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A former Breitbart editor on what Trump's victory means for the alt-right

“They truly believe that multiethnic democracies cannot succeed.” — former Breitbart editor, Ben Shapiro

Parallel pictures of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon Kirk Irwin and Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

A few days after winning the presidency, Donald Trump announced his first two hires: Reince Priebus, the current RNC chair, will serve as White House chief of staff, and Steve Bannon, executive chair of the alt-right website Breitbart.com, will serve as “Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor to the President.”

If the alt-right is an organized movement, Bannon (explained here by my colleague Zack Beauchamp) is one of its leading lights. Breitbart.com is a haven for ethno-populist vulgarity, and has become increasingly so since Bannon took over.

In July, Breitbart ran an article titled “Hoist it High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.” Here’s another gem from that same month: “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews.” If that wasn’t sufficiently repulsive, here’s yet another headline from May: “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”

The man behind all this will have a seat in Trump’s White House.

In 2012, Ben Shapiro, a conservative columnist and author of several books including The People Vs. Barack Obama, was appointed editor at large of Breitbart.com. Earlier this year, he resigned following Bannon’s lack of support for Michelle Fields, the Breitbart reporter who was allegedly assaulted by Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Shapiro was also critical of Bannon’s acquiescence to Trump, telling Politico that Bannon “sold out” the site’s mission “in order to back another bully, Donald Trump.”

Shapiro has since become a prime target of alt-right ire. According to a study by the Anti-Defamation League, he’s been the top journalist target of anti-Semitic hatred online, thanks in large part to alt-right trolls.

On Monday, I spoke with Shapiro about who the alt-right is and what we can expect now that the movement’s candidate won the election.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

There’s a lot of confusion about what the alt-right is and who it represents. It’s become an umbrella term for marginal right-wing positions. But it does refer to something specific, right?

Ben Shapiro

The alt-right are people like Richard Spencer who think that Western civilization and Western culture are inseparable from ethnicity. In other words, European ethnicity is the dominant force behind Western culture and Western civilization biologically. So it's a racist and anti-Semitic movement.

They truly believe that multiethnic democracies cannot succeed. This is essentially a white nationalist movement that claims to have intellectual backing for its cause.

Sean Illing

Are there any concrete political goals on the alt-right, apart from restoring a kind of cultural hegemony?

Ben Shapiro

They want to destroy the Republican Party from within and take it over. They want the constitutional right destroyed. They actually hate the constitutional right more than they hate the left. They don't actually hate the left. They think the left is wrong about racism but they don't object to big government that takes care of people; rather, they think you should have special privileges if you're of European descent. They want what they call "Christendom" protected from foreign bodies.

Sean Illing

Are they in the process of destroying the GOP?

Ben Shapiro

In order for the alt-right to achieve its goals, it has to do a few things. The first thing they have to do is make connections with people in power — clearly they've done that. The next thing they have to do is obfuscate what the alt-right actually is, so a lot of people think they're alt-right when they're not.

Rather than say the alt-right is an explicitly white nationalist movement, they say, well, if you're pissed off at the establishment, you're probably alt-right. If you're somebody who lurks online, you're probably alt-right. If you don't like Paul Ryan, if you think he's soft, you're probably alt-right. And they trap a lot of people in this way.

They also need what I call fellow travelers, people who are willing to nod and look the other way about the alt-right's racism because they think the alt-right is essentially correct about Western civilization being under assault. Someone like Pat Buchanan, for example, falls under this category.

Sean Illing

Are there any points of ideological overlap between the GOP and the alt-right? Or is the alt-right using the Republican Party as a host vehicle?

Ben Shapiro

I don't think there's an ideological overlap. I think the alt-right doesn't want immigration, legal or illegal, because they oppose immigration on the basis that it endangers Western civilization or European ethnicity. People that I'm aware of on the mainstream conservative side, if they have objections to immigration, it's on the basis of costs or culture, not on the basis of race.

I don't care if someone immigrates here so long as they're willing to imbibe the principles of Western civilization. I don't care what someone's race happens to be. This is consistent with the founding vision of the country. But the alt-right doesn't accept that.

So there are some similar policy positions among traditional conservatives and the alt-right, but they're grounded in very different ideologies.

Sean Illing

What we’re talking about here is essentially identity politics, only it’s identity politics for white people.

Ben Shapiro

I think the politics of the alt-right mirrors the identity politics of the extreme left in many ways. And that's why you see some members of the alt-right who say they believe in black nationalism as well.

Ben Shapiro.

Sean Illing

There’s an obvious tension between small-government conservatism of traditional Republicans and the economic populism of the alt-right — how do you see that tension playing out?

Ben Shapiro

There's two issues here: the policies and the ideology. I think the ideological tension is interesting, because the goal of the alt-right is never to expose their true ideological commitments until it's too late. They need to entrench their power before revealing their explicitly racist aims.

As far as the policy conflict, I think the economic populism of the alt-right is very similar to Bernie Sanders's policy on trade. It's just that Sanders wants to shut down trade because he thinks it will help poor people, and the alt-right wants to shut down trade because they think that it's hurting white people.

Sean Illing

What does Trump’s win mean for the alt-right movement, such as it is?

Ben Shapiro

Obviously, they've been emboldened. They see it as a tremendous win. I think that every movement needs a legitimizer and a leader, and Trump clearly hobnobs with these people. He's been winking and nodding at the alt-right for the duration of his campaign.

Sean Illing

I’d say it goes well beyond winking and nodding. On Monday, you published a piece detailing in brief who Steve Bannon is and what you think his ascension means. What does Trump’s decision to appoint him as “Chief Strategist” signal to you?

Ben Shapiro

It signals that [Trump]'s not going to throw the alt-right overboard now that he's in the White House. It doesn't necessarily mean that this will be the motivating ideology behind his presidency, but it does mean that he's happy to fellow-travel with them to get where he wants to go.

Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute.

Sean Illing

Do you think Trump gives a damn about any of the principles animating the alt-right? Or do you see him more as an opportunist who knows a good bet when he sees one?

Ben Shapiro

I think he's an opportunist who's taking an advantage of the climate he's confronting. I'm not a mind-reader, so I can't say anything definitive, but I do think the way he talks suggests that he's perfectly happy to live with the tacit approval of the alt-right, and that says something about the man.

Sean Illing

Whatever his motivations, Trump has normalized the alt-right in a way that would’ve been unthinkable a year ago. Now I wonder how successfully our system can absorb this shift. I’ve no idea what the end game is here.

Ben Shapiro

I don't know what the end game is either. All I can say is that tribal politics on the far left has created an upsurge in tribal politics on the right. Which doesn't mean that all of the people who voted for Trump are involved in tribal politics, but it does mean that the sort of tribal language we've seen in recent years has spread across the aisle.

I don't think the vast majority of people who voted for either side are racists. I don't think the vast majority of Americans are racists. I don't have evidence that Trump himself is a racist. But the language that is used to appeal to people on behalf of the alt-right is racially charged.

Sean Illing

What you're describing is a mutually reinforcing spiral, and I don't how know we escape it.

Ben Shapiro

That's exactly right. Well, one way we get out of it is to not assume that all the people on the other side are racists. What's happened here, in part, is that in the past people like Mitt Romney and other Republicans have been called racists, and then when the alt-right, which is actually racist, emerges onto the stage, people don't take these claims seriously.

Sean Illing

We seem to be tumbling into a political abyss here. Europe is being torn asunder by racial and cultural divisions, and those divisions have clearly infected our politics as well.

Ben Shapiro

The only hope that I have here is that there is no centralized idea of what Europe is. There's no founding ideology to Europe. Western civilization is a vague idea. America, historically, has not been a vague idea. We've actually spelled out principles that form the basis of our institutions.

Those principles are explicitly rejected by the alt-right. My only hope is that people will return to some of those foundational principles instead of falling prey to this tribal appeal that we've seen for political reasons on both sides for years.

Sean Illing

Is that to say we need to double-down on multiculturalism?

Ben Shapiro

I'm not calling for multiculturalism. I'm calling for multiethnic liberalism, which is a different thing. I'm not in favor of the idea that all cultures are the same or that all cultures ought to be accorded equal respect.

I think this has been tried and it has failed.

Sean Illing

Well, however we got here, the alt-right now has a seat at the table of power. What becomes of this in four or eight years? What becomes of the GOP?

Ben Shapiro

If the Republican Party becomes the party of nationalist populism and if the alt-right succeeds in doing what they want to do, which is to make it about ethno-nationalist populism, then the party will have to splinter.

That's certainly not a party I will be associated with.


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