If the current polls hold, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is facing a landslide defeat in November. But the campaign shakeup that occurred on Wednesday was more of a doubling down than a shift in direction: Trump hired Stephen Bannon, the executive chairman of the pro-Trump website Breitbart News as his campaign’s chief executive officer, while Trump pollster and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway will become campaign manager. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, resigned on Friday. These moves magnify the importance of having Bannon on board because he largely comfortable with Trump’s thrillingly forthright—if politically self-destructive—campaigning style.
Bannon’s move to the Trump campaign puts one of the alt-right’s most visionary strategic minds at the head of a major-party presidential run. It’s a move that reflects a certain convergence of interests between the anti-Semitic fringe and an emerging political mainstream—and one that could make Jews even less likely to vote for the Republican nominee this November.
Bannon, who became Breitbart’s chairman shortly after the death of founding editor Andrew Breitbart in March of 2012, has a colorful background. As an October 2015 feature in Bloomberg Businessweek recounted, Bannon’s been a naval officer, a Goldman Sachs investment banker, a Hollywood financier, and a right-wing polemical filmmaker. (In fact, an early ’90s transaction even landed him a percentage of Seinfeld royalties.) But Bannon’s most important innovation was merging investigative methods with conservatives’ “wilder impulses.” A Bannon-run Tallahassee-based research operation and Bannon’s instinct for media hacking resulted in the headline-making Peter Schweizer book, Clinton Cash. The book, and Bannon, seeded a front-page story in The New York Times about an alleged play-for-pay arrangement involving the Clinton Foundation, a Canadian mining executive, and a Russian company’s eventual acquisition of a large share of the U.S.’s uranium reserves.
Bannon is a pioneer in another sense: As easy as it is mock Breitbart’s shameless enthusiasm for Trump’s candidacy, his website and its brain trust read the territory a whole lot better than its more mainstream peers. Trump is the Republican nominee, and for the time being, alt-right tinged populism is the strongest intellectual and political force within one of the U.S.’s two major parties. Breitbart’s embrace of Trump and what he represents was a canny, far-sighted move. As Robert Costa of The Washington Post tweeted, “some people chuckled” when Bannon “predicted populism would take over the GOP” during an event in Iowa several years ago. Bannon was one of the few people convinced that the GOP was primed for a Trumpist turn. And he was right.
This prescience has paid off, and there’s reason for Jews to feel uneasy about Bannon’s success. Breitbart takes a strongly pro-Israel line on many stories, and has an Israel vertical called Breitbart Jerusalem. At the same time, the site has exhibited the same disquieting attitude towards American Jewry as much of the rest of the alt-right. In May, conservative author David Horowitz attacked anti-Trump Weekly Standard editor William Kristol as a “renegade Jew” in a Breitbart column, an epithet that carried the strong suggestion that certain conservative Jews had committed an all-too-stereotypical act of betrayal in refusing to fall in line behind Trump. The piece was loaded enough to earn the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League and the National Jewish Democratic Council.
In March, the site published a “guide to the alt-right” co-authored by Internet provocateur and Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannoplous. It included an apologia for certain forms of alt-right anti-Semitism: Trollish bigotry among younger members of the alt-right was in fact an “outburst of creativity and taboo-shattering,” since, after all, “Millennials aren’t old enough to remember the Second World War or the horrors of the Holocaust.” In a later article, Yiannopoulos wrote that “the majority of the alt-right use Hitler memes and mock antisemitism primarily to provoke and troll Establishment types.”
And then there was the site’s treatment of Ben Shapiro, a columnist who resigned in light of Breitbart’s decision not to back reporter Michelle Fields after then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was videotaped grabbing her during a press scrum following a March 2016 campaign event. Shortly after his departure from Trump camp, Breitbart published a satirically-toned post about Shapiro’s “epic Twitter tantrum” that nevertheless included a few notably dog whistle-like phrases: Shapiro had possibly “sold out to the globalists” in leaving Breitbart, and is reassured over a series of condescending rhetorical head pats that “no one hates Jewish people.” The post includes a video of a child sobbing, along with text reading, “Little Benji is convinced anyone who disagrees with him, is antisemetic [sic].”
Shapiro called Bannon “a legitimately sinister figure” in a post for The Daily Wire, where Shapiro is now editor-in-chief. He told me he believes that Bannon likely signed off on the publication of the site’s more problematic articles. “No big piece goes up on Breitbart.com without Steve Bannon’s direct authorization,” said Shapiro. “In my opinion, there’s no way in hell that thing thing went up without Bannon’s authorization,” he added, in reference to the “renegade Jew” story.
Regardless of whether or not there’s a direct connection between Bannon and the site’s more troubling Jewish-related content, he still served as chairman of Breitbart at the time these articles appeared, and oversaw the site’s broader shift to the alt-right. One center-right Jewish strategist who was friends with Andrew Breitbart and has interacted with Bannon said he “can’t imagine he’s a fan of the anti-Semitic behavior observed within the alt-right movement but unfortunately won’t stand up to it, much like Hillary’s people are unlikely to disavow the more belligerent voices within Black Lives Matter.”
Breitbart’s content backs this notion that on the question of anti-Semitism among Trump supporters, Bannon is something of a pragmatist. He also didn’t strike Shapiro as being all that ideologically motivated in the first place. “Bannon was a shapeshifter politically,” Shapiro recalled of his time at Breitbart. “It was hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t. He doesn’t have principles, he has interests.” Shapiro also “never got the impression from Steve that he was a principled constitutional conservative. But I don’t think his politics have much to do with anything.”
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect the news on Friday that Paul Manafort has resigned as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.