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Commentary: The Silence From GOP 'Leaders' On Steve Bannon Hire Is Deafening

Stephen Bannon (Evan Vucci/AP)
Stephen Bannon (Evan Vucci/AP)
This article is more than 2 years old.

It was not that long ago that Republican leaders would've expressed outrage if a president-elect announced that he’d appointed a leading white nationalist as his chief strategist.

But Donald Trump named Steve Bannon in that role and GOP "leaders" have not publicly expressed alarm. Instead they’ve basically just reassured themselves that it could have been worse; Bannon could have been picked as Trump’s chief of staff. Instead, Trump picked RNC chair Reince Priebus for that position.

There’s been a lot of backlash against the appointment of Bannon, but most GOP “leaders” have avoided even mentioning him.

Joshua Green of Bloomberg BusinessWeek wrote an in-depth profile of Bannon last year. The headline called him “the most dangerous political operative in America.”

But a recent article in Mother Jones provided this update on Bannon’s influence:

White nationalists are likely celebrating Bannon's appointment. As the head of Breitbart, Bannon specifically reached out to the so-called alt-right, a once-obscure white nationalist movement that rose to prominence alongside the Trump campaign. "We're the platform for the alt-right," Bannon proudly told Mother Jones at the Republican National Convention in July. Ben Shapiro, a former Brietbart writer turned vociferous critic of Bannon, described the alt-right as a "movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism" and Breitbart as "a party organ, a pathetic cog in the Trump-Media Complex and a gathering place for white nationalists." (Bannon has denied that the alt-right is racist or white nationalist, but Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right and a big Trump fan, does not hide his desire to turn the United States into an all-white ethno-state—one in which even Jews would be unwelcome.)

Bannon may deny that Breibart traffics in racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim extremism, but a look at some of the site's headlines shows that these are the ideologies on which the site built its popularity since Bannon took it over in 2012. It used a picture of Harambe the gorilla for a story about President Barack Obama and birtherism. It ran headlines that include: "Gabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movement's Human Shield;" "There's No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews;" "Birth Control Makes Women Crazy and Unattractive;" "The Solution to Online Harassment Is Simple: Women Should Just Log Off;" and "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew."

Bannon himself has embraced anti-Muslim extremists. Before joining Trump's campaign as CEO in August, he hosted a daily radio show on which he and his guests pushed anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. Trump adviser Roger Stone, for example, warned on Bannon's show of a future America "where hordes of Islamic madmen are raping, killing, pillaging, defecating in public fountains, harassing private citizens, elderly people—that's what's coming." Hillary Clinton's close aide, Huma Abedin, was one obsession of Bannon and his guests because of her Muslim background.

More than anyone, Bannon represents the alt-right's profound influence over Trump and, through him, the Republican Party. Before Bannon officially joined Trump's campaign, he was unofficially using Breitbart on Trump's behalf. The website regularly savaged Republican establishment figures—including conservative Republicans like Paul Ryan—while boosting Trump's populist, nationalist brand of conservatism. Spencer, the white nationalist leader, sees Bannon as the link between his world and Trump. "I think if Trump wins, we could really legitimately say that he was associated directly with us, with the 'R[acist]' word, all sorts of things," Spencer told Mother Jones this fall. "People will have to recognize us."

During the campaign, GOP “leaders” understandably did not believe that a bombastic reality TV star who had never run for office could win their party’s nomination. When it became clear that he could win, very few of them dared speak out against him. Occasionally they’d criticize something he said as “unacceptable,” but they did indeed accept him as the party nominee.

After he was nominated, very few GOP “leaders” would go on a stage with him. They wanted to keep their distance. And they understandably expected, based on polls and other indicators, that he would lose in November.

Now GOP “leaders” console themselves that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will provide a check on Trump so he won’t do anything too harmful to the republic. An example of what gives them hope in that regard: Ryan saying that he doesn’t want to raise tariffs, which many economists worry could trigger a world trade war.

But now Bannon is on his way to the White House. And he does not represent a check on Trump’s darker impulses. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”

John Weaver, a GOP strategist who advised Ohio Gov. John Kasich, tweeted this in response to news of Bannon’s appointment: “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.”

NBC News reported some of the things Americans need to be “vigilant” about:

While Trump toured the country describing inner cities as "hell" and "war zones," Breitbart maintained a dedicated tag for articles on "black crime." When a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, last year, the site published an article titled: "Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage."

With the motto "#WAR," Breitbart under Bannon was also known for its feuds against so-called "globalist" Republicans who favor free trade and a relaxed immigration policy.

Charges of anti-Semitism creeped into both Breitbart and the campaign under Bannon's watch at certain points. The Anti-Defamation League expressed alarm in the closing weeks of Trump's campaign at speeches and ads warning of a global conspiracy among bankers, media and government officials that resembled tropes used historically to target Jews.

The Bannon hire seems like a bad portent for things to come. It’s not as if Trump’s chief strategist won’t be using the White House to promote an agenda that is divisive, to say the least. One can hope that he will be neutralized by more responsible people in the administration. But, as has been said before, hope is not a strategy.

At some point, one would think that the silence of GOP “leaders” will end, and they will again speak out for principles like civility and respect for diversity. But, frankly, that silence has already gone on long past what one would expect from people claiming to belong to the “Party of Lincoln.” And their silence has been shameful.

Related:

Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

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