No, Stephen Bannon is not a white supremacist
Right now, the fearmongering over Trump is a bigger problem than Trump.
In the ongoing, concerted campaign to paint Trump’s America as a society on the brink of 1930s-style barbarism, the appointment of Stephen Bannon – former Breitbart Media chairman and CEO of Trump’s campaign – has been a boon.
The career provocateur and self-described nationalist-populist has been made White House chief strategist, putting him on a par with chief of staff Reince Priebus. It wasn’t long before the hysterical articles followed. ‘Anti-Semite gets top Trump post’, ran a headline on the Huffington Post. ‘Steve Bannon runs an anti-Semitic website, is a misogynist and will be one of Donald Trump’s senior advisers’, said Salon. Bannon’s time steering Breitbart, says Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, saw him turn it into the ‘premier website of the “alt-right” – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists’.
Even by the standards of the post-Trump hysteria that has gripped the pro-Hillary set, the response to Bannon’s appointment has been positively unhinged. Is Bannon an anti-Semite? Well, only if you ask his ex-wife. She claimed that he ‘didn’t like Jews’ in the midst of messy divorce proceedings. Meanwhile, the disproportionately Jewish Breitbart staff have rallied around him. Even Breitbart’s former editor-at-large, Jewish commentator Ben Shapiro (who openly loathes Bannon and left the site after it transformed, in his words, into ‘Trump’s Pravda’), has come to his defence. As for the idea that he’s a ‘white nationalist’, this, too, is a more than a little over-cooked. ‘I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist’, he told the Hollywood Reporter last week.
No doubt, Bannon is a protectionist and a reactionary, and Breitbart, like Trump, often trades in a sense of white, blue-collar peril. But he has said nothing publicly to suggest he hates anyone beyond the Clintons, crony capitalists and the politically correct, ‘libtard’-dominated media. The former navy man turned Goldman Sachs trader turned media mogul is little more than a Tea Party type who loves a fight; a career opportunist who attached himself to figures like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and now Trump in an attempt to rise up the anti-establishment ranks and bring Breitbart’s Google ranking up with him. In the end, the case against him predominantly rests on a few salty, semi-serious Breitbart headlines – ‘Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?’, being among the most quoted.
The reaction to Bannon’s appointment comes after months of fearmongering about the so-called alt-right, which Breitbart has at times embraced as a ‘transgressive’, ‘dissident’ response to political correctness. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the alt-right – a loose association of bloggers, self-styled intellectuals and trolls – espouses ‘white ethno-nationalism’. But the fact that the SPLC recently designated liberal Muslim critic Maajid Nawaz an ‘anti-Muslim extremist’ suggests we should be sceptical. Though some of the alt-right’s figureheads are demonstrable bigots, the bulk of this Twitter-based non-movement appears to be basement-bound idiots who think sending black actresses racist memes is funny. Though the alt-right is a hideous development – whose ugly pranks should be condemned, not apologised for – it is predominantly made up of teenagers in need of little more than a slap and a girlfriend.
The post-election pearl-clutching about the rise of a populist American racism, the idea that Bannon will steer the Trump administration towards segregation and pogroms, is not only deranged – it’s dangerous. In an attempt to smear an administration they simply don’t like, liberal critics are fomenting anxiety, and emboldening genuine bigots, by suggesting America is on the precipice of all-out race war. What’s more, gleefully throwing around terms like ‘white nationalism’ and ‘white supremacy’ strips them of their meaning. The response to Bannon’s appointment shows how aloof the cultural elite is. These people are so perplexed as to why anyone would chose the brash, anti-establishment Trump over the patrician, technocratic Hillary that they resort to name-calling and peddling panic. But this comes at cost: it needlessly ratchets up fear and blinds them to what the rise of Trump really means.
What’s more, it feeds the dynamic that forged the alt-right in the first place. The alt-right is a reaction to a climate in which merely straying from the PC script can see you labelled racist and bigoted. ‘The only response to outrage culture is to be outrageous’, says Breitbart writer and arch provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. And alt-righters have taken that shallow dictum a step further, deciding that in an age when anyone can be labelled a ‘white supremacist’ the only response is to pretend to be one. What you end up with is a politics of bad faith, defined by kneejerk offence-taking on one side and willful, attention-seeking provocation on the other. At its worst, Bannon’s Breitbart is the mirror image of PC shrillness: raging against ‘feminazis’, rather than neo-Nazis; ‘black nationalists’ (aka Black Lives Matter), rather than white nationalists.