Anti-Semite? Zionist? Champion of the alt-right?
In the hours after media provocateur Steven Bannon’s elevation to a senior position in president-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet, commentators and civil rights organizations slammed the move.
Bannon is a complex figure. He served as a Navy officer and also worked for Goldman Sachs. He also helped run a domed ecosystem in Arizona. Bannon, like many leaders in the contemporary hard-right movement, he became politically active during the early Tea Party years of President Barack Obama’s first term. Civil rights groups, Democrats and some Republicans have said that Bannon could bring anti-Semitic, nationalist and racist views to the White House.
But what does Bannon actually believe?
Like Trump, he has rode a wave of America first anger to a place of power. He sees himself as part of a “center right populist movement” that is “virulently anti-establishment,” he’s said. His website is avidly pro-Israel and he’s praised some of the far right-wing nationalism sweeping Europe. He also hopes to reconnect to what he calls the “Judeo-Christian” roots of Western society — roots which believes are imperiled by, among other factors, the rule of a global elite.
Bannon has danced delicately around questions of anti-Semitism and racism in right-wing populist movements, saying those with such views are “irrelevant” to the broader goals of the movement.
And while his personal beliefs are still murky — his political aims are clear: he wants nothing short of a global revolt.
“I think this is a global revolt,” he said in 2014, pointing to other nationalist movements, “and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.”
Bannon has kept a close eye on the popular discontent surging through the country in the years after the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, it’s how he made his career as a media entrepreneur at Breitbart, channeling economic outrage and building a media powerhouse.
“Fear is a good thing. Fear is going to lead you to take action,” he said in 2010.
And in 2013 he offered: “I think anger is a good thing, this country is in a crisis. The army that is prepared to get on back of this is getting bigger every day and more outraged.”
It’s this economic and online outrage that Bannon channeled at his website. Breitbart News was founded in 2007 by Andrew Brietbart, and emerged as one of the most popular conservative sites on the web. Writers and editors took pleasure in thumbing their noses at “political correctness,” and knowingly lampooning American liberal pieties.
But Bannon and readers of Breitbart did not fit neatly into a political camp.
They were as oppositional to the Republican party as they were to the Democratic. And before the rise of the alt-right (a relatively knew term) Bannon saw himself as a champion of the “grassroots tea party.”
“We don’t believe there is a functional conservative party in this country, and we certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that,” he said in 2013.
The “biggest fight is with the the Republican establishment,” he said, “which is really a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves and how they’re going to run things. And, quite frankly, it’s the reason that the United States’ financial situation is so dire, particularly our balance sheet.”
“The rise of Breitbart is directly tied to being the voice of that center-right opposition,” he said. “And, quite frankly, we’re winning many, many victories.”
Bannon admits that there is some racism within this broadly defined nationalist movement — but he calls it “irrelevant” and believes that it will be “washed out” over time.
But will the flames of anger he has stoked really subside?
The alt-right is ambivalent about Trump’s new pick, who some see already as a sellout of sorts.
In a recent alt-right thread, one user wrote on Bannon’s appointment: “Breitbart is ‘alt light’ not alt right.”
“Far too Jewish and pro-Zionist to be alt-right,” another offered. “I like Bannon’s direction as a nationalist but that’s as far as it goes. We cannot be subverted again.”
To some, it appears that prominent figures in the alt-right are already being sidelined.
On Tuesday night, Richard Spencer, a central figure in the alt-right who has called for the creation of a “white ethno-state,” was kicked off Twitter, presumably for his white nationalist views. In a widely-circulated video he called this the “great Twitter purge.”
To some observers, Bannon’s personal beliefs about Jews or other minorities are far less important than his aim of a “global revolt” — which seems to evoke older conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the world. This view appeals to nationalists like Spencer, who see whites as an embattled group in a hostile world.
“Classic white nationalist teachings draw upon older conspiracy theories,” said John-Paul Pagano, a writer who focuses on extremist movements, “where there is a white race facing off against liberal establishment elites.”
“More often than not the elites are Jews,” said Pagano, “who make it so whites can’t celebrate their heritage and have to yield their position of power to people of color.”
Paul Gottfried, a historian who helped coin the term “alternative right” and is considered by some as a mentor to Spencer, called Bannon a “cultural libertarian” who seems to revel in “anti-political correctness.”
Breitbart “goes after sacred cows and feminists and Black Lives Matter,” Gottfried said, “they play these games and Bannon seems to enjoy it.”
Is Steve Bannon a White Nationalist in the White House — or ‘Alt Light’ Sellout to Cause?
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.