Let’s start with some sense: Steve Bannon is not Josef Goebbels.
That is how Bannon was described recently by French cable news network La Chaîne Info (The Info Channel), and American media have taken up the comparison, particularly in light of Bannon’s appointment as the president-elect’s “chief strategist and senior counselor.” The Huffington Post wailed representatively: “A White Nationalist Is the New White House Chief Strategist.”
But under Bannon’s aegis, something ugly has taken hold of the Right.
In March 2012, Bannon — an investment banker-turned-conservative documentarian — became chairman of Breitbart News. Up to that time, the website had been mischievous but not malicious, reflecting the personality of its founder Andrew Breitbart (a personality that has been subject to gross left-wing revisionism since his death). But under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News’s impishness became something else. When it was not promoting Pravda-esque lies during the campaign season — for example, reporting as “100% vindicated” Trump’s claim that “thousands” of people in New Jersey celebrated the September 11 attacks — the site built up its viewer base by catering to the alt-right, a small but vocal fringe of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and Internet trolls. In May, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was labeled a “Renegade Jew.” In September, an article about Trump’s “birther” press conference was accompanied by a picture of Harambe, the gorilla shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this year. This summer, Bannon cheerfully informed Mother Jones that Breitbart News had become “the platform for the alt-Right.” (And if you, like Newt Gingrich, believe that the alt-right does not exist, please consult my Twitter feed.)
The problem is not whether Bannon himself subscribes to a noxious strain of political nuttery; it’s that his de facto endorsement of it enables it to spread and to claim legitimacy.
But the alt-right is not a “fabrication” of the media. The alt-right is a hodgepodge of philosophies that, at their heart, reject the fundamental principle that “all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The alt-right embraces an ethno-nationalism that has its counterparts in the worst of the European far-right: Golden Dawn in Greece, or Hungary’s Jobbik. (It’s no coincidence that Bannon spent time this summer praising “the women of the Le Pen family” on London radio, referring to the head of France’s National Front and her niece, a FN member of the French Parliament.) And while this by no means excuses smashing shop windows to protest a legitimate election result, as rioters spent the weekend doing in the Pacific Northwest, it’s also the case that not every Trump detractor is as devoid of cerebral matter as Lena Dunham. If ethnic and religious minorities are worried, it’s in part because Donald Trump and his intimates have spent the last several months winking at one of the ugliest political movements in America’s recent history.
Furthermore, as some on the left have been more attuned to than their conservative counterparts, the problem is not whether Bannon himself subscribes to a noxious strain of political nuttery; it’s that his de facto endorsement of it enables it to spread and to claim legitimacy, and that what is now a vicious fringe could, over time, become mainstream. The U.S. is not going to see pogroms or “internment camps” spring up in January. But countries require bonds of trust among citizens — including those citizens elected to be leaders. The Left gnawed at those bonds with its thoughtless commitment to cosmopolitan virtues. But the Right threatens to sever them entirely if it continues to court the proponents of ethno-nationalism, or trade in their rhetoric.Principled conservatives, especially those in leadership positions, have a political and moral duty to condemn, and to work to eradicate, the animus that is the alt-right’s raison d’être, and to uphold the pillars of the American project. That project is more than metaphysical abstractions; but it is also not a simple matter of blut und boden. No, Steve Bannon is not Josef Goebbels. But he has provided a forum for people who spend their days photoshopping pictures of conservatives into ovens.
To conservative and liberal alike, that he has the ear of the next president of the United States (a man of no particular convictions, and loyal to no particular principles) should be a source of grave concern — and an occasion for common cause in the crucial task of the years to come: vigilance.
— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.
[Editor's Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.]