The headlines read like a dystopian Greatest Hits.
“Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” declares one on Breitbart.com. “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage,” says another. A third warns: “Data: Young Muslims in the West are a ticking time bomb, increasingly sympathizing with radicals, terror.”
In the days after Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon chief strategist of the Trump administration last weekend, alarmed critics rushed to warn people about Breitbart.com, the so-called “alt-right” site Bannon oversaw for four years until becoming the CEO of Trump’s campaign in August. They passed around the most incendiary headlines – ones that trafficked in allegations that Hillary Clinton’s advisor Huma Abedin was likely a Saudi spy, that the conservative pundit Bill Kristol was “a renegade Jew” – and warned that Bannon, if not a personal anti-Semite and a white nationalist, is content to provide a tribune for those toxic strains of American discourse and harness their energy for his own purposes.
Breitbart had already done very well during Trump’s unlikely rise. When the leaders of Washington’s legacy conservative media outlets refused to support the insurgent Republican candidate, the site rushed in to serve a growing Trump tribe, giving them a place to find dependably positive coverage of their candidate and relentless attacks on his Democratic opponent. Traffic exploded from approximately eight-million unique users in October, 2014, according to the ranking service comScore, to more than 19 million last month.
Now, having helped elect a president and vaulted its own former executive chairman into one of the most powerful positions in U.S. politics, the triumphalist Breitbart is poised to become what some have called the Pravda of the Trump White House. And as it solidifies its growing role in U.S. political discourse, the site seems likely to tilt the splintering media landscape further to the right while threatening to choke off other conversations.
Breitbart is not the first media outlet to have a close relationship with a U.S. president. William F. Buckley, the godfather of American conservatism, used his editorship at the National Review to guide his friend Ronald Reagan as Governor of California and, later, in the White House. The New Republic was well read by the Clinton administration. Each of those outlets published not just intellectually hefty long-form features, but also an array of viewpoints.
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Breitbart does neither. Rather, it leverages the vitriolic voice of online trolls and their look-at-me tactics to reinforce the certainty of its followers. Echoing an online ecosystem in which algorithms help ensure people’s beliefs are reinforced and reflected back to them – a phenomenon known as “filter bubbles” – the president-elect may find all he believes he needs to know about the world from Breitbart.com.
Certainly, Trump’s favourite social-media platform will be no help in learning about the world or exposing himself to dissenting views: Of the 41 Twitter accounts the president-elect was following as of Friday morning, 22 are either Trump businesses, Trump family members, or Trump’s political partners; the rest are a scattering of supportive media outlets or individuals such as Drudge Report, Bill O’Reilly, Fox & Friends, and Piers Morgan.
But then, in showing little interest in being exposed to contrary viewpoints, Trump is a kindred spirit of Breitbart’s: Neither brooks opposition nor apologizes.
In the era of Breitbart, even the conservative media’s most glamorous avatars are swiftly punished for being insufficiently loyal: After journalist Megyn Kelly challenged Trump (and his fellow candidates) during a Republican primary debate in the summer of 2015, Bannon penned a snide article for Breitbart that called her “The ‘Eve Harrington’ of Fox News.” The piece suggested Kelly only “first attracted real attention in 2010 when she was photographed in GQ magazine in a risqué nightgown and sexy poses,” and dismissed her as “overrated … cold and calculating.” The comments section exploded into an ugly echo chamber of smears and sexism. When Kelly’s biography was published this week, Trump fans flooded Amazon.com to dent its sales prospects with poor ratings.
Breitbart was born brawling. In 2009, Andrew Breitbart, a protégé of the right-wing blogger Matt Drudge, launched a collection of three sites named after their specific targets: Big Government, Big Journalism and Big Hollywood. He published a series of videos of an apparent sting operation in which the notorious conservative gadfly James O’Keefe went undercover to target the community organization ACORN. And he broke the first story of Congressman Anthony Weiner’s penchant for sharing lurid photos of himself over social media.
In March, 2012, Breitbart died suddenly and the enterprise, newly christened Breitbart.com, was taken over by Bannon. The site invested more resources in original reporting, while Bannon, who served in the U.S. Navy before becoming a mergers and acquisitions specialist at Goldman Sachs, created a separate research organization known as the Government Accountability Institute to fund a collection of books about political targets such as the Clintons and Jeb Bush. According to an October, 2015 profile of Bannon by Bloomberg Business Magazine, GAI brought forward other research that was given to mainstream news outlets such as the New York Times. When those reports were published, Breitbart jumped into the slipstream, feeding its ravenous audience with a rapid-fire series of follow-ups.
But as Trump’s campaign gained traction and Breitbart went all in, a number of staff left the site in disappointment. National security correspondent Jordan Schachtel said it was “no longer a journalistic enterprise, but instead, in my opinion, something resembling an unaffiliated media Super PAC for the Trump campaign.”
Breitbart also became what Bannon described in an interview last July with Mother Jones as “the platform for the alt-right.” Ben Shapiro, another disgruntled former staffer, said the shift had the effect of “pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist meme makers.”
Is the alt-right racist? Last March, Breitbart published what it called, “An establishment conservative’s guide to the alt-right,” a taxonomy of the movement which called its followers “dangerously bright,” and dismissed most of the concerns about racism as overblown. Still, it suggested that many “instinctively feel that once large enough and ethnically distinct enough groups are brought together, they will inevitably come to blows. … Border walls are a much safer option.”
Last April, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog suggested Breitbart had begun “embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas – all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.’”
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But if these ideas are reprehensible to many Americans, Breitbart uses them to attract attention and help dominate the online conversation. In The Attention Merchants, his recent book about the history of media and advertising, Columbia University professor Timothy Wu notes that, in a marketplace where publishers are vying for audiences, “the race will naturally run to the bottom: attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.” Trolls win.
Establishment-backed and more editorially moderate right-leaning outlets such as National Review and Weekly Standard, at risk in this environment of being marginalized by refusing to chase an audience at the margins, are trying to fight back by reframing the alt-right as being beyond the pale of American discourse.
On Monday, the editor of Commentary magazine, John Podhoretz, suggested Bannon was attacking not just those on the left but “collaborationist conservatives. … That’s why the greatest degree of passion on [Breitbart.com] these past two years has been directed not at the Left but rather at Republicans deemed insufficient in their rage against the Left and insufficiently bloodthirsty in their efforts to destroy the Left. They are his kulaks.”
After Twitter booted a number of prominent alt-right figures from its platform on Wednesday, National Review’s Ian Tuttle applauded the move: “Currently, there is a pretty strong consensus in America that if your idea of ‘free speech’ is to say that ‘Hitler didn’t get the job done,’ it might just be okay to ostracize you from polite company. And that consensus is a good thing.”
Carlo Allegri / Reuters/REUTERS
Still, there is soul-searching going on. “Everybody’s going through a little bit of analysis,” said Noah Rothman, the senior online editor of Commentary magazine.
“This election has sort of shown an intellectual conservatism is not always a popular conservatism,” said Kelly Jane Torrance, the deputy managing editor at The Weekly Standard, in a phone interview. “We have to sort of figure out where we still belong, where the ideas really lead.”
It can be difficult to hash out those ideas, though, in an environment where hate snags so much attention. This week, the Forward, a New York-based chronicle of Jewish culture and politics, closed comments on an article that was critical of Bannon, just as it has done on a number of other pieces published in the current political climate.
“We anticipate stories like that are going to attract … people who are going to create a toxic environment, and not have a conversation,” said Jane Eisner, the Forward’s editor in chief.
She added that many journalists have been subjected to online attacks from Trump supporters. “I’ve been in journalism for nearly 40 years, and I’ve never seen this level of harassment,” she said. “I want to stress, we are feeling this as Jewish journalists or journalists writing for Jewish media, but it’s part of a much more toxic kind of rhetoric that was unleashed in this very divisive presidential campaign, and we’re all hoping it will diminish.”
Torrance said she experienced similar attacks when she would do a TV appearance, and, afterward, find her Twitter feed filled with comments about her gender and appearance rather than a desire to engage with her arguments.
And with Trump heading into the White House, shepherded by Bannon, “I do worry there’s going to be this idea that: Hey, we won, you guys were against us, so we don’t need to hear anything that you have to say, and we’re only going to listen to the outlets that liked us,” she said.
“The Weekly Standard, National Review, Commentary, they were mostly anti-Trump, and I think it would be a shame, because of that, to ignore all of the thoughtful and important things that our writers will be having to say about a whole host of issues. You know – ‘Drain the Swamp’ – you can’t just say, ‘We’re going to clean out anyone who’s ever disagreed with us.’ Because, first of all, you’re not going to have very many people left; and secondly, they don’t realize they can learn a lot from the people that disagreed with them.”