The alt-right – a loosely defined right-wing movement steeped in part in white nationalism, misogyny and anti-Semitism – has never been this close to power.
President-elect Donald Trump’s move to name Steve Bannon, the establishment-bashing Breitbart News chief, as one of his top two advisers will bring the movement firmly into the White House, with unprecedented access to the Oval Office that could shape the policies and tone of Trump’s presidency.
The decision appears to have put a sudden halt to hopes that Trump was beginning to mollify some of his hardline campaign promises. Instead, the move signals Trump isn’t ready to abandon the right-wing elements that proved key to his ascent to power.
Bannon, in any other administration, likely would not have passed muster.
He was once charged with domestic violence, allegedly objected to his daughters attending a school because of the number of Jewish students enrolled and ran a website that stoked racial fears, engaged in blatant misogyny and peddled conspiracy theories.
But beyond his biographical bullet points, it’s Bannon’s quiet encouragement of Republican infighting through Breitbart and his championing of hardline conservative policy prescriptions that may prove intrusive to Trump’s efforts to pass legislation with a slim Republican majority in Congress.
While Republican leaders are finding comfort in Trump naming RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to the top post of White House chief of staff, the press release announcing the appointments noted the two men will be “equal partners.” And Bannon was listed first in the statement.
The announcement is one of the earliest indicators of what Trump’s administration will look like. It provides insight into how he will balance the often-conflicting priorities of dueling factions within the Republican Party, and the degree to which Trump has come to rely on Bannon’s counsel. For now, it seems Trump is poised to give both the GOP establishment and the more hardline elements of his party the benefits of proximity to power.
Priebus and Bannon are in many ways the embodiment of the internal struggle that has roiled the GOP in recent years: Bannon, the rabble-rousing and unflinchingly hardline conservative segment, and Priebus, the business-oriented establishment eager to expand its electoral appeal.
“I think it’s a great team,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and now a senior adviser to his transition effort, told reporters Monday. “They complement each other. They both have the most important thing: the ear of the boss.”
Bannon declined to comment for this story. But Pence defended him Monday, calling Bannon “a force for good” and a “generous, hospitable, wise person to work with” on MSNBC.
“Steve and I have formed a great partnership in advising President Trump together. That’s what it is. Talking to him together, getting ourselves on the same page. It worked well on the campaign. I think you have seen perilously over the last few months that Donald Trump has been very disciplined. He’s also been very comfortable and on message and clear-minded,” Priebus added Monday on ABC.
Even President Barack Obama, who spent the better part of the past year blasting Trump, said the President-elect should have a chance to build his team.
“The people have spoken,” Obama said at a White House news conference Monday. “It will be up to him to set up a team that he thinks will serve him well and reflects his policies.”
Messaging and strategy
While it’s true that both Priebus and Bannon have been at Trump’s side, Bannon was largely credited with helping craft the messaging and strategy in the final months of the campaign. Those efforts empowered Trump to ride a populist wave to victory, without abandoning the hardline policy proposals and controversial rhetoric that won him the fandom of loyal supporters in the first place.
Trump would not repudiate his Muslim ban proposal. He would not back off his plans to deport all undocumented immigrants. And he certainly wouldn’t stop bellowing at his rallies about building a border wall and making Mexico pay for it.
Bannon also oversaw Trump’s forays into the African-American community and his controversial depictions of black America as entirely crime and poverty-ridden – “You walk down the street, you get shot!” – that black leaders called insulting. Critics contended such remarks were aimed more at assuaging white Americans’ concerns.
Already, Bannon’s appointment is sparking heated criticism from Democrats and non-partisan groups alike.
The Anti-Defamation League, a leading organization combating anti-Semitism, said it “strongly opposes” the decision. The group’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said Bannon “presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s spokesman, Adam Jentleson, went further, saying Bannon’s appointment “signals that White Supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House.”
“It is easy to see why the KKK views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of White Supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide,” Jentleson said.
While Bannon’s website ran headlines such as “Bill Kristol, Republican spoiler, renegade Jew,” “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy” and another proclaiming “Young Muslims in the West are a ticking time bomb,” Bannon’s tenure at the helm of Trump’s campaign did not escalate the then-Republican nominee’s inflammatory statements or his courting of the far-right.
Trump did not, as many expected, become a walking, talking Breitbart headline. Rather, he got more focused – reading from teleprompters at every rally since Bannon and Conway took over. Trump amplified his hard-right policy proclamations by laying them out in more palatable language.
Less bravado, more policy
In fact, there was less bravado and more policy. There was less targeting of Republicans, and more targeted attacks on Hillary Clinton.
What Bannon did not discourage, however, was Trump’s fear-mongering and mischaracterizing of Clinton’s policies, which filled the pages of Breitbart long before Trump jumped into the presidential race.
Bannon was also the man behind one of Trump’s most controversial stunts in which women who had previously accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct were paraded before the cameras moments before the second presidential debate against Clinton.
As reporters were led into the room – mouths agape – Bannon stood silently toward the back of the room, grinning.