Trump’s decision to appoint the Breitbart executive his chief strategist stokes warnings across the political spectrum.
Donald Trump’s newly named chief strategist, Steve Bannon, came under fire Monday from a wide swath of American leaders and organizations, from conservative operatives to minority-rights groups, all of whom are deeply concerned that Bannon will foster an extremist “alt-right” mentality inside the hallways of the White House and normalize ideas that had thrived only on the fringes of society.
Before joining Trump’s campaign as its CEO in August, Bannon served as executive chairman of Breitbart News, identifying his outlet this summer as “the platform for the alt-right,” a group known for white-nationalist and anti-Semitic politics. His appointment Sunday to one of the two most senior roles in the White House was Trump’s first major staff announcement, and has united a spectrum of conservatives and liberals, Muslims and Jews alarmed by how much his ideas are likely to shape the administration of the president-elect.
The alt-right movement is “something that has been on the fringes of American politics, and now it’s mainstreamed and it’s ugly and it’s angry and it’s nihilistic, and it shouldn’t have a home in the White House,” said Pete Wehner, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House. “Bannon brings it in almost at the heart of the White House.”
Conservatives, some of whom have been trying to keep an open mind toward Trump, worry that Bannon’s appointment suggests an alt-right takeover of the GOP — not to mention the country — by a movement that critics say includes elements of white nationalism. It’s the exact opposite approach, in their minds, of the big-tent inclusive party many pushed for ahead of Trump’s election.
Meantime, representatives from a number of ethnic and religious minority groups are pointing to controversial remarks from Bannon and, under his leadership, Breitbart, about everyone from Jews to African-Americans, arguing that “alt-right” is code for racism and bigotry.
“I know what the alt-right is all about,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish historian based at Emory University who was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton. “It’s a bastion of white supremacists, white nationalists, anti-Semitic, racist, Islamophobic expression, and that a man who has been so closely connected with the alt-right, who has helped propel it into the mainstream, should have the ear of the president, I’m flabbergasted. I’m almost at a loss for words. So far, I find that the most depressing of almost anything I’ve heard thus far.”
Lamented a Republican Jewish strategist on the other side of the political spectrum, “We spent a long time expunging the Pat Buchanan wing from conservative politics, but that wing and what it represents is back.” Buchanan, the paleoconservative leader and former presidential candidate, has a long record of making what anti-hate groups have described as bigoted remarks.
“As a conservative,” the source continued, “I find Breitbart’s brand of the alt-right to be scary.”
Breitbart is known for such provocative headlines as “Republican spoiler, renegade Jew”—a reference to conservative Trump critic Bill Kristol; “Hoist it high and proud: the Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage”; and “Gabby Giffords: the gun control movement’s human shield.” Bannon personally has controversial writings under his byline—about racially tinged police shootings, for instance — and his ex-wife said in court that he domestically abused her and didn’t want their children to attend school with Jews (accusations Bannon has denied).
Since Trump’s Sunday announcement, organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have all called on the president-elect to reconsider Bannon’s appointment.
“When President-elect Trump said in his acceptance speech he wanted to unite Americans, those are nice words, those are only words,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director at CAIR. “Now we see his actions. His actions are bringing a white supremacist to the White House as a chief strategist, the one who will be recommending the policies for the entire administration. That sends a very troubling message that that kind of racist, extremist ideology is now welcome in the White House and is now basically part of our government.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the ADL, said the organization has noted a spike in hate crimes, often with anti-Semitic overtones, in the days following the election, and Trump, in a “60 Minutes” appearance on Sunday, urged his most extreme supporters, who have been harassing minorities, to stop. Greenblatt called that a heartening move and stressed that the ADL still wants to work with the new administration, but he made clear that the Bannon appointment is an overarching problem.
“It’s deeply troubling to see someone like Steve Bannon, whose affiliation with white supremacists makes him an odd personnel choice for an administration that wants to create unity and bring people together,” he said in an interview.
Conservative radio host Glenn Beck, a fierce Trump critic who backed Ted Cruz, had harsh words for Bannon during his broadcast on Monday. “Bannon has a clear tie to white nationalists — clear tie,” Beck said. “He’s on record defining the alt-right. He knows what it is. He’s a guy that wants to tear this system down and wants to replace it with a new system.”
Certainly, many in the GOP were cheered by Trump’s appointment of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as chief of staff, and most lawmakers, including those who have been critical of Trump, chose to focus on that appointment, hoping that Priebus would emerge as the bigger influence in the West Wing.
“I have never met or spoken to Steve Bannon and at the [Republican Jewish Coalition] we look forward to speaking with him soon, getting to know him, and hearing his answers to some of the questions that have arisen,” Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC, said in a statement. “What I can speak to is that we at the RJC are thrilled with the appointment of Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff.”
Priebus himself has come to Bannon’s defense, calling him a “force for good.”
And Joel Pollak, an Orthodox Jew who works at Breitbart and has worked with Bannon for several years, forcefully rejected the concerns that have arisen about Bannon’s ties to bigotry.
“I’ve known him for six years, [worked with him] very intensely for 4½ years. I’m an Orthodox Jew; there are many other Jews at the company, as well as blacks, gays, Muslims, Hispanics,” Pollak said. “Steve Bannon is a tough, disciplined manager without a bone of prejudice anywhere in his body.”
He noted that under Bannon, Breitbart established a Jerusalem bureau, “so finally, Israeli affairs, Middle Eastern affairs, are covered from an unabashedly pro-Israel perspective. That’s the depth of Steve’s empathy for the Jewish people.”
Said the Republican Jewish strategist, “as Buchanan was an ardent foe of Israel, the Breitbart crew has been strong supporters.”
The Trump team pushed back on the complaints.
“At every step of Mr. Trump’s campaign, including helping President-elect Trump grow his support with African-American and Hispanic voters as compared to the Republican ticket four years ago, and now as he prepares for the White House working hand-in-hand with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon has worked to implement President-elect Trump’s vision of being a President for all Americans,” said Jason Miller, the communications director for Trump’s transition team.
Others said they hoped Priebus would be a more influential counterweight to any extreme ideas Bannon might push in the White House — but that is no sure bet, they acknowledged.
“He’s a senior counselor, he’s going to have one of the most significant positions within the White House, and so this is the validation of the Breitbart.com approach and the alt-right approach to politics, the Steve Bannon approach to politics,” Wehner said. “For people who believe in decent public discourse, civility, guardrails in our civic culture, this is not a good sign. I was glad to see Reince Priebus be chief of staff … for the people concerned about the Breitbart approach to politics, it’s the best we could have hoped for.”
One conservative leader of the Never Trump movement was still working to reserve judgment on the administration but is troubled by the potential for an alt-right tilt.
“If this becomes a white-pride kind of party, yes, absolutely, I’m out,” the source said. “I’ve seen people who are sometimes unfairly labeled as XYZ; I know them, I know that’s not true. I feel like I know more about Trump than Bannon. Trump is my bigger concern. But let’s see how he rules.”