It’s safe to say that nobody ever imagined a scenario where Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote by roughly one million people (currently it’s 992,000 and climbing) — and yet, the result would be a senior White House job for a fringe character like Steve Bannon.
Who is Bannon and what does his ascent represent? Republican strategist John Weaver gives us a hint: “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented two steps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant, America.”
True that. Right-wing extremists are thrilled that Bannon, until recently the chief executive of the alt-right Breitbart News site, will serve the new president as chief strategist. Stormfront, a white-nationalist website, praises Bannon as “racist, anti-homo, anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish … Being anti-Jewish is not illegal.” White nationalist writer Richard Spencer exults that Bannon “will be freed up to chart Trump’s macro trajectory.” Rocky Suhayhda, chairman of the American Nazi Party, says of Bannon’s appointment, “Perhaps The Donald is for real.”
Yup, they know their man well. Under Bannon’s tutelage, Breitbart News has assailed neoconservative Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.” The site has written that birth control “makes women unattractive and crazy.” Bannon has characterized feminists as “a bunch of dykes,” his ex-wife swore in a court declaration that “he didn’t want [his] girls going to school with Jews.” A former Breitbart News editor, Ben Shapiro, says that Bannon has made the website a haven for “white ethno-nationalism,” and has turned the comment section “into a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”
There’s much more, but you get the idea. Thanks to the 47 percent of voters who cast ballots for Trump, a certified troll will have a president’s ear for the very first time.
But Bannon’s views — especially his extremist populism (“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down.”) — are actually less significant than how he plans to amplify those views. Leveraging his links to Breitbart News (which is expanding internationally), Bannon will be well positioned to serve as Trump’s personal minister of disinformation.
Most presidents have had testy or adversarial relationships with the mainstream Washington press corps, but this will be the first time that a president has employed an in-house advisor-propagandist who can provide infaux counter-programming. In other words, we will soon witness the debut of state-run media. Vladimir Putin will be proud.
But don’t take my word for it. Traditional conservative media outlets have long described Breitbart News as “Trump’s Pravda.” Indeed, the Wall Street Journal editorial page has said that “Pravda is more subtle.” Texas-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak has described Breitbart’s content as “Trump fan fiction,” and Stephen Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine has denounced “the alternate reality that Breitbart creates for [Trump] on a daily basis — where everything he does is best, where everyone who questions him is an idiot or a traitor.”
So, two Americas — separated more than ever by the streams of information they consume.
Bannon’s empire doesn’t have brand recognition in the mainstream world, but it’s increasingly influential with the populist Americans who ignore mainstream media. On election night, Breitbart content reportedly got more Facebook impressions than CNN or even Fox News. That’s a harbinger of the future. In the tart words of Politico media writer Jack Shafer:
“If past is prologue, we can expect Trump to maintain his hatred of the mainstream press, and even increase it … Trump needs a press organ that can explain his successes to more than just the Trump faithful and that can also go to war with Trump’s enemies in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the banks, Ford Motor Co., Carrier, the immigration lobby, Planned Parenthood, Jeff Bezos, Paul Ryan, the Supreme Court, CNN, and various special interests.”
Anyone still in denial about what’s happening needs to wake up. Bannon’s hiring is proof that Trump’s sliming of a free independent press, and his institutional threats, were not just campaign rhetoric. A sustained defense of free expression is the only acceptable response. As the Moscow-born journalist Masha Gessen warned last week, “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.”
Today’s head-in-hands moment, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal:
“During their private White House meeting on Thursday, Mr. Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope, said people familiar with the meeting …. After meeting with Mr. Trump, the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance. He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do, people familiar with the matter said.”
Everybody thought Trump would lose — including his own team. As late as Oct. 18, his campaign’s “internal election simulator” gave him a 7.8 percent shot at victory. And “even on the eve of the election, Trump’s models predicted only a 30 percent likelihood of victory.”