Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's chief strategist, took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday and pledged in no uncertain terms to dismantle the government as we know it, using coded anti-Semitic language to demonize his enemies. The audience cheered.
The Washington Post called it a "nationalist call to arms." Bannon announced the "deconstruction of the administrative state" and said Trump's appointees were put in their positions to upend systems like taxes, trade and regulations. He praised Trump for pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, citing his vision for "economic nationalism."
Bannon alluded to a kind of ethno-nationalism as well. "We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being," he said. He then declared war on the "corporatist, globalist" media for opposing Trump's "nationalist agenda": "If you think they're going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken."
It's a dog whistle, plain and simple
More revealing — and disturbing — than Bannon's explicit nationalism is his use of coded language.
Make no mistake, buzzwords like "corporatist" and "globalist" are thinly veiled anti-Semitic signals. (Ironically, Bannon has longstanding ties to corporations and media, two arenas in which he grew wealthy.) These phrases he uses sound benign, but Bannon surely understands their power to galvanize anger against Jews and other outsiders — he's been doing it for years.
At the far-right publication Breitbart, where he served as executive chair, Bannon contrived a high-stakes war against vague but threatening outside forces that justified his brand of extreme nationalism. His message resonated with an increasingly vocal crowd of disenfranchised Americans, and his publication stoked and exploited their anger with sensationalist depictions of immigrants as the cause of their troubles — a menacing and savage force run amok in the United States. (Just look at Breitbart's tag for "immigration.")
Consider Breitbart's coverage of the "globalist elite" as well. This inflammatory phrase is a persistent dog whistle used repeatedly on Breitbart to paint Jews as co-conspirators with a hidden anti-populist agenda.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the spread of hate speech in the U.S., analyzed anti-Semitic language in Breitbart comments and connected its upward trend to phrases like Bannon's:
A focus on "globalist elites," traditionally an anti-Semitic dog whistle used by the radical right and a core appeal embraced by right-wing populists both in the U.S. and in Europe today, was a "rolling narrative" covered extensively by Breitbart.
Perhaps this is how Bannon pulled off his biggest feat of all: denouncing racism and openly supporting Israel while, under the table, rallying an openly racist, anti-Semitic, white nationalist force for political gain.
CPAC shuns alt-right celebs — but applauds its most powerful voice
Before Bannon spoke, the event was notable for who wasn't there. Milo Yiannopoulos, the disgraced right-wing British pseudocelebrity who rose to fame as an editor for Breitbart under Bannon's leadership, had been disinvited from CPAC over comments he made that seemed to defend sex with young boys. The other persona non grata was Richard Spencer, the white supremacist best known for getting punched in the face. He was escorted out by security.
Yiannopoulos, Spencer and Bannon are high-profile figures in the fringe extremist movement known as the alt-right, where neo-Nazis, white nationalists and internet trolls connect to spew racial slurs and complain about women, immigrants and Jews.
In 2016, when it was politically convenient, conservatives embraced the alt-right. Yiannopoulos' brand of edgy, eloquent racism was an exciting catalyst for young, angry men. He and Spencer put a fresh, clean-cut face on old-fashioned xenophobia, lending credence to racial pseudoscience and inflammatory right-wing propaganda. As Trump's adviser, Bannon embraced Yiannopoulos' audience for clicks and political power. He called Breitbart "the platform for the alt-right" and praised the site's rabid comments section. At the same time, he exploited the alt-right's rage-fueled nationalism to help get his man elected.
"Bannon presents himself as an anti-establishment figure," Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League explained in an email. But "his tenure at Breitbart was marked by the publication and of content consistent with alt-right positions. Some white supremacists and alt-right adherents strongly believe Bannon is on their side."
In the wake of Yiannopoulos' pedophilia comments, conservatives have been working overtime to cut ties with everything and everyone connected to the alt-right. CPAC spokesman Ian Walters made its stance clear about Richard Spencer: "His views are repugnant and have absolutely nothing to do with conservatism or what we do here." There was even a CPAC lecture titled "The Alt-Right Ain't Right at All." Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, called the alt-right a "sinister organization trying to worm its way into our ranks."
Perhaps the irony was lost on him as Bannon took the stage.