Personnel is policy, runs the old Washington saying. Which is why Republicans and Democrats alike are studying Donald Trump’s staff hires for clues of how the President-elect will govern. And so far one name sticks out: Steve Bannon, who was named Sunday as Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor.
In one respect, Bannon’s appointment is not a surprise: he was already a member of Trump’s innermost circle, serving since late summer as chief executive of the businessman’s campaign. But in many others, Bannon is an unorthodox, even startling hire.
Trump’s new top White House adviser is best known as a purveyor of right-wing agitprop. As boss of Breitbart News, Bannon helped nurture the populist uprising that swept Trump to victory in the Republican primaries. He has battled for years to transform the GOP into a more hard-edged party and given voice to some of the unsavory forces floating around its fringe, including a resurgence of white nationalism.
Bannon took an unusual route to the West Wing. Born in Virginia to a family of working-class Democrats, he served a stint in the Navy, earned an MBA at Harvard and became a banker at Goldman Sachs. From there he launched a boutique investment bank that specialized in media — he walked away from one lucrative deal with royalties from Seinfeld — and began to moonlight as a Hollywood producer. About a decade ago, he began making conservative films, including hagiographic documentaries about the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. His entreé into Breitbart came when he loaned office space in Los Angeles to the site’s namesake.
Bannon built Breitbart into a right-wing juggernaut. He did it by serving up an acid brand of ethnonationalism that attacks Republicans nearly as much as it does Democrats. Breitbart opposes illegal immigration, global trade deals, cultural progressives and Washington cronyism. The site often targets GOP leaders it sees as insufficiently conservative, helping to oust former House majority leader Eric Cantor and hounding former Speaker John Boehner to quit. This year it has pumped out a steady stream of articles attacking Paul Ryan, Boehner’s successor.
It would be one thing if Breitbart were merely archconservative. What worries many Republicans is the way it has given a voice to fringe groups. “We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon boasted to Mother Jones magazine in July, referring to the rising right-wing movement that includes anti-Semites and proponents of white nationalism.
Critics say Breitbart’s coverage is shot through with racism, xenophobia and misogyny. Under Bannon’s editorial direction, it has accused Planned Parenthood of perpetuating a “Holocaust” by performing abortions. The site targets women (sample headlines: “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews”; “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”; “The Solution to Online ‘Harassment’ Is Simple: Women Should Log Off”). It mocks the LGBT community (“Lesbian Bridezillas Bully Bridal Shop Over Religious Beliefs”). It foments fears about Muslim refugees (“Twin Falls Refugee Rape Special Report: Why Are the Refugees Moving In?”).
Breitbart has played up the prospects of a looming “race war” between whites and blacks. It often vilifies Black Lives Matter protesters. It promotes far-right parties across Europe. It published a piece whose headline called conservative pundit and Trump foe Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.” Bannon himself has been accused of anti-Semitism. In a 2007 court filing, Bannon’s ex-wife alleged that he made anti-Semitic remarks and did not want his daughters “going to school with Jews,” according to multiple media outlets that reviewed the documents. (A spokesperson for Bannon has denied he made the comments.)
Some former employees describe Bannon as a combative and vindictive figure. “He is legitimately one of the worst people I’ve ever dealt with,” former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro told TIME after Trump hired Bannon. “He regularly abuses people. He sees everything as a war. Every time he feels crossed, he makes it his business to destroy his opponent.”
Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman, tells TIME that Bannon would often launch into “provocative, expletive-laced tirades about any demographic group you can possibly think of. That’s just how Steve is.”
Trump has mostly staffed his presidential transition team with veteran lobbyists and policymakers, the same Washington figures he campaigned against. That cheered many Republicans, who hope that after a combative campaign, the nonideological President-elect might govern as a moderate. But Bannon’s perch at the top echelons of the White House is a clear sign that Trump plans to maintain links to the forces that propelled him into power.
“The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office,” tweeted GOP strategist John Weaver. “Be very vigilant America.”