Why Steve Bannon's white nationalism should scare America

The controversial work of Trump's chief strategist
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Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben Ghiat: Trump putting a white nationalist into White House is not surprising, but should alarm Americans
  • Ben-Ghiat, a historian, says "Axis 2.0 is shaping up before our eyes," with right-wing, like Marine Le Pen, lining up with him

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Anyone who is surprised at the appointment of right-wing guru Steve Bannon as the Donald Trump administration's chief strategist and counselor has been living in an alternate universe, the universe in which President-elect Trump would "pivot" into something resembling a mainline GOP conservative.

And anyone who is amazed at Trump's temerity in putting a white nationalist into the White House has gravely misunderstood the power of racism in fueling his campaign, and the desire to "turn back the clock" to a time when white men supposedly ruled supreme.
Above all, they've forgotten the cardinal rule of Trumpworld: attachment to profit and the Trump brand is a means of increasing influence and power over others. As CEO of Breitbart News, Bannon is key to that strategy, in America and beyond.
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    Anti-Defamation League: Bannon hire 'troubling'

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    Bannon is most famous for his stewardship of Breitbart, the right-wing media outlet that many liberal Americans first became aware of when its reporter, Michelle Fields, was manhandled by Trump's then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. Fields then resigned when her employer tried to discredit her.
    This episode served as an introduction to one of Breitbart's, and Bannon's, central platforms: the denigration of women. Breitbart News uses misogyny as clickbait, blaring headlines like "There's No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech: They Just Suck at Interviews."
    The blaming and intimidation of women who have been sexually harassed is a favorite theme. As the world knows, this has been an ongoing issue for Trump. Indeed, he's our first President-elect to have inspired an episode of Law & Order, Special Victims Unit, about a presidential candidate who faces accusations from women (scheduled for November 2016, it's now to be aired sometime in 2017).
    Trump administration defends Bannon, promises unity
    Trump administration defends Bannon, promises unity

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    And yet, as many readers will be saying at this point, nearly half of female voters supported Trump. They likely won't be upset that they're getting Bannon in the bargain as well. For the new chief strategist has a whole other appeal. He's an agitator for a virulent white nationalism that targets people of color and immigrants as criminals and spreads conspiracy theories designed to destabilize our democracy by sowing division and eroding civic trust.
    Some point out that Trump voters are not racists, but merely men and women who feel forgotten and marginalized, both socially and economically. This may be true for some, but given the prominence of racism in Trump's campaign platform, these much-vaunted "other" reasons are but threads in a tight veil of illusion Trump voters have woven for themselves. It's sad to have to remind people that Trump could have appealed to the downtrodden without inciting violence against people of different origins, appearances and faiths.
    Steve Bannon selected as Trump's chief strategist
    Steve Bannon selected as Trump's chief strategist

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    Bannon's appointment signals that racism will be a lever of the actions taken by the Trump administration. As a historian of fascism, I can tell you that Breitbart has been serving up a textbook-worthy campaign of racist indoctrination. Don't buy into it further. Otherwise, you're going to develop nearsightedness and a crick in your neck from looking away from things you'd rather not see.
    In the week since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has logged 200-plus incidents of racist violence. These episodes may well grow in number, and eventually involve someone you love or respect through your work, volunteerism or extended family.
    And here's where Bannon's "equal partner," Reince Priebus, comes in. Trump's new chief of staff should wear a lapel pin that reads "I'm here to lighten your guilty conscience" by playing the part of the decent mainstream man who keeps the rogues under control.
    But remember: In business, Trump has long pursued a "divide and conquer" strategy, pitting opposites against each other to ensure his own control. The Bannon-Priebus pairing may pit the tea party and Ku Klux Klan against the GOP of Paul Ryan, but come January 2017, they are one and the same, and their fortunes are linked: They are the Trump administration.
    Trump thinks big, and he also loves to have the last laugh over his enemies. While we dismiss Bannon as a fringe element, Trump will be exploiting Bannon's talents as a CEO, who once worked on Wall Street. Breitbart is Trump's conduit as he reaches for a leading share of the growing international market for right-wing populist propaganda.
    Axis 2.0 is shaping up before our eyes, with Marine Le Pen, France's leading right-wing politician, proclaiming that she and Trump are "building a new world together."
    Bannon will help Trump lead that world. The significance of his appointment cannot be overstated. It's time to come to terms with what a Trump administration is going to mean for all of us.