How the far right acts as a “bridge phenomenon” for white supremacists
In his tax speech in Pennsylvania last week, President Trump gave a shout out to “The great Jeffrey Lord.”
He went on to explain that Lord “was on fake news CNN for a long time. He was one of my few sources of truth.”
CNN severed ties with Lord after he tweeted “sieg heil,” a Nazi salutation.
Trump’s flirtation with racism is nothing new—it extends back through the campaign and into many facets of the presidency. He called the white supremacists in Charlottesville “very fine people” and has repeatedly refused to condemn hate groups. But the precise mechanisms by which the administration and ally media outlets like Breitbart act as bridges to normalize hate groups is becoming increasingly clear.
Last week, Buzzfeed’s massive story on the right-wing provocateur showed that Milo Yiannopoulos sent at least one major Breitbart story to a number of white supremacists to vet and line-edit. In a video embedded in the story, Richard Spencer and others gave a Nazi salute as Yiannopoulos sang “America the Beautiful” at karaoke. Milo even spiked a story at the suggestion of white nationalist Devin Saucier, a friend of Spencer’s.
Yiannopoulos was forced out of Breitbart after an old tape in which he appears to condone pedophila came out, but he has remained in contact with the major funders to the site, the billionaire Mercer family, which supported and funded Milo Inc.
Bannon, who had declared the Mercer-funded Breitbart a “platform for the alt-right,” left the site to run Trump’s campaign and work as a senior advisor to the White House, and returned to the site when he was ousted shortly after the white nationalist terror attack in Charlottesville.
“Dude—we r in a global existentialist war where our enemy EXISTS in social media and u r jerking yourself off w/ marginalia!!!!” he wrote to Milo. “U should be OWNING this conversation because u r everything they hate!!! Drop your toys, pick up your tools and go help save western civilization.”
“Western civilization” is often code for whiteness. But it is less offensive, and less likely to scare away potential converts.
In his New York Times Magazine story on the Breitbart, Wil S. Hylton (full disclosure, a friend) talked to Yochai Benkler, a professor who had been studying the site’s rise.
Breitbart, it turned out in Benkler’s study, was three times more influential than its closest rival, Fox News, during the 2016 election. In this way, it has, according to Benkler, served as a sort of filter that helps legitimize racist ideas. Benkler told Hylton that “Breitbart is not talking about these issues in the same way you would find on the extreme right … They don’t use the same language you find on sites like VDARE and The Daily Stormer” — two sites connected to the white nationalist alt-right movement.
But they are talking about those same issues, and it turns out that the fact that they don’t use the same language as Daily Stormer is what makes Breitbart effective as a “bridge” that, in Hylton’s words, “functioned as a legitimizing tether for the most abhorrent currents of the right wing.”
Now that we know that Yiannopoulos actually sent “his” Breitbart stories (which were actually often not written by him) to Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, who works at the Daily Stormer, the bridge phenomenon comes off a bit differently.
“What we saw in our larger scale analysis was that Breitbart was offering a bridge, a translation platform from the white nationalists to the rest, but that the language and framing was sufficiently different to not be read directly as white nationalist,” Benkler responded in an email when I asked about the Milo story. “To the extent that the BuzzFeed news story is correct in its details, it describes in great detail the level process by which the ideas were transferred, but then still partly sanitized for consumption by people who would be receptive to the ideas, but not the messenger (e.g. Daily Stormer) or the very specific explicitly white nationalist language.”
Trump himself has often acted as a similar kind of bridge. Although he first endorsed Luther Strange to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in an Alabama special election, Trump has now come around to fully supporting Roy Moore, the theocratic former Alabama judge twice removed from office for failing to recognize the rulings of a higher court.
But Moore is himself acting as a bridge for even more extreme figures.
As Talking Points Memo reported last week, Moore’s top supporter is Michael Peroutka, who the site described as a “hardline Confederate sympathizer with longtime ties to a secessionist group” who has “expressed beliefs that make even Moore’s arguably theocratic anti-gay and anti-Muslim views look mainstream by comparison.”
Peroutka, a secessionist and debt-collection attorney, ran for president in 2004 for the Constitution Party. A decade later, in 2014, he ran for the county council in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and was supported by Moore—Peroutka has honored the Alabamian by naming a field on his farm for Moore. In 2012, Peroutka asked attendees of a League of the South conference to “stand for the national anthem” and proceeded to play “Dixie.”
So as the president and his administration continue to throw fits about athletes “disrespecting the flag” by taking a knee during the national anthem, they are actively supporting or receiving support from racist extremists who support either the Nazis or the Confederacy. Nevertheless, in the same way that Breitbart launders the extremist views of the Daily Stormer, making them more palatable, the administration is acting as a bridge to legitimize those elements on the right that are even more extreme than Trump is.