Donald Trump has made the first major decision of his incoming administration. On Sunday, he announced his chief of staff: Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who stood his ground as one of Trump’s most vocal defenders. Like House Speaker Paul Ryan, another Wisconsin Republican, Priebus never wavered or bowed to pressure to abandon the GOP nominee. Throughout the Sturm und Drang of the campaign, Priebus has been there as adviser and advocate. Chief of staff is his reward, even as he enters the position with little experience in the business of government.
But that’s not the major decision. The banner news here is that Trump’s other adviser, campaign strategist Stephen Bannon, will be installed in the White House as chief strategist and senior counselor to the president. According to the campaign press release, Bannon and Priebus will work “as equal partners to transform the federal government.” This means that Trump is serious about the racist and white nationalist rhetoric he deployed in his bid for the Oval Office.
Where the RNC chairman is vocal and visible, Bannon is the opposite. He prefers the shadows, where he has been a vital and influential force on Trump and his campaign. Relative to other members of Trump’s inner circle, Bannon is almost anonymous. But his place at the president’s side is significant. Before joining the Trump campaign in August, Bannon was executive chairman of Breitbart News LLC, the parent company that owns the eponymous website. Named after Andrew Breitbart—a famed right-wing provocateur who died in 2012—Breitbart is a far-right news site that traffics in racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant hysteria. Typical Breitbart headlines are inflammatory, feeding fears of black criminals and Muslim refugees. “Europe’s Rape Epidemic: Western Women Will Be Sacrificed at the Altar of Mass Migration,” reads one Breitbart story, tweeted by Donald Trump Jr. in September.
But Breitbart is more than a clearinghouse for racist propaganda. It’s also a forum and community space for neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-Semites, all under the sanitized banner of the “alt-right.” As the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, Breitbart under Bannon has “been openly promoting the core issues of the Alt-Right, introducing these racist ideas to its readership—much to the delight of many in the white nationalist world who could never dream of reaching such a vast number of people.”
Breitbart’s most prominent columnist, Milo Yiannopoulos, is an ambassador of sorts for the movement, traveling to college campuses with a message that blends virulent, old-fashioned racism with a flamboyant persona and a nominal commitment to “free speech.” Breitbart has a simple message: that Muslims and Hispanics are infiltrating America and robbing it of its cultural heritage; that blacks are responsible for most crime and disorder; that feminists have established a near-matriarchy that has disadvantaged men; that “globalists”—embodied by George Soros—are erasing national borders and sapping prosperity from the United States (a classic anti-Semitic smear that eventually surfaced in Trump’s rhetoric).
There’s evidence Bannon shares these views. In a 2007 court document, Bannon’s ex-wife Mary Louise Piccard accused him of anti-Semitism, saying he didn’t want their daughters attending the elite Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles because of its high Jewish enrollment. “The biggest problem he had with Archer is the number of Jews that attend,” Piccard said in a statement signed June 27, 2007, where she also alleged domestic violence from Bannon. According to conservative writer Ben Shapiro, who worked as “editor-at-large” of Breitbart for four years before his anti-Trump views brought waves of anti-Semitic harassment, Bannon “openly embraced the white supremacist alt-right,” strategically pushing “white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness.”
If Shapiro’s allegation is true—if Breitbart’s content reflects the character of its leadership—then Stephen Bannon is substantively indistinguishable from David Duke and other white supremacists. For all practical purposes, he is one of them. Trump allies like Newt Gingrich have protested the comparison. “You get this all these smears of Steve Bannon,” said Gingrich during a CBS interview with Face the Nation host John Dickerson. “Steve Bannon was a naval officer. He was a managing partner of Goldman Sachs. He was a Hollywood movie producer. The idea that somehow he represents—I had never heard of the alt-right until the nut cakes started writing about it.”
Those “nut cakes” it seems, include Bannon, who has bragged that his website was “the platform for the alt-right.”
We still don’t know what Trump’s administration will look like. We do not know his full priorities, and we do not know what he will pursue upon inauguration in January. But putting Bannon in the White House gives us a clue. The same white nationalist thinking that drove the Trump campaign will soon have a prominent place in the West Wing, working—in Team Trump’s words—to “transform the federal government.”