Troll seizes White House

Fresh Air yesterday talked to Joshua Green, a Bloomberg reporter who knows a lot about Steve Bannon.

DAVIES: In 2012, when Steve Bannon was the executive editor of Breitbart, he established a research arm – the Government Accountability Institute. What does it do?

GREEN: Well, Bannon – what attracted me to Bannon originally was that, you know, if you look at kind of the infrastructure, the organizational chart of the Republican right-wing, what Hillary Clinton once referred to as the vast right-wing conspiracy, what you see is that a lot of the tendrils lead back to Steve Bannon. So not only was Bannon executive chairman of Breitbart News, but then with some of the same financial backers, he started the Government Accountability Institute which is a nonprofit research organization based in Tallahassee. And whereas Breitbart is gleefully provocative and hard right, the conceit at GAI is that this is a research organization that is going to do digging and stick to the realm of facts, and they’re going to investigate corruption in cronyism in government, be it Republican or Democrat. GAI was a pretty sleepy shop.

But what really brought GAI into the forefront was that GAI’s president, Peter Schweizer, wrote the book “Clinton Cash” that became an unexpected best-seller back in the spring of 2015, just as Hillary Clinton was getting ready to launch her presidential campaign. It drove up her unfavorability ratings, and it raised all sorts of pernicious questions about who Clinton – in the Clinton Foundation had financial relationships with and whether or not this was going to be a problem in her presidential campaign.

It was clear, I think, from the scope and tenor of the coverage that there was really something there. And that is the other way, I think, in which Bannon has been able to hack mainstream media news coverage because these “Clinton Cash” stories and the various relationships that the book documented were intentionally not published on right-wing sites like Breitbart News. What GAI did instead was to reach out to investigative reporters and mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and others and try and encourage their reporters to take this research that they’d done and to go off and do some digging on their own. And they did, and that wound up resulting in front-page stories in a lot of major newspapers that got this negative information about Clinton in front of a whole different audience than reads Breitbart News or listens to talk radio.

And if you look at how Donald Trump chose to run against Clinton in the general election, Trump was essentially channeling the same attacks that Bannon had conceived and pushed in the “Clinton Cash” book. And so – and, you know, so ultimately, you know, he succeeded in this year’s-long plan to plot and carry off the downfall of Hillary Clinton.

They planned it, and it worked. We’re all living in Breitbart world now.

DAVIES:¬†You know, there’s a lot of consternation, criticism, alarm about the appointment of Bannon to a senior-level position in the Trump White House. The concern is that it suggests a tolerance, if not embrace, of racism and anti-Semitism. What about the idea that Breitbart News itself propagates, you know, white supremacist views? I mean, The New York Times editorial on this said to scroll through Breitbart’s headlines is to come upon a parallel universe where black people do nothing but commit crimes, immigrants rape native-born daughters and feminists want to castrate men. The Southern Poverty Law Center says he made Breitbart News a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.

What’s your sense of the content of Breitbart News?

GREEN: Well, it is certainly inflammatory and fixated on race, on religion, on all the sorts of things that have upset people. I think the thing to understand about Breitbart – and this is not to excuse anything they write or publish – is that they are deliberately provocative. They’re aiming to offend and upset people in order to stoke the grassroots anger at government and the broader culture.

In internet language, it’s an elaborate and effective trolling operation because that is what martials this group of disaffected Republicans, you know, and other people sometimes referred to as the alt-right, but essentially this splinter faction of conservatives who have attacked and now taken over the Republican Party over the last four or five years.

We’re all living in Breitbart world, where we’re governed by trolls.

DAVIES: You know, it’s one thing if white supremacists read Breitbart News and if they write shocking comments in response to the stories. But as you look at the content, I mean, does the website seem to, you know, embrace and propagate these views of white nationalism and white supremacists? What’s your sense?

GREEN: I think it certainly fuels those views. And, you know, I had a discussion with Bannon about this back in 2015 about – you know, I said, you know, you’re a former Harvard guy, you’re a Goldman Sachs banker. I’m sort of shocked at some of the things you write because you come out of a culture that isn’t, you know, openly racist or anti-Semitic.

And what he said essentially was that they are trying to reach an audience that doesn’t have an outlet anywhere else in mainstream media. I pulled up some of the quotes. He said, you know, we focus on things like immigration, ISIS, race riots, what he calls the persecution of Christians. He says, we give a perspective that other outlets are not going to give. There are not a lot of outlets that are covering that, at least not from the perspective that we should be running a victory lap every time some sort of traditional value gets undercut.

The question I was always interested in getting at with Bannon was do you really believe this stuff – because a lot of it is offensive and inflammatory. And he said, you know, personally I’m mixed on a lot of this stuff. But we’re airing a lot of things that traditional people are thinking that don’t get mainstream media representation anymore. So they were making a market for these kinds of views and these kinds of stories and attracting an audience, what’s turned out to be an extremely large and powerful audience by tapping these sentiments.

That’s an incredibly callous thing to say, if that really is his reason for doing it. We don’t need a “market for these kinds of views and these kinds of stories.” That’s not a gap that needs to be filled. We don’t need to create a market for sadistic torture porn, for instance, and we don’t need to create a market for racist misogynist trolling and bullying. That’s not something humanity needs.

DAVIES: There are petitions circulating urging Trump to reverse the hiring of Steve Bannon. Why is he so loyal to Steve Bannon?

GREEN: There’s been so much kind of shock and consternation about how a guy like Bannon who is so far outside the bounds of anybody who’d typically be considered for, you know, a West Wing position gets elevated to one, I think it’s important to remember what we’ve just witnessed and what Trump himself has just seen that Bannon – and this is what originally attracted me to him as a profile subject – is a smart guy and a clever strategist who orchestrated this elaborate plan to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency that we’ve just watched work. It succeeded.

And so I think that Trump has a degree of faith in Bannon that he doesn’t have in another people. And I think that’s why Trump has been willing to withstand all the intense criticism over the Bannon appointment that we’ve seen in the last few days. To me it’s sort of like the least shocking aspect of what Trump has done in appointing Bannon to the West Wing. I mean, the guy hatched this elaborate plan to stop Clinton, and it worked.

Of course. Plus, Trump is a very bad man, so the fact that Bannon is also a very bad man isn’t going to trouble him.

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