusing the “Left” of a “plot to take down America” by fixating on police shootings of black citizens. He argued that the five police officers slain in Dallas were murdered “by a #BlackLivesMatter-type activist-turned-sniper.” And he accused the mainstream media of an Orwellian “bait-and-switch as reporters and their Democratic allies and mentors seek to twist the subject from topics they don’t like to discuss—murderers with evil motives—to topics they do like to discuss, such as gun control.” Bannon added, “[H]ere’s a thought: What if the people getting shot by the cops did things to deserve it? There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent.”
Some Breitbart staffers who resisted the site’s transformation into a pro-Trump alt-right hub eventually resigned in protest. Several jumped ship after Corey Lewandowski, then Trump’s campaign manager, manhandled Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields at a rally. (The site appeared to side with Lewandowski, and staffers were reportedly told not to question his account.) Among the departing staffers were Fields, who now writes for the Huffington Post, and Shapiro, who has emerged as one of Breitbart‘s most vociferous conservative critics.
On Thursday, in the Washington Post, Shapiro upped the ante, describing the alt-right as a “movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism,” and Breitbart News as “a party organ, a pathetic cog in the Trump-Media Complex and a gathering place for white nationalists.” The reception he and another conservative Jewish Breitbart critic, Bethany Mandel, have experienced in the Bannonosphere is revealing: In May, when Shapiro, who became editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire after leaving Breitbart, tweeted about the birth of his second child, he received a torrent of anti-Semitic tweets. “Into the gas chamber with all 4 of you,” one read. Another tweet depicted his family as lampshades. Mandel says she has been harassed on Twitter for months, “called a ‘slimy Jewess’ and told that I ‘deserve the oven.'”
After Shapiro called out the anti-Semitism, Breitbart News published (under the byline of Pizza Party Ben) a post ridiculing Shapiro for “playing the victim on Twitter and throwing around allegations of anti-Semitism and racism, just like the people he used to mock.”
Back at the RNC, Bannon dismissed Shapiro as a “whiner…I don’t think that the alt-right is anti-Semitic at all,” he told me. “Are there anti-Semitic people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. Are there racist people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. But I don’t believe that the movement overall is anti-Semitic.”
In any case, Breitbart‘s conservative dissenters are fearful of what the Trump-Bannon alliance might bring. As Mandel puts it, “There’s no gray area here: Bannon is a bad guy. And he now has control of a major campaign for president.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Additional reporting was done by Kalen Goodluck, Josh Harkinson, and Jaime Longoria.