Trump and Bannon: the populist voice of the alt-right and alt-light

How Steve Bannon and Breitbart News best reflect President Donald Trump's populist message

15 minutes to read
Ryan Papetti

On November 6, 2016, Republican Donald Trump overcame great political odds to secure the Presidential election of the United States of America by narrowly defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton in the electoral college. While mainstream media and much of the public—even Trump’s own campaign staff to some extent—were shocked at the outcome of the election, it was certainly predictable. The presence of seemingly endless “#MAGA” hashtags and pro-Trump Pepe the Frog memes indicated that Trump’s message—and more broadly the message of the emerging alternative right wing (alt-Right/light)—resonated with several parts of America that felt cheated, lied to, and overpowered by the establishment and mainstream media. These Americans turned to new media, among which included the Steve Bannon-backed Breitbart News, a formal alt-Right/light news organization. When analyzing the effects that new media on the election, Trump’s victory becomes much more visible and the powerful messaging tools behind it emerge. 

While large, established media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are useful in helping members of the alt-Right/light share ideas quickly, Breitbart News best reflects Trump’s message by providing a strong, formal platform for alt-right/light journalists to write and disseminate their message under a strong, unified voice. Even though Bannon has left Breitbart after the book release of Fire and Fury, his influence is undeniable. In order to analyze Trump and Breitbart News’ relationship, it is first necessary to position and evaluate Bannon and Trump’s messages in the philosophical sphere of the right-wing.

Steve Bannon and Breitbart News

Of all of Trump’s supporters, perhaps no one better than Steve Bannon worked to communicate and propagate the campaign messages with the alt-Right movement. To begin, Steve Bannon’s life before Trump is an important part of the crafting of his self-image as a right-wing nationalist. He served in the Navy for seven years during the 1970s and 80s where he began to develop strong nationalist, patriotic feelings. After his service, he earned his wealth as an investment banker at the popular financial firm Goldman Sachs where he networked and gained connections with people in the entertainment industry. Later, he jumped into Hollywood media in 1991 and became an executive producer (Beckwith, 2017). During his time in Hollywood, he produced several documentaries including some centered around President Ronald Reagan, someone whom he admired very much. Though many of his films were right-wing, perhaps it was one film treatment that truly reveals his nationalist and alt-Right beliefs. In 2007, he wrote a treatment for a documentary whose central idea was that there will be a rise of Islam in the United States that will eventually turn it into the “Islamic States of America.”

Although Trump certainly enjoys using Twitter and other social media to communicate to the public, the platforms as a whole are not the most effective for spreading the populist, anti-establishment message"

Finally, in 2012, Bannon became a founding member of Breitbart News, a brand-new news organization devoted to commentary and publications opposing the liberal views of establishment media. During the 2016 election, Breitbart gained mainstream media’s attention after the promotion of numerous alt-Right conspiracy stories centered around then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Among these included the infamous Pizzagate story, where Clinton and her staff were accused to running a child pedophilia ring through a pizza shop in Washington DC. This conspiracy ended when an armed man broke into the shop one day “searching for children to save.” Thus, under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart began to take a more alt-Right approach and formally became a key website in the spreading news and ideas of Trump’s new supporters.  

After the 2016 election, Trump immediately appointed Steve Bannon as his Chief Strategist, a high-ranking influencer to the President and his policies. Trump’s appointment of Bannon was viewed largely as an acceptance of Bannon’s alt-Right views, which was likely done as a message that Trump will promote the tenets of the ideology. This is one of many moves the President has made that signals his positioning as a member of the new right and a key voice in the emerging movement.

Breitbart News and its Message

During Trump’s presidency and largely during his campaign, Breitbart News supported him almost unconditionally. On January 26, 21017, Trump announced his first big executive order with the “Muslim Ban”, which was a campaign promise to severely limit the immigration of refugees from Muslim-predominate countries in Africa and the Middle East. Most of the mainstream media, with the exception of Fox News, criticized and opposed the ban. Breitbart, in defense of Trump, was quick to point out two things that they felt the mainstream media purposely ignored

First Breitbart noted that the “left is lying” about the ban to attack Trump. According to Breitbart, the “Muslim Ban” was not based on Islam because Trump did not ban immigration and travel from other Muslim majority nations such as India. 

Second, Breitbart claimed that it “restored the credibility of American power” by reverting to America’s traditional history of nationalist isolationism (Pollak, 2017). To Breitbart, this was proof of that President Trump was going to “Make America Great Again.” Though just a single example, it reveals Breitbart’s connection to Trump’s beliefs and wishes. 

This construction of image places Breitbart as a right-wing populist news outlet because they focus on anti-establishment and anti-globalist stories and philosophies. It is because of this messaging that Breitbart and Bannon have enjoyed such popularity with Trump’s White House and among the alt-Right in general.

Front page of on December 14, 2017

In message analysis, the structure and presentation of the message is just as important as the message itself (Lempert & Silverstein, 2016). Aside from its philosophical image, Breitbart’s popularity also has to do with its physical image, that is, the structure of its website.  It features an entertainment section, a tech section, and even a sports section. Despite their fierce opposition to mainstream media, Breitbart’s website certainly is constructed similar to that of CNN and other popular outlets. A notable difference however is its advertisements, which as seen in the photo, focuses on gifts for "deplorables," the name Hillary Clinton dubbed Trump supporters as. The overall structure is interesting because it allows its viewers to see other aspects of the public sphere through the lens of Breitbart, which leads to the subtle imbuement of their philosophy. This can be seen, for example, with their take on more controversial aspects of sports such as the current protesting during the national anthem in American football. Even though Breitbart is much different philosophically from mainstream media such as CNN, its construction as a traditional news outlet is a key component to its success.

President Donald Trump’s Message and the alt-Right

Even before President Trump began his campaign, it was clear that he philosophically aligned with the alt-Right. In May 2012, prior to any announcement of candidacy, Trump promoted a conspiracy theory regarding Obama’s birth certificate. In a series of tweets that lasted several months, Trump claimed that the birth certificate is “fake” and praised those who also came to the same conclusion; this became known in media as the “birther conspiracy.” Though Trump later admitted that Obama is an American-born citizen, the birther conspiracy is important to Trump’s message because this directly communicated to Americans who opposed multiculturalism and believed that the liberal establishment was cheating. The lack of attention to facts and rewriting of them is common in emotional American politics since many Americans distrust their government. Trump’s team purchased powerful algorithmic tools to construct the populist messaging. This is also why Trump seems to address a very specific sentiment of the nation, which is the anti-establishment and nostalgic nationalism that the United States practiced during most of the 20th century.

"It can be argued that he does this to also minimize the electorate, which will generate very passionate alt-right support and therefore simplify target messaging."

During the campaign, Trump continued to practice this “algorithmic populism” (Maly, 2018) and form his populist message through his precise, prolific use of Twitter. Trump’s tweets can be broadly organized into three categories. The first are his political tweets, where he refers to current political issues and includes chants such as “BUILD THE WALL” or “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”. These tweets build into Trump’s algorithmic populist outreach because they are often frequently liked and retweeted the most, which in turn target specific support groups such as the anti-immigration or anti-Islam groups. 

The second category is personal tweets that focus on either praising himself, commenting on statements others have made about him, or really anything on his mind. Though they do not necessarily serve a pure political purpose, they are crucial to his message because they are used to position himself as a common man, a man of the people. This is ultimately done to appear as a true outsider, populist, and anti-establishment candidate. 

Lastly, for the same reasons as the former category, Trump retweets memes or support from other popular pro-Trump accounts. Each of these categories serve a purpose in his positioning as a supporter of the alt-Right movement. More specifically, the structure and presentation of his message makes him appear as authentic and a member of his support group, an important messaging tactic (Lempert & Silverstein, 2016).

Through his powers as president, Trump continues to push an alt-Right agenda. First, his repeated attempts at a “Muslim Ban” reveal efforts to oppose multiculturalism and promote ethnic and religious homogenization of the country. His promise of building a huge wall on the Mexican border cater to the anti-immigrant feelings present in America. It can be argued that he does this to also minimize the electorate, which will generate very passionate alt-right support and therefore simplify target messaging.  The extraction of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, as well as the renewed attention brought to traditional American industries such as coal and oil, is proof of his nationalist “America First” slogan. The importance of using “America First” as a slogan, and the actions mentioned above, is that it directly taps into the nationalist, patriotic sentiments that certain Americans feel and energizes support. Furthermore, is proof of a desire to return to American isolationism and reminding the world of America’s geopolitical and military prestige, key values that Americans hold.

An example of a portion of Trump's "America First" policy

However, perhaps the salient situation where Trump positioned himself philosophically as alt-Right were his statements regarding the Charlottesville protests in August 2017. Originally, the protest began as an alt-Right march, self-named as “Unite the Right”, to protect the removal of a Confederate Robert E Lee statue, the former leader of the Confederacy. The next day, however, counter-protestors showed up, which led to heightened tensions, direct confrontations, and violent clashes between the protestors and counter-protestors. There are several accounts of the “Unite the Right” protestors assaulting counter-protestors, eventually culminating in the death of Heather Meyer, a counter-protestor, when a “Unite the Right” protestor rammed his car through the car injuring several other counter-protestors.

The incident was quick to permeate through mainstream media. Due to the clear horror involved with the event, most of the country’s politicians, regardless of party affiliation, condemned the violence present and even labeled the “Unite the Right” protestors as alt-Right and white nationalists, directly condemning their philosophies as well. However, separate from the rest of his fellow Republican party members, Trump delivered a famous address where he condemned “both sides” of the protests, avoided referring to the “Unite the Right” protestors as alt-right, and pointed out that “Not all those [“Unite the Right” protestors] were neo-Nazis, not all those people were white supremacists, despite the prevalence of Nazi-themed and Confederate flags and other memorabilia at the protests. Indeed, the Nazi and Confederate memorabilia come from different eras of world history but they both share a common goal in their message: preservation of white power and racial/ethnic homogenization. To fix the public relations disaster that ensued after his comments, Trump later clarified, in a clearly drafted and more formal remark, that he is opposed to all forms of racism and hatred in the country  CITATION Jac17 \l 1033 (Jacobs & Laughland, 2017). However, his strategic ambivalence not directly referring to white nationalism as an enemy is seen as a reprieve to the supporters of the alt-Right. Whether or not Trump himself is opposed to or supportive of white nationalism is largely unimportant because his comments succeeded at creating media discord and debate, which enabled the alt-Right to receive a platform to express their message.

Due to the incendiary and “un-presidential” nature of Trump’s statements regarding the protests, the media speculated that Bannon pushed Trump to make such brazen, nationalist remarks regarding the incident. After heated public outcry from such speculation, Bannon resigned formally on August 18, 2017, less than a week following the event. Though he resigned his position as a Chief Strategist, he did not stop being the chief White House influencer. Bannon’s influence on Trump did not cease that day; the following day, Bannon resumed position as head of Breitbart News and increased his involvement in special elections across the country. In these elections, he heavily campaigned and structured messages for alt-Right, anti-establishment Republican candidates such as Roy Moore in Alabama.

Social media and its reflection of Trump’s message

But Steve Bannon’s Breitbart is not the only media platform taking Trump’s side and sharing Trump’s view on controversial issues. Due to their lack of presence in mainstream media, the alt-Right has found much more subtle ways to express their views on the internet, often using social media sites such as Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and Facebook. These social media sites are powerful tools for spreading messages due to the easiness to share the posts and the rapid ability to spread messages or rally support.  

On Twitter, Trump alone has nearly 45 million followers as of this writing, with the number increasing each day. With every tweet he sends, millions of people are able to interact and share his tweets. However, there are dozens of popular accounts that hold several thousands of followers that help promote his alt-right messages. Among these include Tomi Lahren, a popular Republican new media journalist with nearly 1 million followers; Richard Spencer, a leader of the alt-Right movement has over 80 thousand followers; the Trump Train, an account devoted to spreading memes and shareable tweets has almost 190 thousand followers.

Trump's personal account alone has nearly 45 million followers

Beyond Trump himself, the alt-right continues to be active in other forms of social media, such as Reddit. One prominent subreddit, a more specific forum that Reddit users can follow, is known as “The_Donald.” Here, over 520 thousand followers—who refer to themselves as “Patriots” and “winners” when online—share memes and other stories that promote Trump and bash his adversaries. The_Donald’s popularity is especially important because it helped investigate Trump’s claims regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails, which makes the subreddit an extremely useful messaging tool that many Trump staffers even admitted to monitoring for important messages. This is a key point to make because it reveals a larger part of Trump’s messaging strategy: use algorithms to mine social media data to craft a message that speaks directly to the people, and create discord and distrust in traditional mainstream media. The strategic targeting and exposure of the anti-establishment message that Trump and his followers share is a component of the algorithmic populism that has successfully propelled Trump to the White House.

Despite the incredible data and message-forming that these sites provide, they fail to organize around a single voice and completely reflect Trump’s message"

Despite the incredible data and message-forming that these sites provide, they fail to organize around a single voice and completely reflect Trump’s message, which reveals the various holes in the alt-Right fabric. One example that shows this is the alt-Right fallout from Trump announcing he met with Democratic leaders to secure funding for the DACA children. These are immigrants who were brought here as children whom President Obama granted certain rights and privileges to allow them to apply for jobs or receive federally-funded education. Because the alt-Right is opposed to immigration and believes it damages American strength, many diehard anti-immigration alt-Right members—but full-on Trump supporters during the election—protested the move by burning their “Make America Great Again” hats and condemning Trump on Twitter and other social media. When Trump doubled down on his stance on the DACA children, this revealed that the sprawling and varying degrees of support amongst alt-Right supporters complicate the consolidation of one voice and thus message around which the entire base can rally. So, despite social media’s messaging ability, it lacks the unification of one voice. This is where Breitbart and Steve Bannon media excels.

Trump's victory

Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was a turning point for the alt-Right movement and American politics as a whole. Through their remarkable use of algorithms to target specific electoral blocs, Trump’s team was able to craft a message that certain activists had already formed themselves. This made Trump appear as an excellent communicator who was able to speak exactly how anti-establishment America wanted him to. His obsession with Twitter contributes to his anti-establishment message but also frames him as a “man of the people.”

Every great communicator needs a good messenger behind them. In this case, Steve Bannon’s algorithmic strategies and use of Breitbart News provided Trump with a solid support base. The formal structure and secure backing of Breitbart officially formalized some of Trump’s messages and its articles made airwaves to sow discord and chaos into the mainstream media, which allowed Trump to point to and blame the failing establishment. After winning the election, Steve Bannon continued his strategic work as Trump’s Chief Strategist where he was able to successfully represent the nationalist, populist voices of the alt-Right in policy decisions such as the attempts at a “Muslim Ban.” Even after his resignation in August 2017, Bannon has continued to spread Trump’s populist message through campaigning for hard-right candidates during special elections and continues to use Breitbart as a source of disseminating information and drumming up support.

Although Trump certainly enjoys using Twitter and other social media to communicate to the public, the platforms as a whole are not the most effective for spreading the populist, anti-establishment message because of the intense backlash he receives on the platforms. In fact, it has been speculated that his use of Twitter is hurting his approval rating and threatens other Republican goals. Breitbart News is, however, a safe space to communicate these alt-Right messages without fear of retaliation on social media. Combined with the boom in viewership and popularity they continue to experience during the Trump presidency as well as Steven Bannon’s relationship with Trump, it is clear that Breitbart best reflects Trump’s populist message to a large extent.

According to FiveThirtyEight, President Trump has his lowest approval rating ever as of this writing. With all the negative coverage Trump receives and the much more to come, he needs all that Breitbart can give him and more.



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