The man behind the Shirley Sherrod shakeup.
Breitbart said he knew that working at a liberal site would produce conflict—within himself, as much as with others. But the opportunity to do something new and influential was too tempting. "I didn't want to exist in Drudge's shadow in perpetuity," he said. "And by helping Arianna create the Huffington Post and making it a success, I felt it would allow for people to say, 'Oh, this guy kind of understands this milieu.' " The Huffington Post, meanwhile, could brag that it had stolen the secret sauce from Drudge.
Once the site launched, Breitbart lasted three weeks. "Editorial differences to the nth degree" is how he characterizes the breakup. Breitbart was nominally in charge of aggregation. But he had thought that while the opinion blogs would be mostly liberal, he could bring in some conservative voices. This turned out not to be the case. He was also asked to take a larger role in the site's day-to-day operations than he had expected.
Political tensions sometimes blended with personal ones. Lerer in particular chafed at Breitbart's style. He didn't like the headlines Breitbart wrote. The time difference between New York and Los Angeles also created conflict. Some days, 11 a.m. would roll around and the headline would be from the night before, to Lerer's dismay. "I think that the conflict was that Ken and I liked each other," Breitbart said. "I thought that I could convert Ken, and Ken thought he could convert me. And when both of us realized that wasn't going to happen, it was like, 'Oh, OK.' " As for Huffington: "Trust me, we've got one of the great awkward air-kiss relationships going."
"It was a difficult period with unpredictable results that in hindsight worked out for everyone," Breitbart said. "I'm happy Arianna has the Huffington Post." Not to be misunderstood, he added: "Let it be known that I seethe with contempt for 90 percent of what appears on that site."
Breitbart's next move, in August 2005, was Breitbart.com. The idea was quietly brilliant. Before, when news broke, the Drudge Report would link to wire stories hosted by, say, the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. Those sites would thus get huge amounts of traffic for content they paid for but didn't produce. Breitbart.com simply aggregated all the wire services—Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, UPI, and others—in one place. So whenever Drudge linked to a wire story, he would link to Breitbart.com. The site has since produced a steady income. "It allows for me to have a middle-class to upper-middle-class life in Los Angeles," Breitbart said. "Probably the lifestyle of a backup catcher." (Brad Ausmus, a backup catcher for the Dodgers, made $1 million in 2009.)
Breitbart now lives in a triple-decker house on a hill in the neighborhood of Westwood, near where he grew up. He's got art on the walls—including an original Solidarity poster he found for $2,000—and a small basketball court out back. For years, the house doubled as his office. When the three Big sites were gearing up to launch in 2009, his colleagues piled into his basement. The kids would run in and out. They'd hold meetings at the dining room table.
This arrangement became too much, particularly for Susie, who had to take care of the kids in the middle of a daily political circus. (Their cat had to be relocated to Bean's house due to stress.) So Breitbart leased some office space in Santa Monica. The workplace consists of four rooms and two cubicles. "Isn't this so weird I have an office?" Breitbart says. It's the first time in 15 years.
"I have two speeds," Breitbart likes to say. "Humor and righteous indignation." It's meant to be self-deprecating. But it's also the secret to his effectiveness. When anyone dismisses Breitbart as a loon, he comes back at them with moral fury. When they threaten to pin him down in an argument, he wriggles free with a joke.
Or he simply changes the subject. Breitbart doesn't pretend to care about policy. "Have you ever seen me on TV? I always change the subject to the media context. It's my monkey trick. It's what I do." (His clash with David Shuster is a valuable case study.)
Breitbart thus occupies a weird space in the media universe. He claims no expertise. "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." (This does not prevent Breitbart from doing Fox News hits about health care.) He doesn't prognosticate, either. "I don't want to be a guy who's simply processing the best of Charles Krauthammer and Mark Steyn and coming up with my formulated hodgepodge that is a synthesis of what the experts are saying. So I defer to them."
Breitbart likes to think of himself as the big-picture guy. Sure, he can be the doofus who rubs his nipples and snorts red wine powder. But when it comes to substance, every discussion is panoramic. He talks culture as much as politics. Change the way people think, goes his argument, and you'll change the policies they support. "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." He's all about unified theory. That's why he can transition naturally from Obama ("a joyless PC freak") to ACORN to Bill Clinton to Clarence Thomas to Hollywood to political correctness to the New York Times before finally settling on why Sarah Palin should skip the presidency and just become "red-state Oprah." It's the upside of Breitbart's ADD.
Breitbart traces everything he despises about cultural liberalism to his college days. "When I told my parents I was an American studies major, they were like, 'That's fantastic! Did you read Mark Twain?' 'No, I didn't.' 'What did you read?' 'Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Michel Foucault.' 'They don't sound American!' 'They're not.' " Luckily, recalls Breitbart, "I was too drunk to be completely indoctrinated by it."
He also resents being lectured about multiculturalism, in part because of his upbringing. He's Irish-American by blood. His sister is Hispanic. Their father is Jewish. Their mother was born Midwestern Protestant. "That's why I hate this multicultural shit," Breitbart said. "You're not gonna tell me my sister and I are different because we're not blood."
The advantage of coming from the left, however, is that Breitbart knows the left, which enables him to use the left's language and tropes against it. Rachel Maddow isn't just wrong. "She believes in a poststructural model in which she's a lesbian progressive activist first and an American fifth, sixth." Maureen Dowd doesn't just make fun of Dick Cheney. She creates a "Republican other." Eric Boehlert doesn't just falsely misrepresent Breitbart's views. "He takes text and deconstructs it and then makes false accusations based upon the most ridiculous readings." I asked Breitbart whether the appropriation is intentional. "I'm saying that with a grain of irony," he said. "You gave me these tools, I'm going to use them back against you."
Meanwhile, he and O'Keefe explicitly acknowledge their debt to Chicago activist and community organizer Saul Alinsky. O'Keefe told the New York Post in September that he had been inspired by Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, particularly the lesson that "ridicule is man's most potent weapon." He said he wanted to expose the "absurdities of the enemy by employing their own rules and language." That could mean testing the limits of ACORN's willingness to help unsavory characters get loans. Or it could be as simple as pointing out that Max Blumenthal has a booger hanging from his nose.
The willingness to be ridiculous is something Breitbart has on his critics. When Media Matters finds a discrepancy in one of Breitbart's stories, it calls him out for breach of journalistic ethics. "He's a pathological liar," Boehlert says. "These people are almost incapable of telling the truth." When Breitbart finds an error, he trots out Retracto, the Correction Alpaca.
Another advantage is Breitbart's readiness to go to the mat over minutiae. Most public figures, when facing an attack on their integrity, make a mental calculation. Do I respond and dignify the attacker? Or do I let it go? Breitbart always fires back—sometimes unnecessarily. "Just because you can retweet everything about yourself and every inch of your scorched earth crusade doesn't mean you should," said Breitbart acquaintance and Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn.
A formative moment for Breitbart the pugilist was his appearance on Bill Maher last March. Among Maher, guest Michael Eric Dyson, and the audience, Breitbart was taking it from all sides. Yet at the end of the show, he felt energized. "I kind of like getting hit," he said. "The adrenaline is running. Bring it on."
In a bygone era, Breitbart's manner—the shouting matches, the nipple rubbing, the 2 a.m. tweets about his enemies' mothers—would be considered a career killer for any aspiring media mogul. Yet Breitbart's career shows no signs of collapsing. His success instead is testament to a new era in which sobermindedness is no longer a requirement for influence. "I can't fire me," Breitbart likes to say. Yet his opponents seem to think that cogent arguments will somehow drive him away. "They think they can take me down, that they can hurt me," says Breitbart. "It just makes me bigger."
Breitbart made his career piggybacking on the work of the mainstream media at the Drudge Report. Now he's one its most vocal critics. The paradox is nothing new—new media have always depended on old media as both a source and foil—but it's still a paradox. "I've said I have a dysfunctional relationship with the mainstream media," Breitbart said. "It was a dance. You're getting traffic from us. We're helping you into this transparent new media age."
Breitbart's goal is to eliminate the paradox altogether. There's a maxim that Breitbart wants to be "the Arianna Huffington of the right." Nonsense, he said. "I'd rather be the Ted Turner of the right." The analogy is one of scale as much as politics. He doesn't just want to be a parasite and critic of the mainstream media. He wants to displace it.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.