Politics & Policy

Steve Bannon Is Not a Nazi—But Let’s Be Honest about What He Represents

Bannon at a campaign meeting at Trump Tower in August. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
The elevation of the former Breitbart CEO to the Trump administration is cause for concern.

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.”

About Bannon’s personal attitudes, this is hyperbole. Julia Jones, Bannon’s screenwriting partner in Hollywood for nearly two decades, told the Daily Beast in August, “I never knew the ‘racist Steve’ that’s being reported now. I never heard him make any racist jokes, and his best friend was an African-American who went to [college] with him. . . . I never saw even a hint of racism.” Others have reported the same. Ben Shapiro, who worked under Bannon at his website, Breitbart, until departing earlier this year, wrote on his own site, “I have no evidence that Bannon’s a racist or that he’s an anti-Semite.”

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 Left, with its endless accusations of “racism” and “xenophobia” and the like, has blurred the line between genuine racists and the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump because of a desire for greater social solidarity and cultural consensus. It is not “racist” to want to strengthen the bonds uniting citizens to their country.

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.

#related#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.]

Most Popular

What or Who Decides This Election?

We know where to watch in the next few weeks but have no real idea what we will be watching. Yet pundits, the media, and the Left seem giddy that their polls show a Trump slump, as if they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from 2016. But in truth, the news cycle over the next three months may well favor ... Read More

What or Who Decides This Election?

We know where to watch in the next few weeks but have no real idea what we will be watching. Yet pundits, the media, and the Left seem giddy that their polls show a Trump slump, as if they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from 2016. But in truth, the news cycle over the next three months may well favor ... Read More
World

Massive Explosions Devastate Beirut

A series of massive explosions detonated in Beirut on Tuesday, with footage showing a mushroom cloud and shockwave emanating from the city port. [embed]https://twitter.com/air_intel/status/1290676373485490177[/embed] It is still unclear what caused the explosions. Lebanese security forces claimed the ... Read More
World

Massive Explosions Devastate Beirut

A series of massive explosions detonated in Beirut on Tuesday, with footage showing a mushroom cloud and shockwave emanating from the city port. [embed]https://twitter.com/air_intel/status/1290676373485490177[/embed] It is still unclear what caused the explosions. Lebanese security forces claimed the ... Read More
Elections

The Burning Times

Welcome to The Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, pedantry, partisan pyromania, and suchlike. The Right loves a factional brawl, and the past week brought a pentagonic crossfire between Peggy Noonan, Mona Charen, Charlie Sykes, Ramesh Ponnuru, and David French, five right-leaning ... Read More
Elections

The Burning Times

Welcome to The Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, pedantry, partisan pyromania, and suchlike. The Right loves a factional brawl, and the past week brought a pentagonic crossfire between Peggy Noonan, Mona Charen, Charlie Sykes, Ramesh Ponnuru, and David French, five right-leaning ... Read More
Media

A Brutal Assessment of Cable News

On the menu today: An MSNBC producer resigns, and metaphorically nails 95 theses to the doors of cable news, spotlighting how the industry has failed in its duties to inform the public; the president has another pyrotechnic explosion of a television interview; unnamed White House staffers whisper that the ... Read More
Media

A Brutal Assessment of Cable News

On the menu today: An MSNBC producer resigns, and metaphorically nails 95 theses to the doors of cable news, spotlighting how the industry has failed in its duties to inform the public; the president has another pyrotechnic explosion of a television interview; unnamed White House staffers whisper that the ... Read More
Culture

Monsters Galore

Vanity Fair, that peerless assessor of all things political, has bravely come out with the shocking opinion that the movies, TV, and our much-vaunted national media-industrial complex don’t hate right-wing women as much as they ought to, leading to the unjust and the always unhappy conclusion that people such ... Read More
Culture

Monsters Galore

Vanity Fair, that peerless assessor of all things political, has bravely come out with the shocking opinion that the movies, TV, and our much-vaunted national media-industrial complex don’t hate right-wing women as much as they ought to, leading to the unjust and the always unhappy conclusion that people such ... Read More