ARTICLE BY OLIVIA BLOM
Over the past week, the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency has shifted jarringly from campaign hypothetical to quickly-approaching reality. Any new administration requires many logistical considerations, and the Trump White House is no exception. As part of this transition, Trump has started selecting advisors and staff members, announcing on Sunday that Stephen Bannon would be his a “chief strategist and senior counselor.”
Bannon has been an influential figure throughout the 2016 campaign, and served as Trump’s campaign strategist beginning in August. Bannon’s perspective helped shape Trump’s strategy and public image, encouraging the Republican candidate to highlight his populist message and contrast to the Washington establishment. In addition to his role in Trump’s presidential efforts, Bannon is known as the former President of Breitbart News, a conservative online news source. His tenure at the website was deeply controversial, prompting scrutiny from voices across the political spectrum.
Criticism of Bannon’s time at Breitbart stems mostly from the website’s connection to the alt-right movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the “alternative right” as a set of ultra-conservative ideologies “whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.” The movement stands in stark contrast to traditional establishment conservative leaders and perspectives, relying heavily on social media and memes to promote its ideas. As the leader of Breitbart, Steve Bannon made clear that people with such ideologies were an intentional part of the website’s audience: “We’re the platform for the alt-right.”
Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart made itself well known for inflammatory, attention-seeking headlines including “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?” In response to Bannon’s appointment, the Southern Poverty Law Center quickly cited a story Breitbart published just days after a shooting at a black church in South Carolina. The piece implores Americans to display Confederate flags, with the headline instructing them to “Hoist It High and Proud.” Although Bannon did not write these pieces himself, many analysts credit him with shifting Breitbart’s platform to offer more racist and sexist perspectives consistent with that of the alt-right movement.
Steve Bannon will provide a quite different perspective in the White House than that of Trump’s recently announced Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus. Unlike Bannon and Trump, Priebus is an established figure in mainstream conservative politics, serving currently as Chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is largely popular with the leaders in the Republican Party, and encouraged Trump to maintain a controlled, more predictable image throughout the 2016 cycle. Despite their contrasting approaches, Priebus was quick to defend Bannon from attacks following the announcement of their new positions. He called Bannon “a very, very smart person” and encouraged the public to keep an open mind.
Many voices, however, were much less receptive to news of Bannon’s appointment. A spokesman for Senate minority leader Harry Reid explained that Bannon’s role “signals that white supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamanation League, denounced Bannon’s appointment, describing the alt-right’s perspective as “hostile to core American values.” The president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, similarly voiced criticism on Twitter: “Racism has been routinized; anti-Semitism normalized; xenophobia deexceptionalized; & misogyny mainstreamed.”
Brooks’s statement speaks to the core of the problem with Bannon’s new role: his rhetoric and perspectives serve to normalize racism, misogyny, and the marginalization of many different groups. By offering Bannon such a significant position of influence in his administration, Donald Trump has implicitly endorsed the white nationalism promoted during Bannon’s time at Breitbart. Bannon surely offers valuable perspectives to some, earning him respect from leaders like Priebus. His alt-right connections, however, should be seen as disqualifying in terms of his legitimacy as a top adviser to the President of the United States. Leading voices at the White House inevitably have a tangible impact on policy outcomes and the perspectives of the president during his or her time in office: staffing choices are shaping Donald Trump’s tenure as Commander in Chief before it has even started. The people with whom Trump chooses to surround himself speak to the ideas and values he sees as meaningful. At best, Bannon’s role as chief strategist signals Trump’s desire to separate himself from the mainstream media he distrusts. At worst, it speaks to Trump’s indifference toward–or even endorsement of–Bannon’s history of promoting white nationalist ideas. Such racism and misogyny has no place in the White House, regardless of any other positive qualities Steve Bannon may offer. Trump’s decision to appoint Bannon will be harmful both in terms of tangible policy outcomes and the normalization of alt-right rhetoric.