The appointment of Breitbart news chief Stephen Bannon to head Donald Trump’s presidential campaign this week marks the official entree of the so-called “alt-right” into the Republicans’ top campaign.
For the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon is an experienced political street fighter who is well-versed in the sharp-edged, populist message that served the candidate well in the Republican primaries.
Mr. Trump’s tapping of the alt-right could help solidify his base by letting Trump be Trump, and potentially propel him to hit Hillary Clinton’s weak points harder.
But critics say that Bannon's hiring resonates far beyond the Trump campaign in troubling ways. It marks a worrisome marriage of the Republican Party with an Internet culture that, they say, peddles in white identity, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Clinton conspiracies.
In short, it doubles down on a largely white voting bloc that, in the words of Brendan O’Neill, a commentator for the conservative Spectator magazine in Britain, is “convinced the world is one big lefty, feminist plot to ruin your average white dude’s life.”
“The [Mexican] rapist comments, the banning Muslims comments – the crowd roars for that,” says Marc Hetherington, who has studied voter polarization at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Republican voters have said this is what we want, and it’s now the national party. And it’s a problem for [the party establishment] to manage.”
From a purely electoral perspective, the move risks keeping the Trump campaign’s center of gravity too far right for a general election. On Friday, Trump strategist Paul Manafort, installed to help the candidate reach out to a wider audience, resigned from the campaign. While Trump will be even more adored by those who adore him, he could become even more objectionable to all others – and there are not enough of Trump’s core voters to tilt a presidential election, argue many political scientists and pollsters.
“If you trust the polls, this seems like a fundamental strategic error. Trump is running worse than Mitt Romney among almost all demographic groups; white men without a college degree are the most prominent exception,” writes Nate Silver on the FiveThirtyEight data journalism website. “But there aren’t enough of those men to form a majority or really even to come all that close.”
Bannon heads the site Breitbart news, founded by the late Andrew Breitbart, an early tea party champion who built a small media empire on the belief that he was taking on the liberal media in a “war for the American narrative,” as he once wrote.
Since Mr. Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon has built the site into a powerhouse in part by courting America’s alt-right. The site fully embraced the alt-right in March, when Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay provocateur and conservative folk hero, took a more prominent position at the site.
“Some – mostly Establishment types – insist that [the alternative right is] little more than a vehicle for the worst dregs of human society: anti-Semites, white supremacists, and other members of the Stormfront set. They’re wrong,” wrote Mr. Yiannopoulos, who was recently banned from Twitter for encouraging what Twitter called “targeted abuse” on a black actress. “Previously an obscure subculture, the alt-right burst onto the national political scene in 2015. Although initially small in number, the alt-right has a youthful energy and jarring, taboo-defying rhetoric that have boosted its membership and made it impossible to ignore.”
Trump’s new campaign tack would appear to sidestep the Republican status quo in order to court a new kind of voter, one that has noted that even when “past conservative administrations have been in office they have failed to arrest the leftwards drift of the culture,” as James Delingpole writes in The Spectator.
Unlike establishment Republicans, “the alt-right sees limited-government constitutionalism as passé,” adds Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor, in The Washington Post. “It holds that only nationalist populism on the basis of shared tribal identity can save the country.”
Breitbart, a Matt Drudge protégé, is remembered for his involvement in the 2009 ACORN undercover videos scandal and an engaging and hard-edged writing style that influenced how many people – and not exclusively on the right – thought and wrote about politics. His main criticism of politics was what he saw as the unholy marriage between the media and politicians.
But in 2010, he saw Trump as a part of that problem, saying in a Fox News appearance: “Celebrity is everything in this country.”
Trump is “not a conservative,” he said. “If these guys [Republicans] don’t learn how to play the media ... we’re going to probably get a celebrity candidate.”
For his part, Bannon adds a new kind of campaign savvy to a faltering campaign. His hire may also be a recognition that, if Trump does lose, he does so on his own terms.
“The media is out to destroy Donald Trump,” Pamela Geller, the anti-jihadi activist, told the Daily Beast. “Trump needs a champion, a ‘Patton,’ a Bannon.”
Specifically, Ms. Geller said Bannon “articulates what millions of Americans are thinking about how we need to tell the truth about jihad and the Muslim migrant invasion of the West.”
Trump’s open moves toward the alt-right could be effective in renewing the candidate’s focus on Mrs. Clinton. A renewed line of attack on Clinton has the capacity to hurt a vulnerable front-runner who also has historically high unfavorable ratings in polls.
Yet the appointment was disappointing to many establishment Republicans.
By nominating an alt-right darling like Trump to run for president, “the Republican Party has … transformed into the world’s largest and angriest comment section,” South Carolina House minority leader Todd Rutherford (D) told The State newspaper recently.