Steve Bannon’s dangerous campaign to rebrand racism as American “nationalism”

A new vision for America.
A new vision for America.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegr's
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In just over two months’ time, US president-elect Donald Trump will settle into the Oval Office, bringing with him a cadre of advisors so far rumored to include neo-conservatives, former lobbyists, and outspoken conspiracy theorists. Just down the hall will sit the man who, perhaps more than anyone else, helped steer Trump toward the White House: Steve Bannon, erstwhile executive chairman of the conservative news site Breitbart and Trump campaign CEO, tapped earlier this week as Trump’s chief strategist.

Over the past week, Bannon has metamorphosed from background actor to household name. Originally hired by Trump’s team in August, Bannon has retained his slouchy look: part football coach, part ex-husband who’s overstayed his time in Margaritaville. But his casual appearance belies his organizational acumen and keen sense of the political currents roiling the American right.

Questions remain regarding Bannon’s true beliefs and desired political outcomes. Namely, is Bannon a white nationalist? And if so, what does that portend for the US, and the racial, sexual, and religious minorities suddenly nervous about their place in broader American society?

The immediate answer as to whether or not Bannon is a white nationalist is—with numerous caveats—no. Or at least, he has taken pains not to identify as one. Unlike the most outspoken white nationalists (see: Matthew Heimbach, Richard Spencer, or the Northwest Front), Bannon has never espoused either immediate or future desires to expel non-whites from the US. Those close to Bannon also disavow claims about his racist and misogynist attitudes, which often single out Muslims, women, and Jews.

But here’s where it gets tricky. Bannon has also spent a good amount of time helping to rebrand the so-called alt-right—that murk of internet trolls, anti-establishmentarians, and avowed white supremacists to whom Bannon’s Breitbart caters. By referring to this group as nationalists as opposed to white nationalists or white supremacists, Bannon has also been able to argue that US nationalism is similar to a series of counterparts in Europe. These parallels are used both to legitimize the movement, and to help muster international backing. “If you look at the identity movements over there in Europe, I think a lot of [them] are really ‘Polish identity’ or ‘German identity,’ not racial identity,” Bannon, who’d earlier made his name producing hagiographic films about Sarah Palin, said. “It’s more identity toward a nation-state or their people as a nation.”

While the distinction between nationalism and white nationalism may seem like splitting hairs from a liberal perspective, the shift is importantand arguably makes Bannon even more dangerous. Underlying the misogyny, Islamophobia and bigotry of the Trump campaign is a statist approach to nationalism that professes to include any and all peoples and faiths—so long as white Protestants remain, as it were, first among equals. “I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors,” Bannon said in 2014, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.”

Thanks to this positioning, Hungary’s Victor Orban, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and France’s Marine Le Pen—a trio of proto-fascist nationalists helming Europe’s lurch to the autocratic, kleptocratic right—greeted Trump’s victory with glee. And in the political operator who will be Trump’s senior strategist, these leaders clearly spy a man after their own hearts. This is a man whose anti-immigrant rhetoric—whose “toxic ideology,” as the New York Times wrote—is outpaced only by his homophobia; a man who’d fracture “globalist” supra-structures in the name of misplaced national pride. A man who, in 2014, described himself as a “Leninist,” who “want[s] to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” A man who sees a proper place, and proper hierarchy, for all genders, races, and religions.

The message has also been clearly received in the US. Bannon’s lukewarm denials haven’t stopped an assortment of newly emboldened white nationalists from praising Trump’s selection of Bannon. Nor has it stopped hundreds of elected Democrats from publicly pointing to Bannon’s white nationalist ties. For instance, Richard Spencer—the alt-right figurehead who was recently suspended from Twitter over his views—noted that Bannon’s new role is the “best possible position” for him, as it will allow him to “focus on the big picture.” Peter Brimelow, head of another white nationalist outlet, tabbed the move as “amazing,” while former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke added that the selection was “excellent.” The chair of the American Nazi Party even chimed in on the decision: “Perhaps The Donald is for real.”

As it currently stands, Bannon has yet to disavow any praise from those who’d ethnically cleanse the US. Nor has he pushed back against Trump surrogates like Carl Higbie, who positively cited Japanese-American internment as inspiration for potential policy. He’s also played too coy by half in his disavowals of anti-Semitism in the alt-right crowd, saying that anti-Semites are only “maybe” attracted to the alt-right, despite mountains of piling evidence.

Of course, even if Bannon, whose outspoken misogyny is matched only by his own reported anti-Semitism, doesn’t fit the technical proscriptions for white nationalism, that’s cold comfort for the Americans suddenly witnessing the elevation of a man who oversaw an outlet spewing racialized stereotypes, anti-Islamic screeds, and calls for “every telegraph pole in the South [to] be festooned with the Confederate battle flag”—a call that came but days after the 2015 Charleston shooting.

If anything, it’s difficult to overstate the unnerving nature of the rhetoric Breitbart published under Bannon. Such editorial carrion included the claim that birth control “make women unattractive,” and, as the Southern Poverty Law Center noted, having “organized conferences featuring nativist speakers and published op-eds and interviews with [radical right] movement leaders.” The SPLC, for good measure, added that Breitbart had become a “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.” Even as Bannon ascends to the White House, Breitbart—whose Facebook page cracked the top-four news outlets for interactions during the election—retains an article tag allowing visitors to access articles on “black crime.”

While perhaps not surprising for anyone who’s followed Trump’s campaign, Bannon’s years-long loathing toward Islam is especially troubling. According to a 2015 Bloomberg profile, Bannon, who’d served in the Navy, saw a “political awakening … spurred by the Sept. 11 attacks,” and likes to describe Islam as a “political ideology.” Bannon not only endorsed candidates who’d mooted the notion of expelling all American Muslims, he’s also tabbed Pamela Geller—who runs an anti-Muslim hate group, according to the SPLC—as “one of the leading experts in the country, if not the world,” on Islam. For good measure, as the National Review recently wrote, Bannon’s Breitbart pushed “Pravda-esque lies” about American Muslims celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks.

A 2014 transcript unearthed by BuzzFeed further outlines the contours of Bannon’s civilizational fear-mongering. In describing ISIL’s “current drive to the caliphate,” Bannon intoned that “there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global.”

An expert at using dog-whistles, Bannon is speaking directly to an audience that is increasingly receptive to the notion of a “global tea party movement.” In nine weeks, this is the man who will be sitting just down the hall from the Oval Office—waiting to bend the ear of America’s newest, and most malleable, president.