Three and a half years after he inherited Andrew Breitbart’s right-wing media fiefdom, Steve Bannon finally proved himself a worthy heir: he bet against Bloomberg Businessweek’s ability to read and won.
“Steve Bannon runs the new vast right-wing conspiracy,” ran the subhead to that week’s cover story, “and he wants to take down both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.”
Bannon, now months deep into his new role as chief executive of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, had, at the time, been nurturing an ostensibly nonpartisan, nonprofit research group, the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), into a perverse mirror image of ProPublica.
Clinton Cash, written by GAI’s lead investigator and president Peter Schweizer and published by HarperCollins, had already been subject to a New York Times front-page exposé. The nonprofit had even partnered with Newsweek, ABC News, and 60 Minutes on research-intensive scoops. That October, with the impending publication of Schweizer’s Bush Bucks, the team at Bloomberg had been somehow induced to believe that GAI was “as eager to go after establishment Republicans such as Boehner or Jeb Bush as Democrats like Clinton.”
But it wasn’t true. At twenty pages of actual text and about 120 footnotes — less than ten of which were primary source documents remotely indicative of original reporting — Schweizer’s Bush Bucks was more term paper than tome. By page count, it was one full order of magnitude less labor-intensive than the 256-page Clinton Cash.
Worse still: Bloomberg’s Joshua Green knew this, or should have — he reports that he had “obtained” an advance copy. (Green did not reply to requests for comment.)
Just as his predecessor — the late outrage hustler Andrew Breitbart — had infamously “hacked the media,” a quintessentially amoral framing courtesy of Wired, Bannon had gotten the exact coverage he wanted simply by daring professional reporters to do their jobs.
Back in 2009, Breitbart launched his libertarian title Big Government on the back of an explosive, but thoroughly dishonest, hidden-camera sting. He had simultaneously released full, unedited transcripts of those undercover videos. These publicly available transcripts so completely contradicted the claims professed by Big Government that its story, and the site itself, ought to have been dead within a week. And yet for months, no one — not CNN, not the New York Times, not MSNBC, not even the Daily Show — had the time or the resources to bother.
The elevation of Breitbart’s unique brand of lightweight, gossamer junk to the status of national news tells — in part — the story of what gets dredged up by the low-friction vacuum of journalism’s protracted financial collapse. By tapping Bannon, Trump not only acquired a reliable conduit to Breitbart’s unruly community of libertarians, paleoconservatives, and alt-right brown shirts. He also acquired access to the GAI’s well-financed lawyers, data scientists, and forensic investigators — an opposition machine that the cash-strapped majors in the news media have already proven desperate to cut deals with.
But just as importantly, the rise of Breitbart’s media network also tells the story of petit-bourgeois ideological entrepreneurship, fueled by white-hot, fame-hungry, and not especially consonant feelings of class angst, and the haute-bourgeois venture capital that it so easily located.
A city without history — built on real-estate fraud, religious cults, and fantasy at the terminus of Western civilization — Los Angeles has produced its own breed of messiah-bullies for the American right.
Before serving jail time for felony convictions of conspiracy, honest services fraud, and tax evasion, disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff wrestled for the team at Beverly Hills High, picked on local nerds, and at one point destroyed the cello of future public radio food critic Jonathan Gold.
Abramoff worked in Hollywood for a decade, a career that culminated in the production of a 1980s action movie, Red Scorpion, intended to praise the CIA-funded Angolan mercenary Jonas Savimbi. (South Africa’s apartheid regime generously financed the film, which made back about a quarter of its $16 million budget.)
Before running the Internet’s first widely trafficked news and gossip tip sheet, Matt Drudge worked in Hollywood too — at the CBS gift shop in Television City. Andrew Breitbart was an early subscriber to Drudge’s email newsletter, soon enough becoming a Drudge Report employee.
Breitbart was a Brentwood brat, the adopted son of restauranteurs whose English-style steakhouse, Fox & Hounds, had been popular with California’s actor-cum-governor Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. In 1991, Breitbart returned to his hometown after four inebriated years at Tulane University in New Orleans, with nothing to show for it but an American Studies degree and a newly purchased Saab convertible.
He soon scared up a low-paying gig driving scripts around Los Angeles, where — alienated by the shift on KROQ from eighties post-punk, like Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order, to what he called the “whiny, suicidal freaks” of Seattle grunge — Breitbart began his life-changing love affair with right-wing talk radio.
Captivated by Rush Limbaugh, inching along in traffic between “every single Hollywood office of note,” according to his memoir, “including Michael Ovitz’s, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s, and Michael Eisner’s,” he found, “the professor I always wanted, but never had the privilege to study under.”
Nearby, but in another world entirely, former Goldman Sachs investment banker Steve Bannon was negotiating the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to media mogul Ted Turner. Bannon took his payment in the form of royalties to five untested sitcoms, including Seinfeld. The gamble wound up funding his foray into conservative documentary filmmaking circa 2004, inevitably drawing him into Breitbart’s orbit.
Individually, all of these men experienced as a visceral, unmediated reality what many of their future acolytes merely experienced as disaffected consumers: a deep-seated and ineffable alienation from the products of the entertainment industry.
As kids, Breitbart and his childhood friend Larry Solov — his future legal counsel and currently the president and CEO of Breitbart News Network — were once repeatedly pelted with tennis balls by blockbuster action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reportedly cackled as they huddled in the corner of the court weeping.
It seemed that proximity (so close and yet so far from the levers of fame, glamor, and wealth) had magnified the psychic sting everyone feels: the average American’s general state of Hollywood media bombardment, with its lens-greasing insinuation of perfection — physical, ethical, even spiritual — broadcast into every available market. Proximity ignited engines of rage in these men, genuine reactionary responses.
Weirdly, this resentment made Andrew Breitbart kind of a big deal within Los Angeles’s creative underclass.
“Every noncelebrity journalist in Los Angeles sort of hung out together,” according to the Daily Beast’s executive editor Noah Shachtman, one of those noncelebrity journalists at the time. “That’s how Breitbart knows everyone.”
In 1997, at Drudge’s recommendation, a then-conservative pundit named Arianna Huffington poached Breitbart to help put together her proto-Huffington Post, called Arianna Online. He became her director of research and worked from an almost unbelievably hermetic office inside her vast personal study, up a spiral staircase, hidden behind a bookshelf and a large wooden door, that was itself masked by a painting of two Venetian cardinals.
“She would have admired his work as the West Coast editor of Drudge Report,” another contemporary from Los Angeles’s journalism diaspora, Sploid founder and one-time Wonkette owner Ken Layne says. “That kind of minimalist blogging — just choosing links and writing a great headline and placing it on the page — is a real art form, and there’s maybe a dozen people who do it well.”
(If you have a taste for this medium, these examples from Breitbart’s time at Drudge make the case as well as any: “George Michael admits losing dignity with toilet arrest” and “Bob Dole is now owner of Lewinsky’s condominium at the posh Watergate.”)
Breitbart’s success grew with the rising tide. As Drudge’s traffic exploded in the wake of several eye-catching scoops — including the first word of the Lewinsky scandal and the disclosure of Jerry Seinfeld’s belligerent million-dollar-per-episode ultimatum — Breitbart found ways to monetize the relationship. Breitbart.com launched in 2005 as a site that aggregated and published news directly from the wire services, AP, Reuters, and others, generating ad revenue off the inbound hyperlinks from Drudge.
Breitbart had also co-written a nonfiction book, Hollywood Interrupted, with a hardworking entertainment-industry muckraker and Spy magazine alum named Mark Ebner. A well-reported but conceptually muddy attempt at updating Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, the book codified Breitbart’s conservative politics in relation to the entertainment industry’s self-evident sins: its debauchery, its depravity, its profligacy, its aimless and vain do-gooderism, its hypocrisy, its shallow obsession with broad demographic consensus both in semantics and in etiquette (also known as political correctness).
Crucially — with the disembodied voice of Professor Rush riding shotgun in his Saab — Breitbart located these ills not alongside the straightforward commercial imperatives obviously driving them, but beside something else that they only superficially resembled. Namely, “Liberalism”: libidinous, excessive, loosey-goosey.
Discursively, these right-wing theories on cultural perversion hardly began with Breitbart. They echoed rhetoric whose origin lay somewhere beyond the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunts that led inexorably to the Hollywood blacklist, somewhere even beyond the Third Reich’s obsession with Max Nordau and his theory of “degenerate art.”
But what Breitbart had innovated was a potent recalibration of this argument into a Gen-X argot steeped in pop-culture garbage, distraction media, and HR-department corporate kitsch. For all that rot crowding the surface of American cultural life, and also for some really brilliant and genuinely transgressive art — basically for anything that ran counter to the sensibility of a certain malcontent suburban white male — Breitbart offered a new diagnosis.
He called it the “Democrat-Media Complex” in his memoir, but what stuck was his sneering and repeated appropriation of “the Progressive Left.”
A famously bad student — with minimal interest in intellectual coherence but with the conviction of a cornered animal — Breitbart began building this argument on the fly in whatever medium (panel show, radio phone-in, blog post, book deal) made available to him.
Breitbart’s first foray into group blogging was, naturally, Big Hollywood in 2008. But he didn’t fully emerge from the shadows of his old collaborators, Huffington and Drudge, until the fall of 2009, when he launched Big Government off the propulsive energy of James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles’s hidden-camera “sting” against the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
For years, ACORN’s successful get-out-the-vote efforts had brought it into the crosshairs of Republican campaign apparatchiks who saw the organization as an acute threat: a demographically advantageous increase in voter turnout, particularly among minorities and the poor, that largely favored their Democratic opponents.
The depth, convolution, and spuriousness of the accusations thrown at ACORN in the wake of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory primed many conservatives for this deceptively packaged footage.
But ironically, it only dimly informed the production of the videos themselves. O’Keefe said in his memoir Breakthrough that he barely knew anything about ACORN prior to the operation, other than harboring “a deep suspicion” based on one news clip of Baltimore ACORN activists protesting unfair banking practices by squatting in foreclosed homes.
Giles copped to the same level of ignorance on Hannity, telling Fox News viewers, “We didn’t know about them before we came up with the idea, really.”
In his own memoir, Righteous Indignation, Breitbart also confessed to a cavalier disengagement with the subject:
In June 2009, I didn’t know much about the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). My attitude toward it was a generic conservative’s attitude: I knew that the lack of interest the mainstream media were showing in ACORN — especially with all the accusations leveled against it regarding its illegal voter fraud and ties with the Democratic Party — meant that there had to be something really, truly horrific about it.
To put the level of self-reported incompetence into context here, a LexisNexis search of print stories mentioning ACORN produces 4,468 articles from January 2007 to December 2008, right through the presidential race. Of these, 1,737 were published in October 2008 in the run-up to the election, and the majority of those stories dealt with the voter fraud allegations.
It’s little wonder that O’Keefe and Giles were forced to pay $100,000 and $50,000 settlements, respectively, in defamation suits brought against them by an unjustly fired ACORN employee.
When Breitbart released a similarly skewed video of US Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, excerpted from her speech at an NAACP event, he too was forced to settle a defamation suit (albeit posthumously).
Valuable resources have been, could be, and still should be, expended on fact-checking the dense feed of misinformation discharged from Breitbart’s content mill — but journalistic methods have never been one of the salient details explaining the organization’s rise to prominence.
Those salient details have been, in ascending order of importance: Andrew Breitbart’s unique aesthetic of confrontational punditry and the cult of personality it engendered; the effective abandonment of working-class constituencies by both of America’s major political parties accompanied by the diffusion of middle-class, white America’s economic frustrations into scapegoats; and a long-gestating hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Libertarians Charles and David Koch and their billionaire donor’s club which — after three decades of deliberate chess moves, primarily in the form of bad-faith charitable giving — finally bore fruit in the 2010 midterm elections with the Tea Party wave.
The career of Mike Flynn, the man Breitbart tapped to helm Big Government in 2009, almost perfectly demonstrates the confluence of these forces.
Flynn held the lead role at Big Government for three years, continuing on for another four when the role shifted into political editor of Breitbart.com’s newly consolidated web presence, and until his untimely death last June. He was a gleeful confrontationalist well-suited to the Breitbart tonality, whose combat dicta — “always engage” and “always play offense” — were celebrated in at least one obit.
Before joining this right-wing media powerhouse, Flynn worked for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) from 1997–2004, where he served as the director of legislation and policy for five years.
For decades, ALEC has served as the primary mechanism by which the US Chamber of Commerce and the Kochs’ network of corporate interests have diluted federal environmental and labor laws and garnered other concessions.
ALEC routinely drafts “model legislation” for its dim-witted, dues-paying underlings in state houses and local assemblies to dutifully pass into law. During Flynn’s tenure, ALEC managed to pass “truth in sentencing” bills in forty states. This misnamed legislation was codrafted with the massive for-profit prison firm Corrections Corporation of America, which had the morbidly self-interested goal of making it harder for inmates to get parole.
Flynn then spent some time as the director of government affairs for the astroturfing specialists at Berman and Company before returning to the bosom of the Kochs’ nonprofit network, spending two years at the Reason Foundation and then finally joining Breitbart’s nascent media endeavor.
A decade of experience as an advocate for corporate interests in government had exactly the effect one would expect on Mike Flynn’s tenure running a news website. In one telling episode, Flynn’s Big Government ran three anonymously authored hit pieces against the president of the libertarian Cato Insitute, Ed Crane, amid a seemingly accidental, but very bitter, public feud between Crane and his think tank’s paymasters, Charles and David Koch.
Crane had spoken out of turn about Charles Koch’s goofy management-philosophy book to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer under circumstances that he had believed to be off the record. For “anyone who doubts the Kochs are narcissistic enough for that to be a motivating factor,” J. Arthur Bloom had only one question: “What kind of self-respecting billionaire writes a self-help book?”
Obviously, no economics training is required to understand the conflict of interest in letting a career lobbyist run a news organization. In the theory toolkit available to Breitbart’s early Tea Party readers, this would be “common sense.” Flynn’s work as ambassador between self-interested global business elites and career politicians would constitute crony capitalism at its most refined.
Educated libertarian operatives and senior personnel have since had to devise sophisticate rationalizations to alleviate their consciences.
“Serious dissent requires enough money to sustain activists and carry a message to voters,” Eric O’Keefe (no relation to ACORN muckraker James) wrote in his 1999 book Who Rules America: The People vs. The Political Class.
O’Keefe served as the national field coordinator for the Libertarian presidential ticket in 1980, when David Koch ran as the vice presidential nominee, very explicitly in an effort to bring his considerable wealth to bear on the campaign. O’Keefe spent the intervening decades as a quiet architect overseeing the Kochs’ plan to remodel the GOP in their own image.
Though Eric O’Keefe is not a blood relation to James O’Keefe, he was one of the first people that James and Hannah’s lawyer — infamous Senate Watergate counsel, Mike “Mad Dog” Madigan — would reach out to.
Sources close to James O’Keefe confirmed that Eric played a lead role in the management of James’s emergency legal trust. (This information was garnered from emails provided by an anonymous source to both myself and my frequent coreporter on the O’Keefes for Wonkette and Gawker, New York state-licensed private investigator Liz Farkas.)
For Eric O’Keefe, then, private capital plays both a virtuous and necessary role in politics. It provides complex, nuanced, and counterintuitive policy proposals with the robust patronage that they so desperately need to get a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas.
“In business,” he writes in Who Rules America, “entrepreneurs with innovative ideas frequently bring their product to market with the backing of just a few investors . . . Campaign-finance reform, as defined by the elite media and their partners in the seats of power, is a sham that uses high-sounding rhetoric in the service of incumbency protection.”
In other words, for the professional technicians toiling away at the heart of the libertarian right, placing limits on campaign spending is tantamount to gerrymandering. It only aims to protect the tired, establishment politicians from courageous outsiders’ weird and innovative ideas.
This comes from an alternate universe of radical theory, taking a parallax view on the persistent problem of money in politics. In this version, politicians — not wealthy donors — corrupt the system. It takes as axiomatic that all governments, even democratic ones, inevitably trend toward criminality and totalitarianism: a difficult presupposition to challenge in American political life considering the country was founded on it.
This is the kind of carefully crafted intellectual scaffolding upon which Andrew Breitbart and his compatriots have swung, and scaled, and beat their chests. Very real financial and intellectual resources have been devoted to producing an entire corpus of literature to defend and legitimize the gut beliefs of a wealthy group of conservatives, libertarians, and Randian Objectivists.
The dissemination of that literature to a mass audience operates on a highly coded, conscious level that has been partitioned from the preconscious bigotries that it simultaneously excites. This has been a seemingly arduous fact for liberals to properly grasp, but it is no less true for it. People who have been led to believe that they claim a direct lineage to “The Party of Lincoln,” that Soviet Russia manipulated the Civil Rights Movement to undermine America during the Cold War, that the welfare reforms of LBJ’s Great Society legislation were actually just a cynical ploy to purchase blocs of underprivileged voters, and so on, are people who simply cannot be shamed by charges of racism. They earnestly do not consider themselves racists; they perceive the charge as an ad-hominem attack.
Andrew Breitbart’s confrontational style leaned into these hostile reactions and recognizeding the value of negative press.
When the establishment media attacks “a Hannah Giles, or a James O’Keefe,” he once boasted to Politico, “it only weaponizes them . . . And that’s the reason they have a smile on their face — they know that they now have a platform. They’re not shying away from their notoriety here.”
At the time, Breitbart had high hopes that he could somehow mass-produce the success he garnered by stumbling on O’Keefe and Giles. “My business model is I want to be a talent scout,” he told Politico during that same conversation. “I want to be an American Idol for weaponized freedom fighters.”
Unfortunately for Breitbart, it was not meant to be. Savvier ideological entrepreneurs cut him out.
James O’Keefe also wanted to stake out a position as “talent scout,” and, according to individuals formerly affiliated with his competing venture, Eric O’Keefe supplied the initial salaries for James’s “citizen journalism” group, Project Veritas. Then serving as the president and CEO of the Tea Party astroturfer the Sam Adams Alliance, Eric installed a former employee, Izzy Santa, as Project Veritas’s first executive director.
“You’d be great at this,” another Sam Adams board member, Denis Calabrese, reportedly told Santa. “We need someone to control James.”
This is how Project Veritas became the first stop for every aspiring hidden camera stunt-artist, fresh out of the College Republicans. His brand was selected; Breitbart’s was passed over.
When Brietbart passed away in March 2012, many wondered whether or not his organization could survive. His larger-than-life presence, his proficiency in cable-news optics, his Barnum-like ability to pull off promotional stunts (like hijacking Anthony Weiner’s press conference at the height of his sexting scandal): all of these qualities left many with the illusion that Andrew Breitbart was the animating force behind Breitbart News.
In reality, Andrew Breitbart was more like an ad-agency creative director — adept at getting his client’s message maximal attention, but ultimately replaceable. He primarily functioned as a passionate conduit between the media contacts he had built up during his early years in Los Angeles and the luxuriously financed political operatives who were hoping to place their narratives in the mainstream news cycle.
A quieter Breitbart News emerged from the demise of their loudmouth standard-bearer, one that its opponents found blessedly (but deceptively) easier to ignore.
Get Real Paid
It’s possible that the Brexit referendum would have played out in nearly the same fashion as it did last June even if Breitbart hadn’t opened its London offices in February 2014. Even so, expanding the media organization in an alliance with Britain’s nativist wing would have remained a shrewd tactical maneuver for Steve Bannon. As with Big Government’s ability to serve as an intermediary between right-wing political operatives and Tea Party audiences, Breitbart London could occupy a similar nexus at a similarly critical time.
“In London,” the New York Times reported, “Breitbart News Network hopes to support a nascent European Tea Party before parliamentary elections in May.”
Funding this expansion was some $10 million in outside investment Andrew Breitbart garnered in 2011 — less than a year before an unexpected heart attack would end his life.
One of the two investors was rumored to be an eccentric, Islamophobic tech billionaire, Aubrey Chernick, who had previously backed the conservative PJ Media blog network. Chernick had befriended Breitbart while also living in Brentwood, in a stately Mandeville Canyon mansion one visitor described as secured behind “a gate that looks a little bit like the gate in King Kong.”
These investments kept Breitbart News above water for years, operating like an even more opaque version of the dark-money patronage system that propped up its nonprofit allies. Conservative new-media journalism ventures being — just like all new-media journalism ventures — hopelessly unprofitable, Breitbart’s websites had claimed shockingly paltry revenue, somewhere between one dollar and one million dollars. As Fortune noted, this shortfall represented a critical failure to monetize the sites’ twenty million page views per month.
But business plans matter less when you are someone else’s business expense.
Breitbart London’s first managing editor and its future editor in chief, Raheem Kassam, was hired away from the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society: a UK think tank whose early signatories included members of George W. Bush’s Iraq War brain trust (former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, his former Defense Department subordinate Bruce P. Jackson, and some imperial cheerleaders from the late neocon think tank Project for a New American Century, including Bill Kristol and Clifford May).
The society’s goals during Kassam’s four years within the group appear to have been to ratchet up public anxieties about Islamic radicals at home and to lobby for new regime-change adventures abroad.
At some point, a London-based college newspaper caught Kassam running a sham student group, Student Rights, out of the Henry Jackson Society’s offices. Through Student Rights, Kassam would pressure local universities to disinvite Muslim speakers, while simultaneously defending the free-speech rights of the extreme xenophobes of the British National Party.
Kassam — a Westminster-educated son of Indian Muslim immigrants — is a very weird young man who has had an outsize impact on British politics despite being too marginal and obscure for Wikipedia to let him write an entry about himself.
In a move presaging Bannon’s career change this summer, Kassam stepped down from Breitbart London in October 2014 to become a senior adviser to Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Mission unaccomplished — Farage failed once again to secure a parliamentary seat in the May 2015 general election — Kassam returned to his old day job as editor in chief of Breitbart London like, for example, a crony capitalist through a revolving door.
There — with Bannon’s aggressive support and over the objections of some of the site’s editors, including rising star Milo Yiannopoulos — Kassam began using the vertical as a mouthpiece for the most virulently anti-immigration and pro-Brexit wing of the fractured UKIP party.
“It’s a known thing,” the party’s former media leader Alexandra Phillips told BuzzFeed, “especially when you speak to young UKIP activists; Raheem and Breitbart are the best tool. In terms of internal communications it’s become a great force, in terms of party infighting.”
Though Roger Ailes perhaps first pioneered this vulgar synergy — with Television News Incorporated in the 1970s and then again with Fox News in the 1990s — Breitbart appears to have been the first to successfully adapt the model to new media. Plausibly deniable and demonically effective, Breitbart News has become an only ostensibly independent organization, operating in practice as the for-profit communications wing of various political campaigns.
Bannon accepted a commission from billionaire TD Ameritrade founder and Chicago Cubs owner Joe Rickets to produce a series of documentary-style commercials featuring disillusioned Obama voters who were planning to support Romney in the 2012 election. Rickets also funded Eric O’Keefe’s electioneering nonprofit projects, like his “Campaign for Primary Accountability” Super PAC.
Last year, Breitbart News received substantial funding from Long Island–based hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who has donated upwards of $15 million to conservative groups since 2012. (It was happy, satisfied customer Mercer, and his daughter Rebekah, who reportedly pushed for Trump to hire Bannon as his new campaign chief.)
More recently, and most significantly for the general election, four anonymous sources, three of them Breitbart employees, told BuzzFeed that Donald Trump’s campaign itself had “provided undisclosed financial backing to the outlet in exchange for glowing coverage.” One source explicitly described it as a “pay-for-play” relationship, with written contracts. When he resigned last March, Breitbart’s national security correspondent Jordan Schachtel said the site had transformed into “something resembling an unaffiliated media Super PAC for the Trump campaign.”
Regular visitors to Breitbart.com might be surprised to learn the full extent of the site’s shady operations: a gray-market information bazaar with so many countervailing grifts and mercenary positions as to render the routine questions of journalistic bias quaint by comparison.
It’s not even clear that Stephen Bannon thinks Donald Trump would actually make for a good president. As he described it to former NPR executive Ken Stern, writing for Vanity Fair, Trump is “a blunt instrument for us,” adding, “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”
But what is “it” for Bannon?
He gave a clue on February 10, 2014, when he showed up at the New York Meeting, a gathering of wealthy New York conservative donors and gadflies (and pseudonymous interlopers like myself). Addressing a large ballroom — and an unarchived livestream — Bannon listed with lucidity and precision the economic havoc being wrought on news organizations, citing the past two years of quarterly reports for the New York Times, the dismal 2013 sale of the Boston Globe (purchased for $70 million after commanding over $1 billion in 1993), and other miseries.
He strongly suggested that his audience read Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, a well-reviewed dystopian disquisition on advances in machine learning and automation, as argued by two senior MIT professors. The book focuses on what Bannon called “the financial carnage to come” as these innovations precipitate massive waves of unemployment and unrest.
Bannon warned that “there are more tears shed for answered prayers than unanswered” and worried about a likely “implosion” of the conservative movement’s supposed foes in “the mainstream media.” He expressed concern for greater class divisions as legitimate, cost-intensive news further retreats behind paywalls.
“Culturally,” he said, “you won’t have organs in the arts, in culture, in politics, that can be centers and institutions that can actually contextualize information for people; that it’ll be more USA Today, or kinda very simplistic stuff, and not high ‘value added.’”
For Bannon, then, “it” is the inevitable populist revolt brought on by the increasing disposability of human beings in the labor market, the cultural fallout from this revolt, and (implicitly) his desire to steer the ensuing chaos in line with his right-wing ideological precepts.
One arguable barometer of his success (apart from usurping a lead role in the Republican Party’s campaign for the presidency, of course) is the surprising extent to which liberal writers have helped Breitbart News write the Left out of recent populist history.
The Breitbart philosophy revolves around the core belief that a wildly corrupt ruling class, of both parties, has abandoned American workers in favor of policies that line its own pockets and the pockets of corporate interests. And its white-hot anger stems from how the leading institutions of American life have engineered all sorts of arrangements hostile to American workers: trade deals that favor the interest of large multinational companies over American workers, open-border policies that serve the needs of agro-businesses at the expense of low-wage Americans, and, more generally, a set of globalist policies that support transnational business interests without regard for the deteriorating status and position of middle America . . . .
For Bannon, it is not magnificent Apple making America the model of innovation, but, as he said to me, “fucking Apple, making iPhones with slave labor.” That view of American corporations is in vogue these days, but Bannon and Breitbart were not only ahead of the curve, they helped invent the curve.
How this argument managed to reach publication speaks volumes about the current political moment, thirty years past the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council and its laissez-faire corporatist New Democrats, and eight years into the post-partisan technocratic rhetoric of the Obama era.
It is as if a ragtag coalition of labor organizers, environmental activists, anarchists, and New Left holdovers never waged the 1999 “Battle of Seattle.” It’s as if Wall Street had never been occupied.
The entire careers of certain public intellectuals and the whole lifespans of several progressive publications and NGOs appear to have just slipped past Ken Stern during those nine years he served as executive vice president and then CEO of National Public Radio.
Without providing credit and seemingly by osmosis, Bannon has managed to absorb and redeploy many of the Left’s critiques of neoliberal corruption for a right-leaning populist audience. Bannon and Schweizer’s documentary adaptation of Clinton Cash, for example, namedrops Naomi Klein’s concept of “disaster capitalism.” When Bannon described the target of Breitbart.com’s outrage and scrutiny, he quoted practically chapter and verse from Baffler founder Thomas Frank’s opening arguments in The Wrecking Crew. Bannon’s version goes:
We tend to look at this imperial city of Washington, this boom town as [having] two groups or two parties that represent the insiders’ commercial party — and that is a collection of insider deals, insider transactions, and a budding aristocracy that has made this the wealthiest city in the country.
In a talk for the Third International Conference on Human Dignity, organized by a Christian NGO called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, Bannon railed against a “form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and — really — Judeo-Christian beliefs.”
His argument almost could have been cribbed from Slavoj Žižek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf. Bannon explicitly defined two strands of this supposedly new and perverted form of capitalism, distinct from “enlightened capitalism.” First, the “state-sponsored capitalism” found in repressive regimes like China; second, the “Ayn Rand or the Objectivist school of libertarian capitalism.”
Ignoring for a moment some of the more obvious historical inaccuracies in the argument (slavery and child labor were both indignities brought on by so-called enlightened capitalism, for example), this rhetoric is naturally too steeped in class anger for the tastes of Charles and David Koch — or their lieutenants like Eric O’Keefe — who have since abandoned the Trump campaign, Bannon, and Breitbart News for safer terrain.
Charles Koch famously told the press last March that he thinks Hillary Clinton would be “in some ways” preferable to any of the potential Republican nominees. And Eric O’Keefe became so active in the #NeverTrump faction of the GOP that he created Delegates Unbound, which opened an office at the RNC to educate Trump’s pledged delegates about their procedural right to “vote their conscience” over primary voters’ will.
Thus, under Bannon’s tenure and facilitated by new patrons and new allies, Breitbart News pivoted away from the Medicis of libertarian politics. (Arguably, Breitbart himself laid the groundwork for this shift much earlier, when he launched the Big Peace vertical in 2010 with its wall-to-wall, hot-house atmosphere of Islamophobic paranoia.)
Beyond wealthy kooks like Aubrey Chernick and Robert Mercer, a man who personally financed a million-dollar ad campaign against the “Ground Zero Mosque”; beyond the neoconservative Middle East hawks of the Henry Jackson Society; beyond Trump and the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has catapulted him to the top of the Republican ticket, there was also Mostafa El-Gindy, Brietbart News’s DC landlord, an Egyptian businessman and former MP with an axe to grind against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Without mentioning their landlord–tenant relationship, Breitbart allowed El-Gindy to use its site as a platform to speak as a “a leading opposition figure” on Obama’s policies in Egypt. Given the natural opacity of privately held, for-profit corporations, it is difficult to know just how many more of these convenient arrangements are currently keeping the media organization afloat.
And while there are genuine questions about whether Bannon shares his benefactors’ alarmist views on radical Islam — one Breitbart apostate, Ben Shapiro, for instance, has categorized Bannon as merely “an aggressive self-promoter” of “unending ambition” — such questions are surely superseded by how aggressively Bannon has been arguing for these beliefs.
“It’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” Bannon told that audience at the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, “and I think this war is metastasizing.”
Explicitly evoking the Catholic concept of the church militant, Bannon said that Western, Judeo-Christian civilizations must unify, steeling themselves for this looming global conflict. As many of the Breitbart exiles who opposed Trump would later tell the Guardian, “Bannon aggressively pushed stories against immigrants and supported linking minorities to terrorism and crime.”
During this new regime, the site compared Pamela Geller’s “Draw Mohammed Cartoon Contest” to the civil rights march in Selma. It produced a video praising an anti-Sharia-law bill in South Carolina. It published a ridiculous piece by a longtime immigration opponent arguing that “Muslim rape culture” and “honor killings” were somehow “integral to Islam as taught in the Koran and the Hadith.”
In short order — as if merely pairing nationalist bigotry with socialist rhetoric were an incantation — this new focus at Breitbart summoned the “meme magic” neo-Nazi occultists of the alt-right like a clarion call.
In an internecine feud as large as the Republican Party’s total structural collapse, many obscure constituencies and militant sects can rise to prominence without any one of them holding significant political power.
The hopeless and disparate heterogeneity of these groups made “the alt-right” their popular descriptor. It echoes, precisely and intentionally, the catchall use of “alternative” in the 1990s music industry: empty suits who collectively could not be bothered to differentiate (say) hardcore punk from industrial, jangle pop from shoegaze, antifolk from noise rock, and countless other niche genres from the countless other niche genres out of which hit singles were then emerging.
But still: broad statistical generalizations about the alt-right can be made, thanks to research conducted by the Washington Post, with tools developed by Indiana University’s Network Science Institute. Using the school’s Observatory on Social Media, the Post studied the exploding use of #AltRightMeans in the days surrounding Hillary Clinton’s first public criticism of the group this August.
Their research discovered that the most influential Twitter users during this campaign were four fully grown men — not the boy kings of 4chan that the alt-right is so often imagined to be — Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich), a California attorney, men’s rights activist, and opportunistic Gamergate defender; Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet), an editor at Alex Jones’s Infowars; the self-described “Islam and terrorism expert” Jared Wyand (@JaredWyand); and a random guy from California (@magnifier661).
But, perhaps most significantly, the data-mining and consumer-profiling firm Demographics Pro determined, from this same data set, that the vast majority of #AltRightMeans tweets originated from accounts held by “married white men between forty and sixty years old.” In other words, late-phase Baby Boomers and first-wave Gen X-ers, disgruntled “anti-PC” dudes from the same demographic as Andrew Breitbart: men who very much remember the dream of the nineties.
These men do not match the description of the alt-right that has captured the popular imagination.
Entering journalism at a time when budgets no longer exist, many millennial-aged reporters have found themselves covering online communities, message boards, and social media subcultures with the disciplined regularity of beat reporters. Without sufficient awareness of just how limited and subjective this form of reporting is, they have expended a lot of anxiety in the belief that the alt-right represents a terrifying new dawn of youthful, internet-savvy fascism.
Guts have been wrenched in certain sectors of the media (see, for example, Fusion, New York magazine’s Select/All, Bloomberg, and the Daily Beast, among others) over the threatening idea that the alt-right might make white nationalism and fascism “cool.” As the Daily Dot pointed out, many Breitbart readers and critics, largely unschooled in the junk drawer of far-right ideologies that comprise the original coiners of the term “alternative right,” seem to view it as a “younger, ballsier rejection of the GOP establishment and political correctness as a whole.”
Central to these concerns is mediagenic enfant terrible Milo Yiannopoulos, a Bannon hire poached from the UK tech press during the Breitbart London expansion. The paradox of Yiannopoulos’s right-wing politics and his professed gay, Jewish identity has captivated fans and opponents — a not-atypical role in the conservative media pundit-sphere, served in the past by the likes of Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Larry Elder. Casuistic and glib, Yiannopoulos’s defenses of Gamergaters and the alt-right have been instrumental in drawing attention to these movements, while simultaneously willfully misconstruing their character, and — perhaps most importantly for Yiannopoulos — elevating him from journalist manqué and posh wino to the status of certified public figure.
Several vying definitions of alt-right have been wielded since the term suddenly became a featured player in 2016’s political theater revue. In some contexts, it connotes the young, conservative, and largely male trolls who congregate at sites like 4chan and Reddit; in others, the readers of Breitbart.com, who obviously tend to skew older and who have apparently decided that the alt-right is just the latest iteration of Tea Party insurgency; it may represent any Trump supporter susceptible to racial appeals and strongman demagoguery; or, lastly, the very small cadre of white nationalists who began describing themselves as the alt-right around 2010, when a former executive editor for the libertarian Taki’s magazine named Richard Spencer founded AlternativeRight.com.
This latter group understandably feels a great deal of ownership over the term and shares a queasy ambivalence toward Milo Yiannopoulos for having sold a watered-down “alt-lite” to the GOP base. “If Milo tries to hijack the alt-right,” Spencer said last month, “then I’m going to definitely start to go after him.”
Spencer founded AlternativeRight.com, and its successor Radix Journal, to erect a sturdy intellectual scaffold for fascism, designed to rival those found in academia for Marxist thought.
Grounded in cutting-edge racial pseudoscience (as one of the site’s inaugural essays put it, “we see Western civilization as a unique product of the European gene pool”) AlternativeRight.com hoped to build a community and a school of thought around its core postulates of “race realism” and “human biodiversity.”
The site has traced its own ideological historiography to figures like Italian occultist and radical traditionalist Julius Evola; American lawyer and tireless, globe-trotting advocate for a postwar fascist international, Francis Parker Yockey; and Oswald Spengler, the same German historian who Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels misread and then adopted as an intellectual leading light.
Given the matrix of political positions espoused by the site, AlternativeRight.com quickly became a lodestone for many partially overlapping far-right constituencies, ranging from men’s rights activists (natural fans of Evola’s gender essentialism) to the right-wing anticapitalists of European-style Third Positionism (true national socialists in the most literal sense of the term). It has also provided a platform for adherents to the expressly antiegalitarian and antidemocratic “neoreactionary” movement: its philosophical forebear Nick Land once described democracy as “not merely doomed” but “doom itself.”
Terrifying as this coalition seems, it bears repeating how niche it really is. Their reach in terms of Twitter followers for both Richard Spencer and Radix Journal (about 17,700 and 10,300 respectively) is dwarfed by other prominent figures and movements: DeRay Mckesson (561,000), Free the Nipple (173,000), the ASPCA (340,000), and Dr Steven Greer of the Disclosure Project (47,300), a pressure group seeking government transparency on UFOs, aliens, and free energy technology.
In fact, an otherwise alarmist study by the analytics firm New Knowledge only managed to locate about 27,000 accounts affiliated with the alt-right at all, of which a fractional 3,500–5,225 were espousing violent or otherwise dangerously extremist views. The alt-right is quite literally a political sideshow.
Unlike, say, the Chicago school of economics or militant free-market ideologies in general, not a lot of wealthy patrons are paying to develop this crap into an imposing and professionalized system of knowledge. Unlike even the epistemic projects of conservative Christian groups — intelligent design (let’s say) or gay-gene debunking — not even a broad base of grassroots financial support exists.
More debilitating still, a long-term, fundamental incompatibility separates the alt-right’s aspiring intellectuals and the chaotic Internet trolls and hackers with whom they are allied. The faction attempting to present itself in press conferences and NPR interviews as a benign advocate for “Western culture” — activists no different from any other ethnic special interest group — cannot productively coexist alongside the faction of faceless terrorists who hacked Leslie Jones’s website and stole her nude photos for the high crime of being an African American woman cast in a Ghostbusters reboot.
And yet, this codependent relationship persists, in part, because social media’s horizontal structure and anonymous forums’ culture of offensive one-upsmanship has proven to be one of the few effective mechanisms for expanding the alt-right’s ideas.
Many of the departing old guard from Breitbart News have viewed Yiannopoulos’s and Bannon’s courtship of this radical fringe with alarm and scorn. Former spokesman Kurt Bardella told ABC that Bannon ran the site’s editorial meetings like a “white supremacist rally,” and former editor at large Ben Shapiro described Bannon as having put “a stake through the heart of Andrew’s legacy.” Last month, Shapiro minced no words on Yiannopoulos’s alt-lite apologetics.
“If I can’t tell the difference between your ironic tweet and David Duke’s, that’s your fault,” Shapiro said. “He [Yiannopoulos] is not making fun of racism. It’s clown nose on, clown nose off. It’s basic teenage bullshit by someone who is immature.”
Shapiro’s and Bardella’s confused hair-splitting is understandable, given that the race-baiting rhetoric of Andrew Breitbart’s time was so often couched in a delusional egalitarianism that just happened to also espouse crypto-racist policy positions. Breitbart’s incompetent piece on Shirley Sherrod, for example, was ostensibly intended to be antiracist, an idiotic attempt to expose privileged government bureaucrats like Sherrod as “the real racists.”
But the sad reality is that Bannon’s and Yiannopoulos’s crusade is a logical extension of the project that Breitbart himself began with Hollywood Interrupted over a decade ago.
“There is a war on. And it is a culture war,” Yiannopoulos reminded a whooping RNC crowd at the “Gays for Trump” event last summer.
The founder of the site I now work for, Andrew Breitbart, understood instinctively that politics was downstream from culture. He understood that by the time you’re talking about policy and “free trade” and all the rest of it, you’ve already lost the war. Because the war is fought in culture; the war is fought in academia, in the entertainment industry, and in news.
These are institutions in America — supposedly the freest country in the world — that have been completely occupied by the political left.
When he was alive, Andrew Breitbart spent an inordinate amount of energy fixated on the cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt school — progenitors of the dense critical theories that he struggled with at Tulane — two of whom, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, were German Jewish émigrés who fled Nazi Germany for the sunnier climes of Hollywood.
When Yiannopoulos highlighted fascistic pseudo-intellectuals like Julius Evola, Curtis Yarvin, and Nick Land in his “Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” the belated second shoe fell, years after Andrew Breitbart began suggesting that these exiled Weimar intellectuals playing racquetball with exiled German Expressionist filmmakers had super secretly plotted a successful Marxist coup in America’s cultural institutions.
Point being: a conservatism not grounded in either the free-market absolutism of libertarianism or the stodgy moral posturing of evangelicalism has little ideological space left for mooring. Ultimately, Andrew Breitbart’s dimwit Gen-X Archie Bunker-ism was destined to slide either into a begrudging liberal populism or the alt-right’s full-tilt Kulturkampf.
This, in part, explains why the alt-right has been predominantly a meme-based Internet phenomena, strongly associated with Pepe the Frog, the ironic use of McDonald’s Moon Man, and one caustically offensive Adult Swim show. It explains why Richard Spencer worked so hard to produce an alt-right logo that resembles Pitchfork Media’s old Altered Zones project. And it perhaps explains why many in the alt-right goon squad sport David Lynch haircuts and wear their chill Vaporwave musical tastes on their sleeve (where the swastika ought to be). They see forwarding their policy goals and the “blunt instrument” of the Trump campaign as secondary to their battle for cultural relevance.
The Left shouldn’t worry about this movement’s pitiful attempt to seize the pole position from the American avant-garde. The real danger is that, by raising up the alt-right as not only significant, but emblematic of Trump’s odious constituency, mainstream Democrats only help Bannon and Yiannopoulos provide aspiring demagogues with an bigger platform from which to court disaffected middle-class whites on a national scale.
Unable and unwilling to erode Trump’s populist base with meaningful economic reforms, the Democratic Party has resorted to tarring that base as a deplorable, white-nationalist hoard. They hope that the specter of fascism will scare enough decent conservatives away from the party of Trump. But it’s equally possible that this tactic will encourage a redefinition of the still murky alt-right/alt-lite boundary around the broadest possible substrata of the conservative base.
With both Breitbart and the threatened postelection Trump TV, Bannon is certainly poised to expand his army of the aggrieved. He is looking ahead, steely eyed and well prepared, to a dystopian future of massive unemployment and parochial divisiveness, ready to marshal the energies of any and all downwardly mobile American patriots disenfranchised by neoliberalism’s corporate caucus.
Magazine profiles and public-speaking introductions often point out that Bannon dresses down, offering a laconic, El Duderino-vibe behind which runs the machine-tooled brilliance of a military mind.
“He was constantly telling stories about great warriors of the past, like Attila the Hun, people who had slain empires,” a former president for Universal Pictures and former business acquaintance once said. “It’s one thing to be interested in the triumphs of military history, it’s another thing to obsess over them. Victory at all costs is a dangerous way to look at the world.”
But is that how Bannon views the world?
Here he is in his own words. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon boasted. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”
“I want to bring everything crashing down.”