What Steve Bannon's White House appointment means to the alt-right

President-elect Donald Trump announced on Sunday that media executive Steve Bannon would serve as his chief strategist, a move celebrated by supporters of the alt-right movement.

Evan Vucci/AP
Steve Bannon looks on during a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower in New York on Oct. 7.

President-elect Donald Trump's announcement this weekend that Steve Bannon, former head of the conservative Breitbart News, will serve as his chief strategist come January elicited an angry outcry that transcended party lines, with critics and headlines denouncing Mr. Bannon as racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic.

Meanwhile, others deemed the media executive's new position cause for celebration – not because of his personal ideology, but because he may be the alternative right's best hope of holding Mr. Trump to his campaign promises.

For many supporters of Mr. Trump, the controversial appointment of Bannon, a Washington outsider, may represent "a commitment to continue fighting against the establishment," says Nicole Hemmer, the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics," in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

But for the smaller subset of Trump voters who identify with the alt-right – a largely-online movement rooted in white nationalism – the move "signals that they've arrived: that the White House will defend their white nationalist vision for America," says Dr. Hemmer, an assistant professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center in Charlottesville.

Leaders of the movement have applauded the appointment of Bannon, who has been accused of harboring white nationalist and anti-Semitic views, and is credited with transforming Breitbart from a conventionally conservative news site into what he himself has described as a "platform for the alt-right." But some say that while Bannon's White House position gives them hope for the future of the alt-right, they see him as an enabler – rather than a representative – of their movement.

"Steve Bannon doesn't, I don't think, think in racial terms," says Jared Taylor, editor of the alt-right publication American Renaissance, in a phone interview with the Monitor. "And although he may be open to an alt-right type argument about race, I don't believe that he himself espouses them."

"But," he continues, "there's no question that of all the appointments that we have known about so far, Steve Bannon seems to be the one who would be most likely to urge President Trump to keep his campaign promises. And that's a hugely important thing." 

Mr. Taylor, whose organization describes itself as a "race-realist, white advocacy organization," views Bannon as an "American nationalist" with an "America first" perspective – not, he is careful to emphasize, a white nationalist in the alt-right sense, though the two camps intersect on a number of policies, such as immigration reform. 

Still, regardless of whether Bannon himself personally subscribes to race-based, alternative-right ideology, he has been hugely influential in incorporating the movement into national discourse by providing it with an official platform, political scientists say. 

"If you go through American history, we've had dark forces before, but they tended to be more atomized," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism," in a phone interview. "Social media gave [the alt-right movement] a community that gave them a little more legitimacy. And instead of sort of being in the shadows, because they understood that most people didn't believe what they believed.... Now they have level of legitimacy that they never would have dreamed of having before." 

"Breitbart," he adds, "was a major force in bringing them to this position."

Bannon, who officially joined the Trump campaign in August, then "began to infuse the Trump campaign with many of their themes," Dr. Hemmer says. "Now, he sits at the right-hand of the president, and many alt-righters believe that it is the dawn of a new era of white nationalism." 

The announcement that Bannon would officially have a place in the White House came at the same time that Trump appointed Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, as his chief of staff – a move that may have been a sign of a tamer, more "establishment" Trump administration than promised during the campaign season, were it not for the simultaneous appointment of Bannon. 

As Peter Grier reported for The Christian Science Monitor on Tuesday:

Mr. Priebus, currently chairman of the Republican National Committee, is the button-down, by-the-book character in this formulation. His job is nominally more important. He’ll be the protagonist around which lots of Oval Office drama will revolve.

Many Trump skeptics are greeting his appointment with relief....

Meanwhile, Mr. Bannon, chief of Breitbart News, is the renegade in the White House cast – or villain, to some. He’s the provocateur, the self-proclaimed leader of the alternative right. Bannon says it’s all about national identity, and opposition to immigration and the excesses of globalism. 

While the degree to which Bannon's stances stem from textbook alt-right ideology is debated, his presence in the White House at least ensures that the president-elect won't stray too far from his campaign platform and rhetoric toward the more traditionally conservative views of Priebus and other establishment Republicans, movement leaders say.  

"I don't think Bannon is alt-right in the way I would define it – but he is the closest we have," Richard Spencer, coiner of the phrase "alt-right" and the director of the National Policy Institute, an organization "dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world," told the Financial Times following the announcement. "There was always the fear that Trump could be normalized – or that he would lose his 'Trumpiness.' With Bannon as his chief strategist that is now much less likely."

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