WASHINGTON — Stephen Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick as White House chief strategist, helped mold the Breitbart News Network website into a home of the racist, anti-Semitic alt-right movement, but never himself displayed any overt hatred of Jews, according to a former editor of the site.
Ben Shapiro, who served as editor-at-large of Breitbart, said he never saw “any direct evidence that Bannon was an anti-Semite” when he worked with him, but witnessed his comfort with “pandering” to the publication’s fringe readership, which over the last year and a half galvanized Trump’s improbable ascension to the presidency.
Bannon’s pick as senior counselor and chief White House strategist, one of the top positions in the upcoming Trump administration, has drawn scorn from Democrats and Republicans alike, along with Jewish, Muslim and anti-hate groups.
“It’s a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house,” the racism watchdog Anti-Defamation League said in a statement late Sunday, right after the appointment was announced.
Bannon headed Breitbart until August, when he left to become Trump’s campaign CEO. Under Bannon’s tenure, the website pushed a nationalist agenda and became a leading outlet for the alt-right, a movement often associated with white supremacist ideas that oppose multiculturalism and defend “Western values.”
Bannon himself once called the website the “platform for the alt-right.”
Shapiro, a conservative commentator and Orthodox Jew who now is editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, left Breitbart in March 2016 after a four-year tenure.
Shapiro, who was in the camp of anti-Trump Republicans, was reportedly dismayed with the website’s not supporting a reporter who alleged to have been assaulted by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandoswki.
Throughout his years working with Bannon, Shapiro said he never noticed any overt anti-Semitic behavior on his part, but observed that he developed a decidedly pro-Israel publication that at the same time was happy to gratify a readership that was clearly anti-Semitic and racist in nature.
“All I can say is what I see in his actions, and that is that Breitbart has largely been pro-Israel. It was when I was there; it remains so,” Shapiro told The Times of Israel recently. “But they’re also willing to pander to the worst of the worst in terms of the alt-right anti-Semites.”
“The fact that they’re pandering to the alt-right … demonstrates that they are happy hopping into bed with people who aren’t particularly hot on the Jews,” he added.
Bannon himself has been personally accused of prejudice. His ex-wife said in court papers obtained by The Associated Press that Bannon made anti-Semitic remarks when the two battled over sending their daughters to private school nearly a decade ago.
In a sworn court declaration following their divorce, Mary Louise Piccard said her ex-husband had objected to sending their twin daughters to an elite Los Angeles academy because he “didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews.” Alexandra Preate, a spokeswoman for Bannon, denied he’d ever said such things.
Shapiro described Bannon as being a “nationalist populist” who maintains a political orientation not too dissimilar from that of the larger alt-right community. “I think that he is warm to the ethnic and cultural argument of the alt-right,” he said. “He’s warm toward this ideology. He has no problem with it.”
One of the central features of alt-right thinking is that immigration and multiculturalism are threats to white identity.
Many of the articles that have been published on the Breitbart website over the years have been highly provocative and have earned the derision of numerous watchdogs.
In March, the website came under fire for a headline calling anti-Trump Republican Bill Kristol “a renegade Jew.” On Monday, conservative Jewish writer David Horowitz published an article on Breitbart defending Bannon, saying he himself wrote the “renegade Jew” headline. Bannon “does not have an Anti-Semitic bone in his body,” Horowitz wrote.
In another incident, shortly after nine African-Americans were murdered in a mass shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, Breitbart posted an article with the headline: “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.”
After the massacre, pictures were found of the assailant, Dylan Roof, posing with a handgun and a Confederate flag.
Toward the end of his campaign, Donald Trump delivered a speech in West Palm Beach, Florida, that many, including the ADL, noted carried deep-seated and longstanding anti-Semitic tropes.
On October 13, Trump spoke of “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”
“The Clinton machine is at the center of this power structure,” he added. “We’ve seen this firsthand in the WikiLeaks documents, in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors. So true.”
The conspiratorial rhetoric of international bankers meeting in secret to destroy US sovereignty sounded echoes of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fabricated anti-Semitic text that described a Jewish plan for domination.
‘Bannon knows that when you say “international bankers” that has certain connotations’
It was rumored that Bannon, along with campaign aide Stephen Miller, co-wrote the speech for Trump. “They are not stupid,” Shapiro insisted. “Bannon knows that when you say ‘international bankers’ that has certain connotations.”
The alt-right has been one of Trump’s strongest bases of support throughout the campaign. While he never explicitly endorsed the movement, pundits have repeatedly argued he has engaged in coded language for their sake.
“He’s always winking and nodding at people who support him,” Shapiro said. “And he doesn’t have any more ardent supporters than people on the alt-right.”
Since Trump announced Bannon’s appointment — along with naming Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus to be his chief of staff — Republicans, Democrats and various Jewish organizations have denounced the decision, saying that Bannon represents a brand of populist nationalism that emboldens racists and should not be near the Oval Office.
A number of alt-right and white supremacist leaders have praised Bannon’s appointment, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been keeping track of white nationalists celebrating Bannon’s promotion.
David Duke, a former KKK leader who lost a bid for the Senate, said Bannon’s promotion was an “excellent” decision, according to the news website The Hill.
One of the most prominent alt-right figures, Richard Spencer, tweeted: “Strategist is the best possible position for Steve Bannon in the Trump White House.”
AP contributed to this report.