Last month, Donald Trump named an unlikely new head for his presidential campaign: Stephen Bannon, executive chairman at the Breitbart News Network, which is probably best known as a leading voice of the dopey, oleaginous lump of outright neofascism and joking-but-not-really-joking meme-based irony that calls itself the alt-right.
Breitbart’s website in the US is home to Milo Yiannopoulos, booted off Twitter for trolling, and Ann Coulter, recently seen describing the eloquent anti-Trump speech by the father of dead soldier Humayun Khan at the Democratic National Convention as ‘a snarling Muslim lecture.’ In London it happily tracks supposed crimes by immigrants, while its editor Raheem Kassam – a former senior adviser to Nigel Farage – and his followers spent time last weekend attacking food writer Jack Monroe online over a column for this paper about pizza.
The best tactic for dealing with these far-right fringes is usually to just ignore them – the alt-right is mostly composed of sad, lonely, gangly men in their early twenties dreaming themselves into the shock troops of a future dystopia. If you get too concerned over their racism or their misogyny, you’re only dreaming that dream with them. But there does come a point where pretending they don’t exist is no longer an option.
The reaction from America’s cringing mainstream conservatives to Bannon’s appointment – the sensible Republicans so actively courted by Hillary Clinton, the ones who like their political reaction in flavours of folksy common-sense or sleek-suited efficiency rather than the pure blind honking rampage of a Trump – was surprising. They didn’t condemn Breitbart outright; instead they whinged that it had been betrayed. Even a few on the nominal left joined in: the site’s founder and namesake, Andrew Breitbart, would never have allowed this. For these types the real political divide isn’t ideological; it’s between the respectable and the uncouth, politics you can drawlingly recite at a drinks function and politics you can’t – and these people had all been to drinks parties with Andrew Breitbart; they knew he’d be on their side.
Breitbart couldn’t answer for himself, having died at Ronald Reagan UCLA hospital in 2012 of a sudden heart failure. Since then, in America at least, his name has become inescapable, along with the big, solid, cowboy-font B of his logo, the unmistakable mark of an unrespectable politics that keeps on getting respect.
Andrew Breitbart, it’s safe to say, would have loved Trump. They both liked to plaster their own names over everything in sight; both were brought up in wealth and comfort but tried to disguise their sneering prejudices as the natural explosions of a mass collective impulse; both got where they did through performative outrages, constantly proclaiming themselves to be saying the unsayable in a bid to convince the elite classes that they represented popular sentiment; both of them hucksters, both of them frauds. Breitbart launched his news site in 2007, but it first received real attention in 2009, when a piece of counterfeit investigative journalism helped bankrupt ACORN, or the Association of Community Organisers for Reform Now. ACORN was active in poor American communities, fighting against predatory loans and for affordable housing, rebuilding houses after Hurricane Katrina to prevent the remains being bulldozed by developers. But defending black people is a dangerous game.
In September 2009, Breitbart released a video of two undercover reporters, Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe, appearing to receive advice from ACORN representatives in several cities on how to run a child-prostitution ring. This set off an orgy of self-satisfied outrage: ACORN became a byword for callousness, thuggery, degeneracy, all those names, vague on one side and poison-tipped on the other, which the American suburbs jab at their inner cities. It didn’t matter that the videos had been heavily edited, that ACORN staff had in some cases alerted the police, that the filmmakers had misrepresented how they had dressed (O’Keefe appears in several segments of the videos decked out in a white nerd’s fantasy of a pimp outfit, complete with fur coat and a cane; in fact, he had been wearing a suit and tie to the meetings) and what they had said. In October, President Obama signed the Defund ACORN Act into law; the next year, the organisation filed for bankruptcy.
This is how Breitbart works, and how it’s always worked, under Andrew or anyone else. It doesn’t just lie, in the way that so many media organisations lie; it plants the seed of its own reality, grown in viciousness and spite and the simple brutish urge to smash down on anything that looks weak enough to crumble on command, and waits for it to bloom.
The site launched Breitbart London featuring a predictable gallery of grotesques: Farage and Katie Hopkins, who need no introduction, plus climate change denier James Delingpole, once author of a Breitbart column which began ‘I’m afraid I can’t stop thinking about Jack Monroe’s breasts’. The British branch hasn’t had quite the same impact as its progenitor: while our media has much of the same liberal condescension as across the Atlantic, it’s also already saturated with lurid, seething hatred; Breitbart London doesn’t offer much that you can’t already get from the Daily Mail or, in more finely filigreed prose, the Spectator.
Earlier this year, they campaigned strenuously for Brexit; now that battle’s won, their coverage is drearily fixated on their single issue. A long, slow panic over migration: the phantasmic millions streaming in, the hysterical warnings over the supposed Islamisation of Europe, the paranoid focus on any police action against any Muslim for any reason, the same bearing-down on the country’s most voiceless and most vulnerable. It’s doing what it always does. This is kookery, but it’s not just that the alt-right are too weird and too stupid to ever really bring their dreams to life; they’ll always remain outside the mainstream, but it’s their leading edge that defines where the mainstream starts. Whenever our sensible types from both parties bleat about ‘reasonable concerns’ over migration, Breitbart is there, doing the only work it knows how to do.
Sam Kriss writes for, among others, The Atlantic, Slate and Wired. Follow him on Twitter @sam_kriss