President-elect Donald Trump on Sunday made good on his promise to shake up Washington by selecting one of the most highly-controversial figures in recent memory to serve as his top political aide.
Steve Bannon, the 62-year-old former CEO of Trump’s campaign, will serve as the new president-elect’s chief strategist, a job similar to the post formerly occupied by infamous operatives like Karl Rove and Valerie Jarrett.
But unlike Rove and Jarrett, longtime party operatives with deep political ties, Bannon hails from the alt-right political fringe that was generally overlooked and dismissed before Trump embraced the movement during his presidential campaign.
Since 2011, Bannon has helmed Breitbart News, the far-right website that eschewed traditional Republican party orthodoxy for anti-establishment white nationalist positions on issues such as immigration and trade. Under Bannon’s leadership, the site frequently assailed Republicans using incendiary rhetoric, labelling Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol a “renegade jew,” and targeting Republicans like former House Speaker John Boehner.
The new chief strategist’s appointment quickly set off a firestorm of controversy, as many noted Bannon’s apparent sympathies for ethno-nationalist arguments and rhetoric.
Many critics from members of both parties like Sen. Harry Reid’s spokesperson Adam Jentleson pointed out that Bannon’s ex-wife claimed in court that the new chief strategist “doesn’t like Jews,” and allowed Breitbart to post anti-Semitic articles.
“President-elect Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his top aide signals that white supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House,” Jentleson said in a statement. “It is easy to see why the KKK views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of white-supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide.”
Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League condemned Bannon’s selection, criticising his self-professed commitment to providing a platform for the “alt-right,” a white nationalist movement predicated on conspiracy theories and racial stereotypes about immigrants.
Bannon is in many ways a strange messenger to execute Trump’s populist economic message.
He has frequently attacked Republicans and Democrats alike, scheming with other right-wing media figures about how to oust House Speaker Paul Ryan for what Bannon perceived as globalist views on trade and immigration.
But former Breitbart chief also holds a degree from Harvard Business School, and made much of his fortune as a banker at Goldman Sachs and a longtime entertainment producer with Hollywood connections and stakes in shows like “Seinfeld.”
Still, many of Breitbart’s former employees who worked with Bannon pointed out that he has successfully brought his formerly fringe nativist ideas into the mainstream, and favours an unforgiving take-no-prisoners political style that appeals to Trump’s aggressive sensibilities.
Former Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella who quit the site this year, described the organisation as “completely devoid of reality and facts,” which the sites uses to speak to Americans’ “worst divisions and worst fears.”
“Breitbart’s gone from being the propaganda arm of the Trump campaign to now being the propaganda arm of the federal government,” Bardella told CNN on Monday. “That should be very concerning to all Americans.”
Bardella speculated that Bannon could use the power of the White House to exact revenge on enemies.
“Steve is a very aggressive, attack-oriented, never-back-down, never show any sign of weakness,” Bardella said. “That’s his entire modus operandi.”
For its part, Breitbart frequently denies charges of racially and ethnically-tinged coverage, characterising its work as populist.
The site’s Washington political editor Matthew Boyle told Business Insider earlier this year his news organisation does not seek to inflame tensions, but seeks to “hold the global permanent political class in contempt.”
“We are doing what journalists throughout said mainstream media are supposed to do: Challenge the conventional wisdom, hold politicians’ feet to the fire, ask tough questions, report facts that are in many cases inconvenient truths for career politicians, and give a voice to the millions of people worldwide who have had theirs taken away from them by world elites who consider the ordinary person beneath them,” Boyle said.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.