Alternative Media, Alternative Election – Chapter Three: Alternative Politics

[Back to Chapter Two]

With Breitbart’s use of nakedly bigoted language and logic, it is of little surprise that the website attracted followers of the Alt Right, an “openly racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic” (Geoforum, 2017, p. 1) political movement consisting of “an anonymous army of trolls” (Malmgren, 2017, p. 9). Many of their followers identify as white nationalists and neo-Nazis, but they have distinguished themselves by “a mix of shock tactics, targeted harassment, outright calls to violence, and a savvy understanding of social media” (ibid.). The Alt Right consists of several factions and lacks a concrete political platform, but its followers are united in their opposition to the elite (ibid., p. 11). The aim of this chapter is to show how Breitbart proved to be a valuable ally to the Alt Right, massaging their extremist ideas into a more palatable and relatable message, and how this proved to be a radicalising influence on Breitbart’s own audience.

White supremacists have become increasingly pervasive on the internet, as is evidenced by Berger (2016, p. 2), who found that American white nationalist twitter accounts saw their followers increase by 600% from 2012 to 2016, a period of growth that parallels that of Breitbart (see Figure 8). While direct causality in either direction is not proven, this chapter will explore how, as with GamerGate, Breitbart nurtured a mutually beneficial relationship between themselves and white extremist movements.

Figure 8
Figure 8: Statistics showing follower count of identified white nationalists from 2012 to 2016 (Berger, 2016)

It is also clear that the two movements share ideas, particularly in the realm of racist conspiracy theories. Mortensen (2016, p. 2) writes that followers of GG adopted white supremacist ideas in fear of ‘Cultural Marxism’, a supposed secret movement which Törnberg and Törnberg (2016, p. 415) define as a supposed “Jewish invention” to promote feminism and Islam. Mortensen (2016, p. 2) names Breitbart as one of the sources of the movement’s extremist ideas, and summarises the results:
The striking similarity between the Alt Right and GamerGate is evident, and indeed they are believed to have an overlapping audience. A summative video published by the New York Times summarised Alt Right followers as “white supremacists, Gamergate supporters and anti-Semites” (Weigel, 2016). However, there is a lack of academic research on the nature of the connection between the two, likely due to the Alt Right’s relatively recent rise to prominence. This may change in the near future, however, as academic papers are beginning to bring up the Alt Right as a topic of concern (Malmgren, 2017; Geoforum, 2017; Suiter, 2016). Due to the anonymous nature of much of GG and the Alt Right, it would be difficult for new studies to quantify the connection between the two in terms of audience statistics. There is a clear overlap in demographic, however, with both movements having a considerable base in internet forums such as 4chan. Malmgren (2017, p. 11) uses 4chan advertising demographics as a proxy for estimating Alt Right membership: “70 percent male, primarily aged 18–34, the majority of whom attended or are currently enrolled in college”. As decentralised movements based in various parts of the internet, GamerGate and the Alt Right shared their predisposition towards online activism.

Several GG’ers embraced this conspiracy, and claimed Jews and western academics have joined forces to pacify White men, and planned to hand the power of the ‘‘western world’’ to the Jews or Islam by encouraging politically correct digital games, resonating with the claims against Cultural Marxists made by the killer Anders Behring Breivik in his manifesto” (Mortensen, 2016, p. 2).

By helping to instil fringe conspiracy in their audience’s minds, Breitbart radicalised their audience while appealing to existing radical audiences. This resulted in a cross-pollination of misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and more, between groups like GamerGate and the Alt Right; all adversaries, true to populist form, were defined as part of the elite. To help understand Breitbart’s role as facilitator in this process, the rest of this chapter is dedicated to examining the actions of two key Breitbart figures in relation to the Alt Right.

Milo Yiannopoulos and the Alt Right

In an article critical of the Alt Right movement, one former Breitbart writer, Ben Shapiro, observed, “Many of the most public members of the alt-right are leftovers from Gamergate” (Shapiro, 2016); he goes on to implicate his former Breitbart colleague, Milo Yiannopoulos, as one such member. Since Shapiro may be subject to bias due to leaving the company on unfriendly terms (Kaplan, 2016), a closer reading of Yiannopoulos’ work is required to ascertain his position in Alt Right circles.

It is clear that Yiannopoulos has functioned as an apologist for the movement. One Yiannopoulos article, in which he defended the Alt-Right term ‘cuckservative’, provides a clear example of Alt Right apologia (Yiannopoulos, 2015g). As defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center (2016), the term ‘cuck’, or ‘cuckold’, hearkens to a genre of pornography with a history of racist undertones. Its use in combination with ‘conservative’ implies “that establishment conservatives are like white men who allow black men to sleep with their wives” (ibid.). Yiannopoulos deflected accusations of the word having racist roots, and lauded it as a “gloriously effective insult” (Yiannopoulos, 2015g). He argued that the term ‘cuck’ was popularised on 4chan and not “white power websites” (ibid.)—a disingenuous defence that implicitly exonerated members of such message boards of racist intent. Yiannopoulos adopted the same tone as his debut piece on GamerGate; just as GG followers were “marginalised, troubled people” (Yiannopoulos, 2014b), Alt Right members were “slurred, demonised, [and] ridiculed” by the establishment (Yiannopoulos, 2015g). Again, Yiannopoulos appealed to an audience in want of a sympathetic ear.

Another article co-written by Yiannopoulos, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right” (Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, 2016), portrayed the Alt Right movement as daring and its members as “dangerously bright”. The language throughout the article was not only sympathetic to the movement, it actively downplayed their reputation of bigotry while simultaneously glorifying their fight against the “regressive left” (ibid.). Accusations of anti-Semitism and white supremacy were dismissed as coming from “mostly Establishment types” (ibid.). According to this article, the movement was a “young, rebellious contingent” whose actions are the result of a “mischievous urge”, motivated to break taboos for one reason: “Because it’s funny!” (Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, 2016) In his ‘punk rock’ portrayal of the Alt Right, Malmgren remarks that Yiannopoulos “grasped a kernel of truth” (Malmgren, 2017, p. 12). Many Alt Right members promote the cause for shock value. “Its members want to be villains” (ibid.), and likewise Yiannopoulos has described himself as “the world’s most fabulous supervillain” (Anti-Defamation League, 2017). However, Malmgren rejects the notion that this diminishes the dangerous potential of the movement (Malmgren, 2017, p. 12). The motive behind acts of discrimination does not detract from the human cost, especially when escalated to the point of harassment and violence.

Conservative publications roundly condemned Yiannopoulos’ article, but it was also poorly received by some Alt Right figureheads, who “attacked [Yiannopoulos] as a ‘Jewish homosexual’” and claimed that he was undermining the establishment “for Jewish purposes” (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016). This is symptomatic of the ideologically inconsistent quality of the movement, which contained neo-Nazi and white supremacist elements alongside a comparatively softer faction, deemed by some members of the movement as ‘Alt Lite’ (Malmgren, 2017, p. 10). Malmgren comments that Breitbart’s approach to Alt Right ideology typified Alt Lite attitudes, normalizing Alt Right views “through relatively approachable language” (Malmgren, 2017, p. 10). He specifically names Yiannopoulos as one of the Alt Right’s “most visible ‘intellectuals’” (Malmgren, 2017, p. 9), in spite of factional opposition.

Yiannopoulos continued to employ the same tactics he had used at the height of GamerGate, even going on a university tour to use doxing tactics against transgender and immigrant students (Oppenheim, 2017; Landsbaum, 2016). As Darcy of the Business Insider reports (2017), Yiannopoulos’ tactics were used against him, shortly before his scheduled speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when conservative twitter account The Reagan Battalion (with the twitter name @ReaganBattalion) resurfaced an old video interview. In the video, Yiannopoulos defends “the idea of ‘13 year olds’ having sex with ‘older men,’ referencing his own story that he benefited from a priest molesting him when he was a teenager” (Lopez, 2017). The video achieved wide circulation, Yiannopoulos’ speech was cancelled (as was a book deal), and he quit Breitbart the following day (ibid.).

In Milo Yiannopoulos’s fall, as with his rise, the potential for leveraging the active nature of the internet is shown. The internet has developed into a battleground of information, where an individual or organisation may gain influence by selectively sharing information and harnessing the audience’s reaction. Yiannopoulos demonstrated this by ingratiating himself as a public face of the Alt Right, and modifying the movement’s goals to suit Breitbart’s established audience.

Stephen K. Bannon and the Alt Right

Yiannopoulos was not a lone actor at Breitbart in aiding the Alt Right. He had active support from Breitbart CEO, Stephen K. Bannon, who himself proved to be an important figure to the movement.

Hosting Yiannopoulos on Breitbart’s satellite radio show, Bannon “repeatedly lavished praise on Yiannopoulos, comparing his courage to that of Winston Churchill” (Hankes, 2017). Bannon’s choice of words in his praise of Yiannopoulos is indicative of his personal views; he called him “one of the leading voices of his generation in this whole fight against cultural Marxism, the defense [sic] of Western Civilization” (ibid.). As previously indicated, both ‘Cultural Marxism’ and ‘western civilization’ are terms associated with white nationalists, Islamophobes, anti-feminists and anti-Semites (Hankes, 2017; Törnberg and Törnberg, 2016, p. 402; Mortensen, 2016, p. 2). Although Bannon has not made explicit anti-Semitic remarks (Anti-Defamation League, 2016), he is on record stating the following regarding reports of black citizens being shot by the police:

“What if the people getting shot by the cops did things to deserve it? There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent” (Bannon, 2016).

 Unlike Yiannopoulos, Bannon’s statements contain more careful and coded language. He does not identify as a ‘supervillain’, but like Yiannopoulos he has a history of softening the Alt Right’s ideology. In an interview with Mother Jones, Bannon infamously called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right” (Posner, 2016), but was careful to frame the movement as “‘nationalist,’ though not necessarily white nationalist.” (Posner, 2016). He conceded that “there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right”, but indicated that such circumstances were coincidence (ibid.). On another occasion he acknowledged the existence of racist “groups” in the Alt Right, but wrote them off as “disparate”, saying they would “burn away over time” (Golshan, 2017).

Though Bannon has mostly shown his support to the Alt Right in qualified statements, Alt Right and white nationalist figureheads have given him and his leadership of Breitbart unqualified praise. One example is Andrew Anglin, founder and owner of neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer, who made the following comments on Nordfront Radio, a neo-Nazi program:

“Breitbart went hardcore when [Bannon] was running it … It really changed from being this kind of basic cuckservative type website to being this, I mean, the articles that they publish about blacks in America and about Muslims in Europe, it’s basically stuff that you would read on the Daily Stormer” (Amend and Morgan, 2017).

It is apparent that the actions of Breitbart have been successful in gaining the admiration of hate groups. Bannon has even been acknowledged as a trendsetter: Former leader of the KKK, David Duke, has stated that Bannon is “basically creating the ideological aspects of where we’re going” (Anti-Defamation League, 2016). Although Bannon has not publicly identified with white supremacist or neo-Nazi movements, it is clear that leaders within those communities are pleased with the direction Breitbart took under his management.

Bannon considers himself a revolutionary figure. A self-declared ‘Leninist’, he has proclaimed his desire to “destroy the state [and] bring everything crashing down” (Sebestyen, 2017). He has predicted a populist “global revolt”, and stated that Breitbart is “the voice” of that revolt (Golshan, 2017). It is clear from Bannon’s remarks that Breitbart’s populist elements are not accidental. Ostiguy and Roberts (2016, pp. 38–39) note that anti-establishment rhetoric, conspiracy-mongering, and prejudice against the Other are common in right-wing populism. Under Bannon’s leadership, and through leveraging other movements like GamerGate and the Alt Right, Breitbart became a considerable populist force—one that would become legitimised in the 2016 US Presidential election through the personage of Donald J. Trump.

[Chapter Four: Alternative Election]

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