Donald J. Trump always keeps everyone guessing. Is the president-elect ditching his crazy act in order to bring in a conventional Republican government? Or ditching conventional Republican government in order to bring in his crazy act? Is he bringing together the anti–politics outsiders and the Washington insiders? Or is he playing them against each other? Are we witnessing the usual scramble for power that accompanies every incoming administration? Or is the Trump transition a new kind of shambles?
The answer to all these questions is yes, probably. Take the role of Steve Bannon, executive chairman of the right-wing website Breit-bart (aka ‘Trump Pravda’), who served as the Donald’s campaign manager in the run-up to the election. Bannon, a former US navy officer, has reportedly described himself as a Leninist who wants to tear down the system. The fear, among the anti-Trump press at any rate, was that he would be rewarded with the chief of staff job in the new administration. It came as something of a relief on Sunday, then, when the news broke that Trump had instead appointed Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, to be his main man in the White House.
For those craving a return to normality, however, the press release was the opposite of satisfying: ‘Trump for President CEO Stephen K. Bannon will serve as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will serve as White House Chief of Staff’. Bannon and Priebus would be ‘equal’ partners, it said.
Nobody could fail to notice the order in which the two posts were revealed. Again the announcement threw up more questions than it answered. Was Team Trump softening the blow to Bannon’s ego — emphasising his importance as consigliere when he had in fact missed out? Was Bannon being pushed aside? Or was he still pulling the strings? Had he composed the statement himself? It certainly read like a Breitbart PR declaration.
The media, predictably enough, had a sense of humour failure and freaked out. Bannon is an anti-Semite and a white nationalist, screamed the hacks. The accusations were based on the editorial tone of Breitbart, which often flirts with racial politics in a mischievous way, as well as an allegation made by one of Bannon’s ex-wives in a divorce court. Mary Louise Piccard (hardly a neutral source) claimed her former husband ‘doesn’t like Jews’ and ‘doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be “whiney brats”’. Right-wingers rallied to Bannon’s defence. Newt Gingrich, a Grand Old Party stalwart and now Trump crony, countered by saying Bannon couldn’t hate Jews because he had worked in Hollywood and for Goldman Sachs, which prompted a lot of chortling about what a bigot Newt must be.
Others pointed out that Bannon is a fierce supporter of Israel. On Breitbart.com, of all places, the Democrat Alan Dershowitz came out to say that Bannon ‘has very good relationships with individual Jews’.
As if all that weren’t silly enough, various websites started posting articles listing Breitbart’s most offensive articles, pretending these were the direct fruits of Bannon’s evil mind and therefore proof that the White House was being taken over by a Nazi. Selected headlines included such gems as ‘Would You Rather Your Child had Feminism or Cancer?’ and ‘Birth Control Makes Women Crazy and Unattractive’. The hundreds of thousands of people being offended on the internet are making fools of themselves. They seem pathologically incapable of realising that they have fallen for the Breitbart trick, which is to wind them up.
Breitbart isn’t anti-Semitic or white nationalist; it isn’t sincere enough for that. Andrew Breitbart, the site’s late founder, was brought up in the Jewish faith and was a passionate pro-Israeli. It’s true that the website is now connected to the ‘alt-right’, a growing web-based movement of freaks and geeks who dabble in misogyny and racial antagonism, only to plead irony when called out. Anybody who isn’t with them is a ‘libtard’ — liberal retard — or a ‘cuckservative’ — a cuckold conservative. Breitbart is at the PC end of this politically incorrect spectrum: alt-right lite, if you like. Most of its contributors are harmless provocateurs, such as The Spectator’s own James Delingpole (see his humble insights into the age of Trump on page 28). Breitbart surfs the waves of internet outrage in pursuit of clicks, while pretending to be a real news operation. That is what most web journalism is about: but Breitbart is on the vice-signalling right rather than the virtue-signalling left. In other words, it’s not worth taking seriously.
That’s not to say Bannon is without real political ambitions. He is, I’m told, a ‘true believer’ — although what he truly believes is not altogether clear. He’s not a libertarian as such. But he wants to smash international governance, corporatism and the centralised state wherever he finds it. He believes in ‘a global tea party movement’ against globalism and likes to lecture people about ‘crony capitalism’. In interviews he identifies himself as a working-class Catholic boy — a classic Reagan Democrat — and says he is a defender of Judeo-Christian values and traditional marriage. He’s been divorced three times. He swears a lot. Yet he doesn’t want Breitbart to publish saucy images. He wants to expose the dark money secrets of the Clintons, but Breit-bart never reveals where its considerable funding comes from. He’s apparently sometimes charming as well as being a nasty thug. ‘He’s always trying to make a star out of new recruits before he totally screws them over with a shitty work life and a long debilitating contract,’ claims one DC-based journalist. ‘On the other hand, a seemingly jovial guy.’
What’s certain is that long before Trump, Bannon had been trying to hitch Breitbart’s fortunes to various anti-establishment politicians on the right. He attempted to jump on the Sarah Palin phenomenon after the 2008 election. That petered out. He set up Breitbart UK in London and forged an alliance with Nigel Farage and Ukip ahead of last year’s general election. That went awry. In Trump, he has found a winner — and, perhaps the ultimate prize, a senior role in the new US government. Breitbart France is coming soon, presumably to help Marine Le Pen win the presidential election next year.
But Bannon can’t be that important. Not many of the 60 million people who voted for Donald Trump would have done so because they read Breitbart or because they share Bannon’s revolutionary worldview. They just wanted change and better prospects. Is Bannon on the right side of history? A lucky jackal? Or a bit-part in the greater Trump farce? The answer on all counts is yes, probably.
Freddy Gray is The Spectator’s deputy editor and a former literary editor of the American Conservative.