Alternative Media, Alternative Election – Chapter Four: Alternative Election

[Back to Chapter Three]

When Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, his speech famously included the condemnation of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists (Neate, 2015). From the beginning of his campaign, he demonised and mocked the Other, and drew in crowds that either shared his prejudice or refused to acknowledge it. Trump embodied the populist idea of a leader. Ostiguy and Roberts’ definition of populism as an “antagonistic division of political space” (Ostiguy and Roberts, 2016, p. 26) is particularly apt in reference to Trump, who made no attempt to conceal his divisive approach to politics. This chapter explores how his campaign and presidency correlate with Breitbart and its target audience, as well as showing the ascension of Breitbart’s agenda to USA government policy.

Throughout Trump’s campaign, he maintained a positive relationship with groups that likewise dealt in Othering. When his rhetoric and proposed policy drew in extremists, he was slow to discourage their endorsement. When asked three times whether he would condemn white supremacist David Duke—who had publicly announced his support of Trump—he refused to answer, pleading ignorance of the concept of white supremacy (Bradner, 2016). Trump did not condemn Duke’s support until five months later, blaming a “faulty earpiece” for his previous answer (ibid.). Trump was a popular topic of discussion in white nationalist and neo-Nazi circles. This is demonstrated by Berger (2016, p. 10), who observed that three of the top ten hashtags tweeted by both white nationalists and neo-Nazis were in direct reference to Trump (see Figure 9). Berger added that “white nationalists have for months expressed enthusiasm for Trump’s candidacy” (ibid.). By comparison, none of the top 10 hashtags for either group had mentioned Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the previous election (ibid.). Malmgren writes that the Alt Right was “fueled and empowered by the rise of Donald Trump” (Malmgren, 2017, p. 10). He had a mobilising effect on those that had considered themselves outcasts, and his campaign’s use of media reflects this: Black (2016), gathering data from the official Trump campaign website, found that Breitbart was the most common source for news items (see Figure 10).

Figure 9
Figure 9: Top white nationalist and Nazi hashtags during the 2016 US election (Berger, 2016)
Figure 10
Figure 10: Data showing the top outgoing links from DonaldJTrump.com (Black, 2016)

Trump’s relationship with Breitbart is further indicative of his populist agenda. In the same way Breitbart mobilised GamerGate, Trump mobilised the disenfranchised among the American populace. The true causes of this perceived disenfranchisement were not important; the establishment—the government and the press—was to blame (Ostiguy and Roberts, 2016, p. 28). Trump ran for the US presidency with this approach, with Breitbart as his close ally.

The Connections

Before outlining specifics of the relationship at large between Breitbart and the Trump campaign—and later, the Trump presidency—it is first necessary to note some connections on an individual and financial level.

Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire, is described by an associate as a “libertarian [that] despises the Republican establishment … He thinks that the leaders are corrupt crooks, and that they’ve ruined the country” (Mayer, 2017). In 2011, he formed a business relationship with Steve Bannon (ibid.), and “it was $10m of Mercer’s money that enabled Bannon to fund Breitbart” (Cadwalladr, 2017). Mercer contributed to other Bannon-affiliated groups, including a data modelling firm named Cambridge Analytica (Cherry, 2017). Mercer went on to become Donald Trump’s single biggest donor, contributing $13.5Million to his presidential campaign (Cadwalladr, 2017). His daughter, Rebekah Mercer, convinced Trump to recruit Bannon as a chief executive in his campaign, thus leaving his post as Breitbart CEO (M. Gold, 2016). After the election, Trump hired Bannon as his chief strategist, a move which caused US House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to remark, “There must be no sugarcoating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration” (Smith, 2016).

The purposes of Cambridge Analytica make it a point of interest. Their “about us” page contains the following claim:

“We collect up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans, and use more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people” (Cambridge Analytica, n.d.).

 Cambridge Analytica professes to provide, with data, the logical extension of Breitbart’s business strategy. Breitbart’s actions relating to GamerGate show the same disposition of using developments in technology to affect targeted groups, reaching people on a personal level and appealing to their emotions.

During the presidential campaign, Robert Mercer convinced Trump to contract Cambridge Analytica. The campaign paid over $15Million overall for their services (Gresseger and Krogerus, 2017), which consisted of using their data “to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly” with political advertising (Cadwalladr, 2017). Their contributions are held by some as pivotal in both the Trump Campaign in the USA, and the Leave campaign in the UK (Gresseger and Krogerus, 2017; Albright, 2016a); the effectiveness of their methods is contested by others (Condliffe, 2017; Bershidsky, 2016). Politico reports that Cambridge Analytica is now “largely owned” by the Mercer family (Vogel, 2016). Before his position in the Trump campaign, Bannon was vice president of the firm’s board; he also held a large stake which, as of March 2017, he had not yet sold (Stevenson and Protess, 2017). From Bannon’s own remarks, it is clear that he saw an opportunity in the Trump campaign’s established practice of data gathering:

“I wouldn’t have come aboard … if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine … Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power” (Green and Issenberg, 2016).

A deep analysis of Cambridge Analytica is warranted, but must be left to other papers. For the purposes of this study, the firm is of particular importance in how it relates to Breitbart; it correlates strongly with their methods and goals, and provides another point of connection between the figures of Mercer, Bannon, and Trump.

The Campaign

Throughout his rallies and public appearances, Trump defined himself as an anti-establishment, anti-mainstream figure (Ostiguy and Roberts, 2016). His language was emotional (Robinson, 2016). He bullied dissenting parties (Andrejevic, 2016). He appealed to prejudice and conspiracy (ibid.). His campaign used the community-driven nature of Web 2.0—especially through Trump’s personal Twitter account—to augment all of this, and in some ways, go further than Breitbart had done. The extent of his opposition to the mainstream press is demonstrated in his campaign rallies, as Alterman describes;

“Journalists were confined to ‘pens’ at political rallies and the crowd incited to throw insults at them. Trump egged them on, describing the media as ‘scum’ and ‘among the most dishonest groups of people’. He would shout from the platform: ‘We are living in a rigged system. And believe me, they are a big part of the rigging, those people.’” (Alterman, 2016, p. 69)

Trump’s behaviour throughout his campaign is a matter of thorough public record—a fact that was, in itself, a form of success for his agenda. Data Analytics firm MediaQuaint calculates that Trump’s campaign received roughly $5Billion in free coverage, over half of it online, naming his “bombastic and insulting statements” as a factor (Harris, 2016). Pantelimon (2014), in writing on the new form of populism, notes that it may be termed a ‘tele-populism’, and that a populist leader must make use the media to fulfil his interests. Trump accomplished this in the very act of deriding the media that he was exploiting.

Trump’s anti-press, anti-establishment statements also achieved wide proliferation on Twitter. Two weeks before he recruited Bannon, he tweeted, “I am running against the very dishonest and biased media”, (Trump, 2016; see Figure 11); to date this tweet stands at over 25,000 retweets and 85,000 likes. The tweet encapsulates his tendency to use emotional language to attack and equivocate individuals with broad concepts (“Crooked Hillary Clinton”, “biased media”). From the day he announced his candidacy to the day he was elected, 273 of his tweets contained the word “crooked” (Trump Twitter Archive, 2017a); of those, 252 included Clinton’s name (Trump Twitter Archive, 2017b).

Figure 11
Figure 11: Trump tweet attacking his political opposition and the media (Trump, 2016)

In support of Trump, Breitbart continued to use tactics they had deployed in defence of GamerGate and the Alt Right. When Republican political consultant Rick Wilson criticised Trump, Bannon declared that Wilson had “viciously attacked the grass roots” (Wilde, 2015), and he became the subject of a series of Breitbart articles—one of which called him “Gollum-in-glasses” (Grove, 2016). As with the targets of GamerGate, Wilson’s family became the subject of varied forms of online and offline harassment, including prank calls, doxing, and rape threats (ibid.). A Breitbart reporter also made “repeated calls” to Wilson’s employer, asking “when will you fire Rick Wilson?” (ibid.) Again, Breitbart’s strategy lay in attacking individuals, coordinating with their following to harass and undermine their political opponents.With the many commonalities between Breitbart and Trump—and with Mercer, the money behind Breitbart, and Bannon, its CEO, both becoming heavily involved in the Trump campaign—it is a logical assumption that Breitbart coverage of Trump was largely supportive. However, their actions in March 2016 show an allegiance to Trump that held out even at the expense of their own employees. At a campaign event, Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski physically assaulted Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields (H. Gold, 2016a). In the days following, her claims were corroborated by an eyewitness reporter from the Washington Post (Terris, 2016), as well as an audio recording of the incident (H. Gold, 2016b). While the official response initially condemned Lewandowsky (Griswold, 2016), a follow-up press release notably lacked any such condemnation (Nolte, 2016). Breitbart then published a lengthy breakdown of the sequence of events, contradicting Field’s account and defending Lewandowsky (Pollak, 2016). Internal memos were leaked that revealed that staff had been ordered to stop defending Fields (Gray, 2016). Fields and several colleagues resigned shortly thereafter, and her statement to the Washington Post puts plain where she felt Breitbart’s priorities lay: “They were protecting Trump more than me” (Kaplan, 2016). Among the resigning staffers was Breitbart spokesperson Kurt Bardella. In a CNN interview, he cited “resistance from Breitbart in supporting Michelle”, and asserted they were “looking for a reason to disprove” the claims. When asked whether he was “saying [Breitbart is] lying”, he simply responded, “Yes, I am” (Bardella, 2016).

Figure 12
Figure 12: Data map of incoming/outgoing links between websites and the “propaganda engine” (Albright, 2016)

To audiences that Breitbart had cultivated, Trump held a special appeal in his opposition to ‘political correctness’ and ‘SJW culture’. Despite his wealth, he was portrayed an outsider to the establishment. His crude language and abrasive attitude were celebrated. His loose relationship with facts and his lack of experience were either not seen as important, or counted to be positive traits.  He was both strongman and underdog, and his internally inconsistent self-portrayal was part of his appeal; he combined “cynical distance with full reliance on paranoiac fantasy” (Andrejevic, 2016, p. 653), building upon the sentiment of his infamous ‘birther’ claims against Obama to question the legitimacy of two of his opponents in the Republican primary (ibid.). There was a significant portion of the American populace that embraced Trump not in spite of his tactics, but because of them. To the self-proclaimed villains of the Alt Right he was, as Andrejevic terms it, a “figure of obscene enjoyment” (Andrejevic, 2016, p. 653).Breitbart is currently under FBI investigation over “allegations that they worked with Russian-backed operatives to disseminate stories favouring President Donald Trump” (Worley, 2017). While findings are still pending on the matter of deliberate co-ordination, Pentagon official Mike Carpenter has stated “Those stories got amplified by fringe elements of our media like Breitbart” (ibid.). Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, performed a data analysis of the “micro-propaganda machine” and visualised his results in a data map (Albright, 2016; see Figure 12). The larger nodes indicated “domains that were linked to the MOST by the propaganda engine” and red nodes indicating “fake news, conspiracy … and right-leaning misinformation sites”—Breitbart featuring prominently as the largest red node (ibid.).

The Presidency

Days after the election results, “post-truth” was chosen as Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year; “Alt-right” made the shortlist (Washtell, 2016). “Post-truth” is defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016). One reporter lamented, “Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated” (Glasser, 2016). Trump’s victory showed that a focus on facts was no longer an effective political countermeasure.

Kloor notes that Trump’s victory was “predicated” on anti-science techniques (Kloor, 2017, p. 60); he specifies his assertion by naming proponents of the Anti-Vaccination movement:

“Just as Trump’s most ardent supporters live in a media bubble with its own set of truths, so too do passionate fans of Kennedy and Wakefield. Both of these bubbles foster disdain for establishment figures and institutions. Objective facts cannot penetrate these enclosed worlds” (Kloor, 2017, p. 61).

As was the case with their anti-intellectual predecessors, Trump and Breitbart’s political successes were an example of the power of manipulating the conversation, both in terms of television coverage and internet sub communities.

After his election, Trump’s influence from Breitbart was manifest on a governmental level. Stelter of CNN (2017) reported that Trump’s conspiratorial accusation, that the Obama administration had marked him for personal surveillance, was the result of a Breitbart article that reached Trump; that accusation launched an investigation by the US justice department (Whiteside, 2017). Trump’s personal connections to Breitbart affiliates also manifested through some of his more infamous statements, such as when he declared several mainstream outlets to be “the enemy of the American people” (Trump, 2017). Mayer of the New Yorker notes that Patrick Caddell, an associate of Trump and employee of Mercer, had made a similar statement at a conference in 2012 (Mayer, 2017). Trump’s populist language reflects that of members of his inner circle, many of whom in turn have connections to Breitbart. Meanwhile, Bannon “spearheaded” the attempted travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries; shortly thereafter, he was appointed to the National Security Council (Beauchamp, 2017). Breitbart’s former leader was in a position to influence foreign policy, a level of legitimisation that was reflected in the site itself.

As Breitbart received exclusive interviews with the new president (Seipel, 2017), the mainstream media received hostile treatment in private media summits (Hensch, 2016) and public press conferences (Collinson, 2017). While Breitbart was admitted access to the White House briefing room, some mainstream outlets were refused (Borchers, 2017). As Breitbart continued to instigate harassment to silence Trump critics (Whitehouse, 2017), Trump threatened to change libel laws in a tweet directed at the New York Times (Kludt, 2017). As Bannon declared, the mainstream media had become “the opposition party” (Gambino, 2017).

There are indications that, in spite of his election, Trump’s methods are not endearing him to the American populace; after he failed to enact the American Health Care Act, his Gallup approval ratings fell to 36 percent, bringing his average to 42% in less than three months of his presidency (Newport, 2017). Likewise, Bannon appears to be falling out of favour with Trump, being suddenly removed from his position in the National Security Council (Buncombe, 2017). What is clear from the above series of events, however, is that conventional approaches to politics and news reporting are no longer an adequate means of interacting with the populace. Understanding the state of the media, engaging the audience, reaching people on a personal level—regardless of anything else that may be said of Breitbart and the Trump campaign, these were strengths that lead to their successes. In order to properly function in the new political landscape that Breitbart and Trump have helped to shape, it is necessary for activists, politicians and news media to make use of those same strengths.

[Conclusion]

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