Is populist nationalism in a slump or is it simply being set up to fail?
The rise and slow decline of Breitbart News has been a symptom of a larger phenomena where populism hit a rocky patch in 2018 after an explosion of growth two years prior. Many pundits and political thinkers have grappled with the ideological challenges that populism faces, but none have tackled a core weakness crippling the movement. Outlets such as Breitbart have, since the beginning of their rise in popularity, been infiltrated and controlled by parties known for funding both sides of the political aisle with the goal of creating a controlled opposition doomed to implode onto itself.
This has been especially true for movements and individuals backed by the now-notorious Mercer family, who over a period of years pushed a coup inside both Breitbart and the general right wing with the goal of promoting leadership figures who were flawed at their core and destined to fail. While the Mercers are known for support of right wing causes, their pervasive support for left wing organizations indicates that they are just another group of elites seeking to keep the system in line.
I. The Mercer Takeover
Although Breitbart developed a general reputation during the 2016 US Presidential elections for identifying with elements of the far right, this was not always the case. Andrew Breitbart, the founder and namesake of the website, began as a more mainstream libertarian-leaning conservative who spoke out in support of the Koch brothers and made appearances at Tea Party events. At the center of Breitbart’s philosophy was a desire to match big ticket funding for left-wing causes with similar initiatives on the right. It would ironically be this kind of approach that proved to be Breitbart News’ undoing.
In 2011, during a period where Breitbart was struggling financially, the outlet was given a $10 million cash infusion from the little-known Robert Mercer. One year later, Breitbart unexpectedly died of a heart attack and paved the way for the Mercer takeover of his outlet.
Bannon immediately began to proclaim his intention to turn Breitbart into “the Huffington Post of the right.” Under Bannon’s leadership, the company majorly expanded in 2014 with operations in Texas and London. But the changes happening under the surface wouldn’t become totally apparent until political tensions began to run high during the Republican primaries in 2015.
II. Shift To The Far Right
Up until midway through 2015, outlets such as Politico were reporting that Ted Cruz was the Republican candidate with the closest relationship to Breitbart and most likely their pick for the race. But that was all due to change. In August 2015 a number of Breitbart employees claimed that now-President Donald Trump had given the website money in return for favorable coverage. It was the beginning of a civil war between mainstream conservatives and more hardline right wingers that would culminate in March 2016 when Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields filed a battery complaint against Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. The publication’s handling of the incident lead to the resignations of Fields and editor-at-large Ben Shapiro in protest.
By July 2016, the shift was complete. Bannon told Mother Jones while at the RNC Convention that Breitbart was the “platform of the alt-right.” Bannon protégé Milo Yiannapoulos would later try to clarify that the comment was referring to the “trolls on Reddit or 4Chan” instead of actual extremists, but his private behavior would suggest otherwise. Leaked emails show that in early 2016, Yiannapoulos himself was contacting white supremacist figures on the far right behind the scenes.
Unlike Bannon, Yiannapoulos, who once claimed that his father was a member of the Greek mafia, does not appear to be coming back anytime soon due to crippling debts he owes to the Mercers, his own company and others.
III. Questionable Behavior And Connections
Steve Bannon has a number of connections to individuals who have been tied to abuse scandals or human trafficking in the past. Since 2005, Bannon has had had a working relationship with cryptocurrency pioneer Brock Pierce, who described Bannon as his former “right hand man.” Pierce was notoriously involved in the dot-com era Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) abuse scandal. He was also a participant at the Mindshift Conference, which was hosted by now disgraced billionaire child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Bannon has linked back up with Pierce since leaving Breitbart and the White House to work on projects related to cryptocurrency and bitcoin.
On August 11, 2018, Page Six revealed that Bannon had taken a meeting with Jeffrey Epstein in New York the previous day. The contact with Epstein and others connected to him over the years raises questions about how Bannon was ever able to embed himself so deeply on the right and at Breitbart.
Milo Yiannapoulos, Breitbart’s former poster boy, was no stranger himself to controversial statements and connections. In addition to controversial comments that lead to his departure from Breitbart, Yiannapoulos also appears to have knowledge of criminal offenders in Hollywood which he refuses to disclose. On a 2017 podcast with Joe Rogan, Yiannapoulos revealed that he had been to events with high profile movie industry figures where large numbers of minors were present around drugs. He refused to mention names in the interest of being “discreet.” While comments like there were shocking at the time, it is little surprise to see an affiliate of Steve Bannon engaging in such behavior considering Bannon’s ties to figures who featured prominently in various scandals.
IV. Undermining Trump
From convincing the President to back controversial Senatorial candidate Roy Moore to leaking information to the press, Bannon was constantly caught up in incidents which created distraction and caused injury to Trump while working in the White House. One of the more damaging episodes Bannon mired Trump in was the Cambridge Analytica affair, another Mercer project. Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with Trump’s campaign blew up in his face when the press leaked that they had been exploiting the data of millions of Facebook users.
Bannon also introduced Cambridge Analytica to Brexit bankroller Arron Banks, giving international media another coup when it emerged that the firm had provided services to Banks’ campaign which he may have not fully disclosed to Parliament. The revelations came immediately after Banks had begun a push to remove Prime Minister Theresa May from office over her failure to secure a suitable Brexit deal for the United Kingdom.
Another individual tied to Cambridge Analytica was John Bolton, who gave the firm $800,000 in 2016. According to data from Open Secrets, Bolton’s Super PAC has received millions from the Mercer-connected Renaissance Technologies since 2014. Bolton has consistently acted to undermine and sabotage Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda since being appointed as National Security Advisor in 2018. Bannon was allegedly one of a number of individuals who recommended Bolton to Trump after he fired Bolton’s predecessor HR McMaster.
V. Supporting Extremists On Both Sides, Discrediting Anti-Establishment Movements
An examination of Renaissance Technologies’s donation history from 2012 to 2018 shows that while the Mercers were being painted by the media as right-wing financiers, they were in fact majorly supporting left wing causes.
Data from Open Secrets shows that in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 Renaissance Technologies gave millions of dollars to various Democrat-affiliated PACs and organizations including Priorities USA Action, Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and the DNC Services Corporation. Although Robert Mercer stepped down in 2018 as as Renaissance’s CEO and member of their board of directors he continues to work with the company with the firm’s technical staff on unspecified research projects.
Another beneficiary of Renaissance in 2018 was the David Brock-founded American Bridge 21st Century. Much like Bannon, Brock has been criticized by both sides of the aisle for running operations that rely upon online harassment and censorship. Some organizations founded by Brock have a number of potentially improper ties to foreign interests.
No right wing media organization has ever questioned the donation history of Renaissance Technologies or the goals that the Mercers had in positioning themselves as owners at Breitbart News and promoting individuals they favored to influential positions within the pro-Trump movement. The large sums given by Renaissance before, during and after this time period exposes what was likely the true intention of the Mercers – infiltration of the right wing while supporting extremists on both the left and right to ensure that anti-establishment movements were kept weak and discredited. The Mercers’ initial investment in Breitbart News in 2011, a time period where the Obama administration had caused a resurgence on the right that would ultimately culminate in a Trump Presidency, further solidifies such suspicions.
Now a pariah in the United States, Steve Bannon has now prioritized unification of international anti-establishment leadership figures or political blocs into a “populist movement.” The global community is probably best advised to cast him by the wayside if they want to avoid the fate of Breitbart.