Steve Bannon’s elevation from chairman of Breitbart News to chief executive of the Donald Trump campaign has been seen as a pivot away from the “establishment,” a way for Trump to be around people who he likes and trusts for the last stretch for the presidential race. It’s also been an occasion for people to bone up on Bannon, who has grown Breitbart and co-founded an associated think tank (the Government Accountability Institute) without becoming a household name. But to anyone covering conservative politics, Breitbart has been a force.
1. It’s a real news site; it just covers a different world
Whatever else it can be accused of, Breitbart is a warehouse of original news. It sends reporters after stories; it produces a daily Sirius XM show, loaded with interviews. It’s expanded to California, Texas and the United Kingdom, where it has resoundingly backed the campaign to exit the European Union. In Washington, or on the campaign trail, it’s common to hear a Breitbart reporter asking questions in a scrum — often on a topic that’s not making headlines elsewhere. But the common conceit of Breitbart articles is that the rest of the media is blowing the story, and that the site’s exclusive sourcing can correct that.
At times, that’s led to stories that flew wide of the mark. In January 2013, Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle reported that enough Republican members of the House had pledged to oppose John Boehner that he could not be renominated as speaker of the House. In the end, Boehner got the votes. This year, Breitbart had a reporter on the ground in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district, but its coverage reflected a poll — conducted for Breitbart — that found challenger Paul Nehlen closing in fast. In the end, Nehlen was defeated by a landslide, but he remains a popular subject of Breitbart coverage.
2. It’s got white nationalists reading
In January, after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) ran an odd and quasi-viral ad that showed lawyers and journalists crossing the border to take American jobs, Bannon interviewed the academic researcher Jason Richwine for an episode of the site’s newscast.
“He’s got a huge fanbase at Breitbart,” said Bannon. “One of the smartest brains out there in demographics, demography, this whole issue of immigration and what it means to to this country.”
Richwine had famously been pushed out of the Heritage Foundation after he published a paper about the possible economic cost of the 2013 immigration bill, and The Washington Post discovered his thesis about the IQs of immigrant groups. At the time, and in retrospect, he was viewed by some on the right as a victim of political correctness. Breitbart, like the Drudge Report — a site that links frequently — has covered immigration as an economic and cultural challenge to America, profiling crimes by undocumented immigrants. As Betsy Woodruff reports in the Daily Beast, editors of more established nationalist sites have seen Bannon-era Breitbart coming after their audiences.
“He’s more of a nationalist than a conservative,” said Ben Shapiro, a former editor-at-large who quit the site in March. “He’s a Pat Buchanan type. He shifted in that direction over the last few years; whether that’s because of Trump, or it’s what he believes, I can’t say.”
3. There’s a battle over what its founder believed
Andrew Breitbart died suddenly on March 1, 2012, at 42 years of age. As Bannon and other successors took over the news site he created, political opponents mourned Breitbart as a decent man who’d always dealt honestly with them; conservatives mourned him as a far-sighted media genius.
“When I read his book, I realized — wow, he really understood it,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) at a Washington memorial service for Breitbart. “Marcuse, the Frankfurt School, all of that.”
As the Breitbart network grew more bullish on Donald Trump, some of Andrew Breitbart’s conservative admirers said that he never would have let it come to this. “How much better off would conservatives be right now if Andrew Breitbart and Justice Scalia were still alive?” asked the Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway in a tweet. Their Rosetta stone is an April 22, 2011, appearance on Fox News, where Juan Williams asked Breitbart to analyze the politics of Trump, already considering a bid for president.
“Is Donald Trump a conservative?” Williams asked.
“Of course he is not a conservative,” Breitbart replied. “He was for Nancy Pelosi before he was against Nancy Pelosi. But this is a message to those candidates who are languishing at 2 percent and 3 percent within the Republican Party who are brand names in Washington, but the rest of the country don’t know … celebrity is everything in this country. And if these guys don’t learn how to play the media the way that Barack Obama played the media last election cycle and the way that Donald Trump is playing the election cycle, we’re going to probably get a celebrity candidate.”
Since then, the conservatives who can’t believe what “Trumpbart” has become have insisted that the founder would have fought against it. In June, when Breitbart’s editor Joel Pollak told one of those critics to back off, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg reignited the debate.
I knew Andrew longer than you did. He would not be happy with all that’s been done In his name. https://t.co/loQldRxzYt
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) June 7, 2016
4. It was pro-Palin before it was pro-Trump
In 2011, Bannon released a two-hour documentary about Sarah Palin called “The Undefeated,” attempting to reshape the way voters and the media viewed the former candidate for vice president.
“The reason she draws this kind of fire is that she is an existential threat to the establishment,” Bannon told Fox News’s Sean Hannity during the film’s promotional tour. “The vested interests in our country are scared to death of her.”
Breitbart News did not get going until after Palin had already resigned as governor of Alaska. But her battle with the “lamestream media” was a through-line of conservative media coverage, and Bannon and the site he came to lead both adopted Palin and her enemies. In 2014, after Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins ran a wry and deeply reported story about a weekend with Trump’s “fake presidential campaign,” Palin was among the people approached to attack the reporter, branding him an enemy of fair coverage.
Palin’s importance to conservative media was not that of a potential president, but of a martyr. In 2009 and 2010, it was common for conservatives to argue that the media had dogpiled Palin while allowing Obama to skate to the presidency. Radio host and filmmaker John Ziegler shot a short film on the subject; authors Matt Lewis and Matt Continetti published, respectively, a book of Palin quotes and a tract about her “persecution.” That sympathetic view has faded since 2011, but it remained elemental to Breitbart, notably in a 2013 series called “the vetting,” which claimed to reveal the Obama news — video of him at a protest, an early media clipping that called him “Kenyan” — the media had not bothered to find.
5. It’s sometimes pro-gay (and pro-Gamergate)
The biggest individual star at Breitbart may be Milo Yiannopoulos, a British journalist and pundit who became the site’s “technology editor” in 2015. Telegenic, quotable and proudly gay, Yiannopoulos rose to prominence in America with coverage of the “Gamergate” saga, which began as a dispute between a jilted-feeling game designer and his ex and mushroomed into a battle against “social justice warriors.”
Yiannopoulos and some researchers covered and advanced the story, reporting, for example, on the fact that one anti-Gamergate critic had transitioned from male to female. When accused of farming out the hard work to interns, Yiannopoulos scoffed that “business is booming,” and his merchandising and media presence could not be maintained by one man. “I’ve launched the Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant to help young white men reach college, and we have a steady stream of contributions,” he joked.
That fame was leveraged into a unique role for Yiannopoulos — a gay conservative, derisive of feminists and transgender activists, who argued that Trump (often called “Daddy” or “God-Emperor Daddy”) was doing more for gay rights than any activist, by taking seriously the threat of radical Islam. In turn, and strikingly, Trump has consistently mentioned the threat that groups like ISIS pose to gays.
The battle between Breitbart’s narrative-smashers and the forces of political correctness has given Breitbart a brio not often seen in conservative media. Last month, after Yiannopoulos trolled “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones (like many critics, he had panned the movie), he was banned from Twitter. That ban happened to coincide with the Republican National Convention, where media outlets were packed booth-to-booth in two large work spaces. Breitbart cameras followed Yiannopoulos and Boyle as they crashed Twitter’s both, asking staffers if they supported “free speech” or censorship.
All day Wednesday, while Bannon held off interview requests, Breitbart published flattering stories about Trump. A compilation of tweets from people often quoted in Breitbart pushed the theme that “grass-roots pundits” were on board with the move. A feature story by James Pinkerton argued that the Trump campaign was back on track, and that “if Trump keeps up his momentum for the next three months, then, as did Reagan nearly four decades ago, he’ll win in a landslide.”