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Trump, Breitbart, and the rejection of multicultural democracy

The hostility to immigrants and Islam in the executive orders comes straight out of Stephen Bannon’s Breitbart.

Parallel pictures of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon’s hand — and ideology — is evident in Trump’s immigration orders.
Kirk Irwin and Jonathan Bachman / Getty

Amid reports that Trump elevated his chief strategist Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, as well as reports that he had a hand in shaping the executive orders banning immigration from several Muslim countries and refugees, understanding Bannon’s worldview has become all the more important.

That’s because Trump’s executive orders should be interpreted as the outgrowth of a coherent ideological framework and set of ideas about American democracy.

Bannon's ideology is most clearly reflected in Breitbart, the right wing nationalist site Bannon headed for a number of years.

Over the past month, I spent some time doing close readings of Breitbart articles published during and after the campaign, and came away with an overarching conclusion: For Bannon and Trump’s core group of supporters, the president’s victory was a rejection of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and globalization, and the triumph of white, Christian populist nationalism.

What Breitbart’s content says about its readers

Media and journalism matter both for their both importance in shaping and reflecting the identity of their readers and for the information they provide. The articles published on Breitbart during and immediately after the election reveal the stories Trump supporters told themselves about American politics.

Bannon’s role in the new administration and the incredible reach and influence of this site during the election also speaks of its influence. Breitbart is the 44th most popular website in the United States according to Alexa, with over 2.3 million followers on Facebook, and it had 18 million homepage visitors a month during the election. Even more, Breitbart’s mix of populist, anti-establishment themes, economic nationalism, and rejection of multiculturalism and globalization closely tracked Trump’s own rhetoric during the election cycle itself.

Perhaps the most common theme to emerge in these articles was the general idea and refrain of “taking back our country.” Trump himself tweeted after Brexit, “They took their country back, just like we will take America back.” Across Breitbart’s articles, Trump supporters were taking the country back from a litany of explicit targets including Democrats, the socialist left, the media, people of color, women, immigrants, establishment Republicans, free traders, Wall Street, and Washington, DC, insiders. Throughout many of these articles, the people on whose behalf the country would be “taken back” were characterized as “middle America,” “real America,” “deplorables,” and “fly-over country” — all standing up, asserting themselves and their values, and rejecting those who would repudiate them.

Breitbart’s writers very explicitly rejected the three pillars of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and globalism they claimed represented Obama’s presidency and candidacy. They also claimed these traits were linked to the fall of elites in Europe and the rise of right populism.

With respect to multiculturalism, Breitbart authors explicitly rejected immigrant incorporation, particularly for Muslims, into multicultural democracy. Numerous Breitbart contributors espoused the idea that Islam is incompatible with democracy, freedom of speech, and the peaceful and law-bound resolution of conflict. And, in a number of other articles, there was a broader critique of contemporary immigrants for their failure to incorporate themselves into American democracy. For example, in an article entitled “The Emerging Trumpian Majority’’ that entwines both ideas, James Pinkerton writes:

Once upon a time, immigration to the U.S. was a positive civic ritual that affirmed American values; that is, foreigners would come here legally, get a job, learn English, and embrace American ways. And presto! They too were Americans. It’s hard to think of anything healthier for a country’s psyche than to see others come and adapt to its ways.

By contrast, today, the situation is much different; too many foreigners come here illegally, wangle (sic) their way onto public assistance, and then sit as unassimilated clumps at best, as terrorists at worse. No wonder the American people are angry. And the Republican Party, at least, is reflecting that anger.

Secondly, Breitbart contributors rejected cosmopolitanism in favor of US nationalism. In an article entitled “The Ten Ideologies of America,” the pseudonymous Breitbart writer Virgil defines cosmopolitanism as:

…the view that we are all, everywhere, a part of a single world community, and that such things as nation-states, including the United States, only slow down the fulfillment of our true destiny — coming together in a global harmonic convergence….Left Cosmopolitanism means support for open borders, of course, and also for multiculturalism. As might be said, “Celebrate diversity — or else!” In addition, Left Cosmos love international organizations, such as the United Nations; to them, that’s the future — one big New World Order. Right Cosmopolitans also support open borders. In addition, being good capitalists, they support free trade and anything else that multinational corporations might wish for. And since they are private-sector-loving corporatists, they avidly embrace pro-business international combines, such as the World Trade Organization.

Broadly, Breitbart contributors espouse an American nationalism, one that explicitly turns inward to the United States for its source of moral values and strength. At the same time, this is linked to the critique of elites, who are seen as looking down upon ordinary Americans and their values in favor of an other-directed, outward-oriented, cosmopolitan outlook. Cosmopolitanism here is a cultural critique, linked to a perceived style of being and carrying oneself in the world, in sharp distinction to “American” identity and values.

The critique of globalism on Breitbart specifically offers an assault on global financial flows and international financial capitalism and free trade in favor of protectionism. For example, in a piece published in August titled “The Worldwide Trumpian Majority: Lessons From Brexit, Britain, and the United States,” Pinkerton writes:

Indeed, we can step back and see that around the world, the dueling forces are globalism, on the one hand, and nationalism, on the other.

Globalism, as we have observed, is a curious combination of socialism and capitalism — that is, bureaucrats and bankers, working together to flatten national boundaries and, indeed, to flatten the nation-state itself…

As for nationalism, that’s the credo of all others, whether we like them or not. Trump, Farage, and LePen are nationalists, but then so, too, are the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians. In other words, just about all the peoples of the world are instinctive nationalists; it’s globalism that is the strange mutation, afflicting mostly the West.

Taken together, Breitbart offers a rather coherent and overarching critique of contemporary currents in politics and the existing Democratic and Republican establishments. What is striking is the degree to which Breitbart’s positions — which closely tracked Trump’s own rhetoric during the campaign — tell a clear political story. Breitbart is, in part, about defining the symbolic border of the nation and protecting the white, Christian body politic in a way that is premised on exclusion.

At the same time, the embrace of globalization and multiculturalism are cast in Breitbart as anti-civil: policies that result in the weakening of services for white, working-class Americans. Indeed, the interests of those pursuing identity politics, in Breitbart’s view (contributors roundly fail to recognize their own arguments as a form of white identity politics), are seen as irreconcilable with those of “real” Americans. In “The Ten Ideologies of America: As Donald Trump Overthrows the Old Order, A Look at the New,” Virgil writes:

The old Democrats of FDR’s time were happy enough with capitalism; they just wanted to extend solidaristic job-protections, and basic social-insurance plans, to all Americans.

By contrast, today’s Democrats, filled with Cosmopolitan dreams, want to extend government benefits to the world — and that’s not just a budget-buster, it’s also a political loser.

In truth, today’s Democrats aren’t much interested in the well-being of working stiffs. Instead, they are enraptured with new plans to advance identity politics, co-ed bathrooms, and #BlackLivesMatter. All the while, of course, keeping the border open and suppressing energy production and economic activity.

Rousseau argued long ago that crafting the identity of a citizen is difficult. People are more instinctively drawn to small groups, whether that is their local communities or their near to hand social affiliations and identities. Constructing civil solidarity on the basis of an abstraction such as a pluralistic and multicultural nation is difficult and, ultimately, fragile. Trump’s election, and now these executive orders, have revealed the extent to which American democratic culture, norms, and institutions are very fragile.

Daniel Kreiss is an associate professor in the School of Media and Journalism, UNC Chapel Hill. A version of this piece first appeared on Medium.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com


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