Breitbart, explained: the conservative media giant that wants Trump to burn down the GOP

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It’s hard to grapple with where the conservative movement is today without understandingBreitbart.com. The publication has long had a huge audience, but its larger influence became clear last week after Donald Trump appointed Breitbart’s longtime chair, Steve Bannon, to be his campaign’s CEO.

Breitbart is now the in-house publication of the Republican nominee for president in all but name. What it publishes explains a great deal of Trump’s appeal — and is helping to define what “Trumpism” means.

So what is Breitbart’s oeuvre? Well, it’s the kind of site that has an entire category of articles called “black crime.” It once reported a photo of an old Adidas shirt as evidence that Islamist terrorists are sneaking across the Mexican border. It has referred to conservative writer Bill Kristol as a renegade Jew.” This is the norm, not the exception: One of Breitbart’s key distinguishing features today is lurid, fearmongering coverage of minority groups, particularly African Americans and Muslims.

On one level, the significance of a publication like Breitbart taking over the GOP is obvious: The Trump campaign is, to an unprecedented degree, openly catering to racists and xenophobes.

But the real story here is a great deal more subtle. Breitbart’s ascendancy isn’t an accident. It’s a microcosm of the broader story of conservative institutions. The story of Breitbart is the story of the traditional conservative movement being defeated by a force, a kind of white populist nationalism, that it had previously depended on.

Understanding Breitbart, then, isn’t just important for understanding Trump and his presidential campaign; it also helps us understand the rot eating away at the foundations of American conservatism.

The founder: Andrew Breitbart

Andrew Breitbart.
(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Any attempt to understand Breitbart has to begin with the site’s founder, the late Andrew Breitbart. No one else better encapsulates the site’s vicious, bomb-throwing ethos — and the role that mainstream conservatism played in encouraging it.

Breitbart was one of the political internet’s pioneers. He got his start in 1995 working at the Drudge Report, back when it was a humble email newsletter called merely “the Report.”

His then-boss, Matt Drudge, introduced him to Arianna Huffington — yes, that Arianna Huffington (she started her career attacking feminism and writing for conservative outlets like National Review). Huffington hired Breitbart as a research assistant, and he eventually helped her launch the Huffington Post in 2005. Shortly thereafter, he launched his own site, Breitbart.com, which began life as a glorified news aggregator. But the site wouldn’t remain unoriginal for long.

Huffington became more liberal, but Breitbart remained a fairly hard-line conservative. Yet his worldview wasn’t anything like anyone else’s in the conservative movement.

For one thing, Breitbart was just nothing like the bow-tied religious type that had long dominated respectable conservatism. He liked to party, once complaining about the “dearth of artists” in the conservative movement.

“I like to call someone a raving cunt every now and then, when it’s appropriate, for effect,” he said in an interview with the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead. “‘You cocksucker.’ I love that kind of language.”

In addition to his live-hard lifestyle, he differed from normal conservatives in another respect: He never really cared that much about policy. While other conservative writers defined themselves by issues like fighting abortion or the Iraq War or battling health care reform, Breitbart saw the important battles as taking place outside of Washington.

“It’s like when people are like, ‘What do you think we should do on health care?’ I don’t fucking have a clue. It’s too complicated for me,” he told Slate’s Christopher Beam in 2010. “I’m trying to shift the focus of conservative movement from the narrow — the policy — to a much higher elevation, granting them a greater perspective.”

Breitbart saw the enemy as something that he called “cultural Marxism” (importantly distinct from the actual approach to cultural studies inspired by Marx).

Breitbart believed that in the mid-20th century, a series of European intellectuals immigrated to America and developed a plot to destroy it. According to Breitbart, these intellectuals — mostly Frankfurt School thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — saw America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” as the key peg underpinning American capitalism.

“In the 1940s, the left came in and said, ‘America is not susceptible to the argument that its economic system, capitalism, is wrong,’” Breitbart said in a 2011 lecture. “These social engineering ingrates — ingrates! — who came from the University of Frankfurt … they were the ones that devised that America’s capitalism could not survive an assault on its checks and balances, and that was its Judeo-Christianity.”

Breitbart believed, very firmly, that today’s left was executing on this plot — that the mainstream media, the academy, and Hollywood were all leftist-dominated institutions working to transform American society to lay the groundwork for a Marxist revolution. Their weapons, he says, are “political correctness [and] multiculturalism.” Breitbart’s mission was to fight back, to liberate culture from leftist political correctness.

“The left is smart enough to understand that the way to change a political system is through its cultural systems,” he explained to Mead. “So you look at the conservative movement — working the levers of power, creating think tanks, and trying to get people elected in different places — while the left is taking over Hollywood, the music industry, the churches.”

Beginning in 2007, he started expanding Breitbart.com into the Breitbart News media empire. He started with Breitbart.tv, which focused on videos, and then expanded to print news with the “Big” network of sites: Big Journalism, Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Peace.

Unlike more traditional conservative publications like National Review or the Weekly Standard, the Big sites didn’t really focus on policy or dissections of conservative ideas. The Big sites shared their founder’s populist aesthetic, as well as his view of politics as cultural combat.

In September 2009, Breitbart got a scoop that would make him a household name. A young conservative provocateur named James O’Keefe had dressed up as a pimp and taped himself asking employees at the liberal community organizing group ACORN for help setting up a brothel. He gave the tape to Breitbart, who leveraged his platform and experience with the web into maximum publicity.

The sting was wildly unethical — for one thing, O’Keefe did not identify himself as a journalist at any point. It was also highly successful. The negative press and congressional attention dried up ACORN’s funding stream, forcing it to cease operations. Breitbart saw the affair as proof that journalism, properly weaponized, could be used to destroy the institutions that cultural Marxists were using to ruin American society.

This kind of high-profile scoop became Breitbart’s calling card, one the Big sites used to mixed effect. To his credit, Breitbart broke the story of then-Rep. Anthony Weiner using his Twitter account with a pseudonym to send dick pics to women.

But he also selectively edited a video of Department of Labor employee Shirley Sherrod to make it look like she was condemning white people as a group (she was actually telling a story about racial harmony). Sherrod, who is black, was fired from her job. She sued Breitbart, and later settled with his wife for an undisclosed amount.

This all might lead you to think that Breitbart would be, at best, a fringe member of the conservative movement. Conservatives were united by a shared policy vision; Breitbart’s knowledge of policy was limited at best. Conservatives have long claimed to share a defined political worldview dating back to the 1950s; Breitbart’s defining belief in a “cultural Marxist” conspiracy was demonstrably wacky. Conservatives styled themselves as anti-racist in the tradition of the party of Lincoln; Breitbart’s campaign against Sherrod could generously be called borderline racist.

The fact that Breitbart’s brand of right-wing populism was troubling — that his war on “multiculturalism” could bleed into outright racism — was always obvious, at least to some observers. If you believed racism was alive and well among the American public, then it’s obvious whom a politics of anti-anti-racism would attract.

But Breitbart got results, getting scoops and infuriating liberals. Not only that, but many conservatives believe “political correctness” and anti-racism — things like affirmative action — are bigger problems today than racism itself. Breitbart’s campaign against cultural Marxism was music to their ears.

So Breitbart became something akin to a right-wing rock god, a staple at major conservative conferences and gatherings hosted by the conservative old guard. He was constantly on Fox News, yelling about cultural Marxism and snorting red wine powder on its late-night showRed Eye. His untimely death at the age of 43 in 2012, from heart failure, was widely mourned as a major loss for the conservative movement.

“I cannot tell you how beloved Andrew Breitbart was,” Rush Limbaugh said in a 2013 monologue. “He was a hero to everyone that knew him.”

The defining figure: Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon.
(Paul Marotta/Getty Images/SiriusXM)

After Breitbart’s death, the network of sites bearing his name did not collapse. Instead, in mid-2012, the Big sites relaunched, all consolidated under the banner of Breitbart.com.

The man behind the relaunch was Steve Bannon, a former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker, and Hollywood investor who gets royalties from Seinfeld. Bannon had met Breitbart at a movie premiere in 2005 and was intoxicated by his vision of politics as a fight to save American culture.

He became a trusted Breitbart adviser and a key fundraiser for the Breitbart News venture. Breitbart called him the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement,” an oddly positive reference to Nazi Germany’s most famous filmmaker.

“One of the things I admired about him was that the dirtiest word for him was ‘punditry,’ ” Bannon told Bloomberg’s Joshua Green. “Our vision — Andrew’s vision — was always to build a global, center-right, populist, anti-establishment news site.”

After Breitbart’s death, Bannon became chair of the company. His vision for Breitbart.com would end up defining Breitbart News’s ethos. “Steve ran the site and controlled the content as a dictator,” former Breitbart spokesperson Kurt Bardella writes in the Hill.

Bannon believes the left wasn’t Team Breitbart’s only enemy. Corrupt conservatives — mainstream sellouts — aided and abetted the cultural Marxists in their destruction of America. Bannon hated the conservative embrace of “crony capitalism,” collusion between conservative elites and big business to make the elite rich at the expense of the little guy.

“At Breitbart, part of our explosive growth is because … we don’t really believe that there’s a functional conservative party in this country,” Bannon said during a 2013 panel appearance. In a private email sent shortly after Breitbart’s death, he was more blunt.

“This is about power,” Bannon wrote, “and who is going to exert it.”

Bannon frequently uses the word “populist” to describe his worldview, and that’s how he saw Breitbart’s coverage. The goal was to stand up for “lower- and middle-class” people against the big-government conservatives in Washington. That meant championing politicians whom he saw as challenging the conservative elite. Breitbart’s coverage of Sarah Palin, and later Ted Cruz, was particularly fawning.

“Palin [attacks] the bipartisan permanent political class and their embrace of crony capitalism,” Breitbart’s Tony Lee wrote in 2014. “That is why Palin has always appealed to Reagan Democrats and independents fed up with both parties.”

It also meant publishing harsh attacks on leading Republicans, particularly on issues where Bannon believed the GOP was out of step with ordinary Republicans. Immigration is perhaps the best example: Under Bannon, Breitbart has been viciously, harshly opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and really toward immigration in general.

The site, like Donald Trump, believes immigrants bring crime and steal American jobs. Worse, they are a key part of the cultural Marxist plot against America. “The Cultural Marxist programme had a wide-reaching agenda of destruction, [including]  large-scale immigration to abolish national identity,” Breitbart writer Gerald Warner said in a 2015 piece. Republicans who supported “amnesty” did so because they wanted to line big businesses’ pockets — the kind of “crony capitalism” Bannon despises.

Breitbart stories frequently hype reports about crime involving immigrants, with headlines that sound like they came from tabloids (representative example: “One Sex Offender Illegal Alien Caught After Another Alleged Offender Legalized”). They viciously attack Republicans they believe are betraying true conservatism, blasting Paul Ryan (for example) as a supporter of “radical amnesty-and-open-borders.”

Breitbart essentially functioned as an anti-immigration pressure group, signaling to Republican leaders that any deviation on immigration would earn them the wrath of the base.

Taking a hard line on immigration wasn’t the only issue on which Breitbart made its mark. The site attempted to marry its combative cultural approach to Andrew Breitbart’s penchant for news-making scoops. The problem, though, is that its standards for what counted as evidence weren’t all that high. The result was a series of faux scoops — things that sounded damning but ended up being comically inaccurate.

Two notable examples stand out. First, in 2013, Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro reported that then-defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel had accepted money from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” No such group existed or had ever existed. Breitbart’s source was actually making a joke about how heated the campaign against Hagel was at the time, that people would actually believe he had links to a group with such an absurd name.

Second, Breitbart reported in 2014 that then-attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch had represented Hillary and Bill Clinton during Whitewater. Indeed, someone name Loretta Lynch was a Clinton attorney at that time — but it was a different Loretta Lynch.

All journalists make mistakes, even egregious ones, from time to time. But Breitbart’s errors were repeated and endemic. They were the logical result of its core editorial commitment to journalism as more of a culture war than the reporting of facts. The goal, for Breitbart, wasn’t accuracy first; it was victory over cultural Marxism.

“This is the Breitbart.com way of doing business,” Alex Koppelman wrote in the New Yorkerafter the Friends of Hamas debacle. “Where journalists are researchers, they see themselves as warriors, picking up Breitbart’s hashtagged mantle #WAR. With that mindset, the kind of rigor they demand from the mainstream media becomes a hindrance.”

Yet despite these antics — or perhaps because of them — Breitbart attracted a pretty intense fan base in the conservative world. While it developed something of a tabloid reputation, looked down upon by much of the conservative intellectual elite, it had a major readership among both rank-and-file Republicans and some on Capitol Hill.

“They have an incredible eye for an important story, particular ones that are important to conservatives and Republicans,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) told Bloomberg’s Green. “They’ve become extraordinarily influential. Radio talk show hosts are reading Breitbart every day. You can feel it when they interview you.”

This appeal came from a disconnect between the Republican elite and its voters. Republican leaders were more motivated by conservative dogma on the economy and foreign policy. They thought cultural grievances about issues like immigration were sideshows, and they appealed to those sentiments while really pushing on the issues that mattered to them.

Breitbart was consciously founded on the idea that those leaders were wrong, that Republican voters really cared about the culture war, and that conservative ideology was the discardable bit. The site’s growing influence on the right proved its vision right, making it impossible for the conservative mainstream to purge it even if they wanted to.

The mainstream conservative movement has mostly been in denial on this point.

“Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble,” Avik Roy, a GOP health care wonk who worked for the Romney campaign, told me in July. “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

But Bannon, perhaps intuitively, put his finger on it years ago. His vision of a populist uprising against Republican elites, fueled by cultural resentment, turned out to be prescient. Breitbart under his stewardship was perfectly positioned to be a Donald Trump bannerman.

The descent: Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo Yiannopoulos.
(Zack Beauchamp/Vox)

Under Bannon, Breitbart expanded greatly, setting up bureaus in Texas, California, the UK, and Israel. But no movement was more important in defining Breitbart’s current incarnation that its hiring of British journalist Milo Yiannopoulous. Yiannopoulos, more than anyone else, is responsible for allying Breitbart with the alt-right movement, a fringe group of nakedly racist, pro-Trump, right-wing agitators.

Yiannopoulous has worked in journalism, mostly tech journalism, since dropping out of college in the early 2000s. He made a name for himself in his native England writing provocative, gossipy pieces — founding the Kernel, which his website describes as an “online tabloid magazine,” in 2011. In both 2011 and 2012, Wired named him one of the top 100“innovators and influencers shaping the Wired world.” In 2014, he sold the Kernel and took up residence at Breitbart as an associate editor.

At first, it looked like Yiannopoulous might end up being just one more provocateur at a site full of them. But in late 2014, things changed. Yiannopoulous got mixed up in Gamergate, an online controversy driven by video gamers who felt women and minorities were being overrepresented in games and commentary about games. Milo sided with the gamers: A Breitbart piece he wrote, titled “Feminist bullies tearing the video game industry apart,”gets his position across pretty well.

Gamergate, for Yiannopoulos, was proof positive of Andrew Breitbart’s maxim that politics is “downstream from culture.” The real war, Yiannopoulos believes, isn’t about immigration policy — it’s about freeing cultural institutions from left-wing, “politically correct” bullies.

So Yiannopoulos turned his byline at Breitbart into something of a work of performance art — writing offensive piece after offensive piece as an act of rebellion against the politically correct liberals who controlled culture. A few examples:

  • He declared his birthday “World Patriarchy Day,” and encouraged his followers to “cat-call at least five women” in celebration, refer to any female employees they have “exclusively as darling,” and tell a woman that “this isn’t going to suck itself.”
  • He claimed he “went gay” so he “didn’t have to deal with nutty broads.” (Milo is actually gay, so it is unclear exactly how much of a joke this is supposed to be.)
  • He created something called the “Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant,” a college scholarship available only to white men. The idea is to put them “on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates.”
  • He hired a black porn star, Jovan Jordan, as a bodyguard when attending a meetup for video gamers. Milo’s reasoning? “My most ardent haters are feminists, and their fear of penises is well-known,” he wrote in a Breitbart piece. “It was vital, therefore, that I sought the services of a man believed to have the biggest dick in the porn industry.”

Bannon and the rest of the Breitbart hierarchy didn’t oppose the mainstreaming of sexism and racism on their site. In fact, they welcomed it. In October 2015, Yiannopoulos was promoted to be the editor of Breitbart’s brand new Tech section.

Yiannopoulos is the logical culmination of Andrew Breitbart’s vision of politics as cultural combat. If cultural Marxism is the real enemy, and political correctness is its most potent weapon, then the ultimate objective must be defanging political correctness. Milo’s strategy of destroying political correctness by proving you can be offensive and maintain a platform is about as direct a way of doing this as you can imagine.

Breitbart has done a lot of stuff like this, especially in its writing on race and gender. It once referred to a mass shooting by a black man in Virginia as a race murder,” and published a piece calling the sexist men’s rights movement “a smart, necessary counterweight to man-hating feminism.” Yiannopoulos was simply more brazen, effective, and charismatic about it than anyone else Breitbart had on staff.

Perhaps the most significant thing Yiannopoulos has accomplished at Breitbart is definitively linking the site to the alt-right.

The alt-right is a group of online dissidents from mainstream conservatism. While they have a diverse set of beliefs and interests, they share one core belief: Mainstream conservatism is full of politically correct sellouts.

The alt-right encompasses a range of views. It includes among its ranks people who’d traditionally be just called white supremacists or white nationalists, people like Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute (who coined the term “alt-right”) or American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor. But it also includes people who reject bigotry, at least in its overt forms, but whose views are still too reactionary for the conservative mainstream.

Regardless, racism and sexism are essential elements of the alt-right movement; it could not exist in its current form without them.

Alt-righters tend to oppose mass immigration on the grounds that Latin Americans and Muslims dilute the excellence of white culture. They support what they call “white identity politics” — the idea that white Americans should organize and stick up for their own interests because minority groups do the same thing. They blame “globalists” in both the liberal and conservative elite for selling out white America through free trade and open borders.

Hot arguments on the alt-right include the idea that African Americans are intrinsically dumber than white Americans, that society would be better off if women had fewer opportunities outside of the home, and that Nazism maybe wasn’t all bad.

Yiannopoulos has used his platform at Breitbart to mainstream this movement. “Although initially small in number, the alt-right has a youthful energy and jarring, taboo-defying rhetoric that have boosted its membership and made it impossible to ignore,” he wrote in a glowing March profile co-authored with his protégé Allum Bokhari.

Once again, Yiannopoulos faced no consequences for his dabbling with a demonstrably racist movement. In fact, Bannon embraced it, applying the alt-right label to his own vision for the outlet. “We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon enthused to Mother Jones’s Sarah Posner in a July interview.

Bannon’s defining belief is that the mainstream conservative movement is in hoc to elites who want to open the borders and generally ignore the interests of the (white) working class. This is basically the same overarching intellectual framework as the alt-right, only Bannon’s motivations are far less openly racist.

Breitbart today, then, has given in to its basic impulses. It is now, according to the man who shaped its vision more than anyone else, openly a home for an “intellectual” movement that believes the conservative movement’s biggest problem is its hostility to racism and sexism. Breitbart’s subtext is now the text.

The inevitable conclusion: Donald Trump

Trump
C’mon, you know who this is.
(Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Almost all of this was widely understood when Trump appointed Bannon to be his campaign CEO in mid-August. But the truth is that Trump just didn’t care: Breitbart was, in his mind, a friendly outlet. Very, very friendly.

Since Trump began running, Breitbart has aggressively promoted his candidacy, giving him the kind of hagiographic treatment it had previously provided to outsiders like Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. The coverage has been so positive that Matt Boyle, one of Breitbart’s leading political reporters, has reportedly bragged that he could be made press secretary in a Trump administration.

So in March, when then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski manhandled Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields and then denied it, the site faced an existential dilemma. Back your reporter, like any journalistic outlet would do, or side with the Trump campaign, like a Trump Super PAC would?

We all know the answer at this point. Breitbart forbade its reporters from supporting Fields (who, I should disclose, is a personal friend of mine). A Breitbart editor, Joel Pollak, published a piece arguing that the incident could not possibly have happened as Fields described it. Fields quit Breitbart in disgust, as did several members of the site’s staff.

Trump is the vindication of everything Breitbart has ever stood for, so standing with him over Fields made sense.

Overriding focus on attacking political correctness? Check. Harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric? Check. Broadsides against the conservative elite? Check. Politics of white resentment? Check, check, and check.

“His thing on illegal alien crime was literally taken off the pages of Breitbart,” Bannon told the Huffington Post. “Whoever put it in front of him, he was speaking of many of the themes we’ve been covering for years.”

Trump’s victory over the Republican Party is also Breitbart’s. There’s nothing the site celebrates more gleefully than Trump’s humbling of its enemies, like the “amnesty” sympathizer Paul Ryan.

“The sitting Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), has been brought to his knees, bowing down before the almighty nationalist populist movement, as his life’s work — a career in politics — flashes before his eyes,” Boyle wrote in an August piece. He continues:

Previously thought to be unbreakable in his strident push for the elites’ globalist agenda — unlimited open borders immigration from the third world into America coupled with amnesty for illegal aliens along with unchecked trade agreements that drain American jobs to China, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere around the world — Ryan has been proven to be weak.

Boyle and the rest of the Breitbart team have earned this. Their publication, after years of shouting at the elite from the sidelines, is currently in sync with the GOP nominee.

But what next?

The question now is whether, after what increasingly looks like a likely Trump loss, they can win the war for the Republican Party’s soul. Purge the Paul Ryans and make the alt-right mainstream.

Nobody knows the answer to this question. But mainstream Republicans, the many who despise Trump’s influence on their movement, need to start by being honest about how Breitbart came to hold so much power in their party.

The emerging conservative line is that Breitbart has been corrupted: that Andrew Breitbart would abhor what it has become today.

“Andrew Breitbart despised racism,” Ben Shapiro, the former Breitbart reporter who penned the Friends of Hamas story, wrote in the wake of Bannon’s appointment to the Trump campaign. “Andrew’s life mission has been betrayed.”

But this is letting Breitbart, and the conservative movement itself, off the hook. What Breitbart would say today is unknowable. But what we do know is that Breitbart’s entire ethos, his weird obsession with cultural Marxism and penchant for misleading “scoops,” is in his website’s DNA. He saw Steve Bannon as an ideological ally, elevating him to a position where he would define Breitbart’s legacy.

At the time, liberals argued that Andrew Breitbart’s approach pointed to an ugly blind spot about racism in the conservative movement. They warned that the kind of conspiracism and fact-free reporting Breitbart.com engaged in was pulling the conservative movement into dangerous waters.

Breitbart’s collapse into all-but-open racism, then, wasn’t just predictable — it was predicted. That, at the very least, should cause mainstream conservatives to question why they saw things differently.

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