Sunday, December 11, 2016

Alt-wrong: Bannon, Breitbart News
and the nativist campaign business model


WE MIGHT have expected this. Reuters reported on Nov. 9 that Breitbart News plans to punch up its domestic operations and will be launching sites in Germany and France, “as it seeks to monetize the anger and anti-immigrant sentiment unleashed by Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.”

There may be work for journalists, if you can stand to do it. U.S. Editor-in-Chief Alexander Marlow told Reuters of his plans to hire more journalists in the United States as a way of expanding the Breitbart multimedia presence. Which is to say continuing an expansion that's been going on since early 2014.

“There’s going to be more hiring that goes on – I’m already picturing more tech reporting, more media reporting,” Marlow said. “We do a ton of politics reporting now so I don’t know that we’ll need to do more but we certainly aren’t planning on scaling back with anything.”

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It’s all part, you see, of the master plan of Stephen Keith Bannon, the executive chair of Breitbart News, the CEO of the Trump campaign, and apparently soon-to-be White House strategist: the rise of the supremacist, authoritarian campaign model as an exportable phenomenon, one whose electoral success was ostensibly proven in the United States on Nov. 8th.

Bannon assumes, or certainly hopes, that what was seemingly achievable by the Trump campaign in the United States — a neophyte outsider bottles the nationalist lightning, seizes the day at home and advances a nationalist agenda abroad — can be successfully templatized across Europe and beyond.

Kurt Bardella knows how Breitbart News certainly figures in that.

Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman who resigned from the company earlier this year, wrote a column in The Hill recently, saying that “Steve ran the site and controlled the content as a dictator, not only limiting the expression of his journalists but also purposefully changing the narrative to increase vitriol, playing to the fears of his readers.” And to the praise of white supremacists.

The first foreign edition of the Breitbart plan may well begin with feelers out to the possible French presidential campaign of Front National leader Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean Le Pen, the late ultra-right political bête noire.

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IN AN AUGUST tweet, Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post quoted Bannon from a conversation in July: “So, we look at themes globally as the center-right populist revolt against the permanent political class. Whether that’s [conservative author and political consultant] Peter Schweizer hitting on crony capitalism, or our guys in London following Front National in France. It’s all of one theme. We think that (pro-Brexit UK politician) Nigel Farage will be a politician that rises one day, Donald Trump the next. But it’s a bigger, tectonic plate.

“And that’s why we kind of laugh at, particularly cable news and sometimes other sites that, they sit there and they’re so wrong on everything. We just think, hey, they’re not taking the time to look at these fundamental issues, whether it’s what’s driving Bernie Sanders on the left or what’s driving this kind of populist, tea party revolt on the right.”

This tweet was to lay the groundwork for Bannon’s grand bid to exploit the divisions of the American election, to globalize its us-versus-them polarities, and to connect the election’s outcome with a rising nativist-nationalist wave of new leaders in other countries. But just like the “tectonic plate” of his nifty geological metaphor, “themes” can be messy, disobedient things, notoriously unpredictable. The thorniest challenge to such cultural superimpositions is overlooking how dissimilar one culture is from another in the first place. Or one country from another. The best laid plans of a Leninist often go awry.

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In England on Dec. 1, the Liberal Democrats ousted former Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith in a by-election vote that, according to The Guardian, “became a de facto plebiscite on the government’s Brexit plans.”

“Since Lib Dem Sarah Olney pulled off her spectacular win, having campaigned against a hard Brexit that would see the UK pull out of the single market, the government has insisted that it will not shift its approach to Brexit and that the result changes nothing,” The Guardian reported, alluding to the planned withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, in what many observers have called a vote for nativist economics, and a possible first step in a retrenchment to nativist culture.

On Dec. 3, Tim Farron, Liberal Democratic leader, went further, making it clear that his party smelled blood in the water: “My message to Conservative MPs is: we are coming for you. The result in Richmond Park shows that liberal Britain is fighting back against this divisive Brexit Conservative government. It was a vote for Britain remaining open, tolerant and united.”

“Open, tolerant and united.” Are there any three other words that are more the opposite of what the supremacists stand for?

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IT DIDN’T end there. Any rush to anoint the new nationalist authoritarianism as an irresistible geopolitical trend contends with what just happened in Austria. On Dec. 4, far-right anti-immigration champion Norbert Hofer was soundly defeated in the Austrian presidential election, stopped by Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Greens, and a staunch internationalist who vowed to be “an open-minded, a liberal-minded and first of all a pro-European federal president of the Republic of Austria.”

The BBC reported that among those congratulating Van der Bellen were Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrat Vice-Chancellor in Germany (Bannon’s next stop). Gabriel called the results in Austria "a clear victory for reason against right-wing populism."

And if Bannon and friends are pinning their hopes on Germany to advance their white supremacist governance template, an essay by Alex Ross in The New Yorker should be instructive.

Ross writes: “Germany ... increasingly appears to be the strongest remaining bastion of liberal democracy. ... the country that long stood as a synonym for nationalist insanity has so far resisted political and cultural regression. Tellingly, it has rejected the libertarian code of the big Silicon Valley companies, with their disdain for privacy, copyright, and limitations on hate speech.

“On the day after the American election, which happened to be the seventy-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht, a neo-Nazi group posted a map of Jewish businesses in Berlin, titled “Jews Among Us.” Facebook initially refused to take down the post, but an outcry in the media and among lawmakers prompted its deletion. Such episodes suggest that Germans are less likely to acquiesce to the forces that have ravaged the American public sphere.”

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There’s other evidence that, even in places where there’s no election in the immediate future, people just don’t have the patience for white supremacist rhetoric.

On Friday, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party, was found guilty of inciting discrimination with his comments about Moroccan immigrants at a March 2014 speech in The Hague. Wilders, a charismatic but divisive Islamophobe politician who appeared at the Republican convention train wreck in the summer, gave an address filled with condemnations of Islam across the board. At one point, playing call-and-response, Wilders asked his audience some questions.

“Do you want more or less European Union?”

“Less!” the crowd said.

And then, “Do you want more or less Moroccans…?”

“Less, less, less!” they roared back.

Wilders replied: “We’ll take care of that.”

A three-judge panel was not amused. “You cannot appeal to the freedom of speech in order to insult groups or incite to discrimination. This also applies to a politician.”

Wilders was also found guilty of inciting hate, but the presiding judge said the guilty decree, “was punishment enough,” imposing no fines on one of the most potentially dangerous men in Europe.

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THE UNITED STATES' electoral system operates through the Electoral College, the 538-member body that, by way of Alexander Hamilton and the peculiar particularities of the United States Constitution, casts the actual votes that decide the American Presidency. Popular vote be damned.

Never mind the fact that Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead grows a little every day even now, a month after the election. That inconvenient fact may be navigable for the Republicans this election cycle, or it may not; those 538 electors have yet to be heard from as a group, and they won’t until Dec. 19.

But the little problem like a growing popular-vote deficit for Trump, here in the States, becomes a real problem when you try to export that political campaign business model outside the country with the hopes, or maybe even the expectations, of the same success. The message baked into BannonBrietbart’s adventures in Europe is clear: Just think, what we did for Donald Trump ... we can do for you!

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Except ... Trump didn’t win the presidency on the issues; for much of the year, his campaign and what it imagistically stood for became the issue; discussion of anything else at a granular level never really happened the way it should have.

Trump didn’t win the election on the message. Disdain for or hatred of people who don’t look like you — those two emotional animators of the supremacist ethos — aren’t really exportable beyond a role as bumpersticker philosophy for a deeply loyal but numerically stabilizing demographic. There’s little long-term hope for the conservative future if an organic widening of the base doesn’t happen. The raw popular vote in 2016 suggests that breakthrough hasn’t taken place yet.

And as we’re learning day by day, on a straight-up headcount basis, Trump didn’t win the election on the numbers either. The last of the presidential votes for Trump and Hillary Clinton are trickling in from some still-counting states; Clinton’s lead over Trump is about 2.7 million votes, according to several sources. Some are saying it could reach 3 million.

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TO THE EXTENT that Breitbart hopes to duplicate the “success” of Trump’s victory, the question’s obvious: What exactly did Trump “win” that Breitbart can transfer to a Le Pen campaign or a similar campaign in Germany?

Thanks to the myriad complexities of Germany’s proportional representation system — under which a mashup of traditional political organizations and outlier upstarts like the Left Party and the Green Party are equally competitive for the German vote — far-right politicians will likely find their voices diluted by the sheer plurality of options across the spectrum.

In France, there’s no Electoral College; that was decided against in a direct-election referendum in October 1962. And Breitbart News would be a newcomer in French politics, joining other, more established online entities in the hurly-burly of a French presidential season.

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Web sites such as FDesouche, Breizh-Info, and Égalité et Réconciliation are “part of the so-called 'réinformation' media — a collection of independent outlets that claim to be news sites, but act more as propaganda platforms for far-right groups like Le Pen’s Front National (FN) party,” The Verge reported. “These sites form the communications network of a parallel to the alt-right movement in the United States.” But some things can't be duplicated exactly.

French journalist Pierre Haski said Breitbart would have to make some changes in its napalm rhetoric to observe France’s strict laws on hate speech and defamation. “The main challenge is really to understand the French laws and the limits of what’s acceptable and possible as a media outlet in France,” Haski told The Verge. “The first hire they should make is a lawyer.”

And without the rhetoric and attitude that have made it what it is in the States, and as part of a crowded field of publications that know the terrain, Breitbart faces the prospect of being just one of a number of eagerly outraged réinformation web sites — hardly the pole position BannonBreitbart are looking for.

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THERE’S NOTHING dispositive here in the examples of Austria, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands; Bannon and his fellow travelers may yet be proven right in their measure  of the global mood. But that’s not fully proven yet. There’s enough pushback against this seeming tide, enough resistance to its nationalist reflexes, to strongly suggest that redrawing the geopolitical map of Europe along nativist lines will hardly be a slam-dunk.

It must or should have occurred to Bannon and his associates at least once: Europe‘s been down this road before. Bannon’s selling something they’ve already had a bellyful of. More than once.

The problem with the argument of the new nativists (misnomered in general as the “alt-right”) is, to borrow a phrase from William F. Buckley and tweak it for now, it stands athwart progress and the evolution all societies experience; it looks at societies as a zero-sum-game with respect to the centers of power and authority.

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The new nativism relies on instability — socially provocative, ethnically combustible, historically reliable — to justify its own existence and further its aims. It’s fundamentally a bitter, cynical, parasitically opportunistic reaction to social and cultural evolution. Societies pursue the objective of achieving order and tranquility — a kind of balance, a civic homeostatic mean — and they get it much of the time.

If the new nativism pursues or capitalizes on chaos, mistrust and the cultivation of a shadowy, suspicious Other in order to prevail, that’s ultimately a recipe for planned obsolescence.

The nativist campaign business model makes use of the seductive, short-term palliative of scapegoating — what history sadly shows has been tried before. But for most people, the very idea of globalizing right-wing chaos is deeply unsettling. In a fluid, diverse world of chameleon demographies, you can’t exploit chaos and unrest without eventually becoming synonymous with them, with those unflattering attributes affixed to your public persona. The persona that defines you to the voting public over the long term.

In today's world, nativist politics aren't adequate for either addressing changing demographic profiles or the instability brought on by immigration crises: the real crisis, like those in various European countries, or an imagined crisis — like the one we have in the United States.

Image creits: Bannon: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images. Breitbart News logo: © 2016 Breitbart News Network LLC. Farage and Trump: Jonathan Bachman: Getty Images. Hofer: Reuters. Wilders: Picture Alliance/DPA/J.Warand. Trump: John Minchillo/Associated Press.

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