Steve Bannon didn’t just run Breitbart News in his role as executive chairman of the organization — he reshaped it in his own image. Now that he’s out, his career in right-wing media might be over. But his stamp on Breitbart — and the site’s imprint on conservative media — won’t be erased.
Breitbart wasn’t supposed to be a political operation. Its original headquarters weren’t in Washington, DC, but in West Los Angeles, where Andrew Breitbart intended to launch a culture war against what he viewed as “the Democrat media complex” and progressivism in general (though the Atlantic pointed out in 2012 that much of Breitbart’s early efforts, like targeting ACORN and the Shirley Sherrod debacle, were political acts through and through.)
But Bannon wanted more. In 2012, after Andrew’s death, he said that Breitbart should be “the Huffington Post of the right.” A few years later, he decided that Donald Trump would be his vehicle to mainstream fame — and power. He believed that he, not Trump, was the source of Breitbart’s rising influence, the man behind the curtain who could take Trumpism without Trump to the masses.
He was wrong. As Jonathan V. Last wrote in the Weekly Standard January 9, “the Republican establishment was able to separate the ideas of Trumpism from the vessel of Trump — and they chose Trump.”
Kurt Schlichter of Townhall, a conservative website founded in 1995 as one of the first online communities aimed at right-wing readers, put it simply: “Good riddance.”
Now, Breitbart is left without its biggest personality in a conservative media environment more crowded than ever. New outlets are ever more willing to do what Andrew Breitbart envisioned: start culture wars, no matter the cost. Is there an end to the perpetual conflict?
Bannon reshaped Breitbart News from a site for culture warriors to a political operation
Bannon’s relationship with Breitbart News began roughly a year before the site launched in 2005 as Breitbart.com, a news aggregator similar to the Drudge Report. Bannon had leapt into making movies in the early 2000s, and Andrew Breitbart loved Bannon’s film about Ronald Reagan, In the Face of Evil.
Bannon started working with Breitbart, helping to find investors. He kept making movies, including The Undefeated, a documentary about Sarah Palin (in his review of the film, New York Post and National Review film critic Kyle Smith wrote that the movie is “so outlandishly partisan that it makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.”) Palin liked the film so much that she appeared with Bannon at a 2011 screening in Iowa. Andrew Breitbart helped to promote the event, telling a Bloomberg reporter that Bannon was the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.”
Breitbart News did not set out to battle with mainstream outlets in a shared spirit of decorum. Andrew Breitbart didn’t want his site to be the new Weekly Standard or National Review.
The goal was to go after liberals, mainstream media, Hollywood, Democrats and anyone else who stood in the way, portraying conservatives as a besieged minority under the thumb of Big Liberal and “cultural Marxism,” depicting the left as morally wrong, inherently dangerous and also deeply foolish. Stories weren’t one-offs, but set pieces in an overarching drama: Right versus Left, Good versus Stupid Evil.
There were few rules; Andrew himself was more than willing to go on MSNBC and scream at Salon reporters. After publicizing the explicit photographs that former Rep. Anthony Weiner sent to a 21-year-old woman in 2011, Andrew went to Weiner’s press conference in search of a personal apology from the representative. As Andrew told Slate in 2010, “They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.”
Andrew Breitbart died of a heart attack in March of 2012, and Bannon became executive chairman of the organization. According to Dana Loesch, a conservative commentator and former associate of Andrew Breitbart, Bannon’s influence shifted Breitbart News’s emphasis away from culture.
“Andrew didn’t care about being a Washington insider, and he didn’t want to create a separate conservative media,” Loesch told me. Under Bannon, “you can see how the site became little more than a vehicle for Bannon’s petty squabbles” with Washington administration officials.
Ben Shapiro, another conservative commentator, agreed, saying that Breitbart “originally started as a site that was very much about fighting predominant media narratives and battling in the culture. That’s what Andrew cared about a lot.”
With Bannon’s leadership, that changed. Bannon didn’t want to start fights with MoveOn.org or MSNBC. Bannon wanted to win in DC. The shift within Breitbart from a website for the “happy warrior” to a site that viewed itself as a political action committee for the far right was a gradual one. By 2014, Bannon was telling staff that he wanted to destroy the Republican establishment, one wild-card candidate and angry rant at a time.
“I’ve never seen someone receive more credit for such little effort or accomplishment”
Donald Trump’s campaign was to be Bannon’s greatest triumph. After first supporting Ted Cruz’s candidacy (and allegedly shopping a document showing Trump’s ties to organized crime), Bannon decided that Trump would be the best vessel for Bannon’s own political priorities: battling “globalist elites” and embracing a strange amalgamation of conservatism, populism, and thinly-veiled racism. In August of 2016, Bannon became chief executive of Trump’s presidential campaign, and was named his chief strategist after Trump’s election victory.
Bannon believed that it was his policies and ideas that led to Trump’s victory, more so than Trump himself. But according to Loesch, that contributed to Bannon’s eventual dismissal and defeat.
“Bannon’s downfall was hubris. I’ve never seen someone receive more credit for such little effort or accomplishment and believe so much hype about themselves.” Bannon believed himself so untouchable that he called the liberal-leaning outlet The American Prospect in August of 2017 and told a reporter about his efforts to reach out to liberals on trade policy while describing ethno-nationalism — the kind which he pushed through Breitbart and through Trump — as “fringe.”
He failed to understand that in a choice between Bannon and Trump, even Breitbart’s readers would choose Trump. So would right-wing political candidates who may have once curried his favor.
#AZSen candidate Kelli Ward on CNN this morning: “I am distancing myself from Steve Bannon...He's made some significant mistakes, significant gaffes that are unacceptable to me. I support the president.”— Johnny Verhovek (@JTHVerhovek) January 11, 2018
Breitbart won’t — and can’t — change
With either Andrew Breitbart or Steve Bannon at the helm, there’s never been a personality-less Breitbart. Attempts by the website to go “mainstream” over the last year — firing a reporter for wildly anti-Muslim tweets, for example — have been largely met with derision from the far right, still the site’s most fervent readers. It’s an audience that was primed to gather at the site, including under Andrew Breitbart’s tenure.
Shirley Sherrod’s dubious firing from the US Department of Agriculture, after all, took place as a result of a selectively edited video posted by Andrew on BigGovernment.com in which Sherrod appeared to say that she had discriminated against a white farmer (Andrew said that he posted the video to attack the NAACP for calling out racism within the Tea Party.)
In 2014, Breitbart hosted a summit called “The Uninvited II,” the second iteration of a national security forum held at the same time as the Conservative Political Action Conference. The summit was largely made up of people and organizations not invited to CPAC — including anti-Muslim and anti-immigration groups like Numbers USA. In 2015, the site published an article comparing anti-Muslim campaigner and conspiracy theorist Pamela Gellar’s Draw Muhammed Cartoon Contest was analogous to Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery.
And under Bannon, Breitbart hired Milo Yiannopoulos, a British writer who cut his American right-wing media teeth in the midst of #Gamergate and was placed in charge of Breitbart’s tech vertical in October 2015 despite Yiannopoulos’ stated dislike of video games and the people who play them.
Yiannopoulos spent much of his early years at Breitbart trolling the internet while purporting to be a “truth teller.” But Bannon made him into a conservative celebrity — and hero of the newly formed “alt-right,” a largely internet-based group of the far-right and white supremacist figures. All this despite Yiannopoulos having few conservative bonafides and stating outright, “I don’t care about politics.”
Yiannopoulos used his Breitbart platform to promote white nationalism, even reaching out for help on an article explaining the alt-right to the system administrator of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer and the editor of the white nationalist publication American Renaissance (who told Yiannopoulos that Bannon was sympathetic to the movement’s goals).
His rise to fame was abruptly halted in February 2017, however, after a video was resurfaced by the conservative website Reagan Battalion, in which Yiannopoulos defended the idea of “13-year-olds” having sex with “older men.” He lost a book deal, and resigned from Breitbart. (He then self-published his book.)
I reached out to Yiannopoulos for this article to discuss how Bannon contributed to his career within the conservative movement, and he agreed to comment. By the time of publication, he had not responded to my questions. According to his press representation, his assistant had been unable to contact him.
“Where has playing nice gotten conservatives on the culture wars?”
But even if Breitbart the website loses influence, the Breitbart-ization of the right has continued apace. Kurt Schlichter told me that the Breitbartian attitude — constant war, endless conflict, no quarter given — was bigger than Steve Bannon, or even Donald Trump. Schlichter knew Andrew Breitbart well.
“People keep wanting to identify a voice or leader of the movement. That’s a foundational error. It’s not about personalities or individuals, but it’s easier for its opponents to think so.”
He added, “The conservative movement is no longer represented by submissive, bow-tied conserva-nerds who’ve never been slugged in the face or slugged anyone else. [Andrew] Breitbart rejected the establishment view that decorum was better than victory, that we should pretend our opponents are always operating in good faith and are merely misguided.” And he noted that Breitbart alumni, including Shapiro and Loesch, have moved on to other conservative outlets, taking “that fighting spirit” with them.
I spoke with Bethany Mandel, a writer at the conservative outlet the Federalist, about why conservative and right-wing media had taken on Andrew Breitbart’s, in her words, “antagonism.”
“Where has playing nice gotten conservatives on the culture wars?” she responded. “We’re viewed as backwards old fogies at best, and bigots at worst.” In her view, the only way forward was to fight, and unveil “the hypocrisy of those in the culture wars who have put conservatives against the ropes for decades.”
Daily Caller editor-in-chief: "As for Steve Bannon, we believe in second chances. The Daily Caller has a fantastic spring internship program starting in two weeks.” https://t.co/YNpRfxvhid pic.twitter.com/U2tSGf6mXL— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) January 11, 2018
Bannon’s role as a right-wing power player is likely over. The website he controlled might soon be reduced from an extension of the Trump White House to just another conservative website with a “black crime” tag.
But the spirit of Breitbart, or perhaps more accurately, its id, will live on, in a right-wing media atmosphere that decries collective victimhood for others and yet seems to relish in it for itself, one that demands fights and conflict and #WAR — and champions a president who does the same. After all, California College Republicans still want Milo to do a speaking tour.
I asked Schlichter if the goal of Breitbart and other conservatives websites could still be to win over converts to conservatism in the battle of “hearts and minds.”
“Of course,” he said. “That’s the point. So should Vox. I just hope Vox fails.”