President-elect Donald Trump suggested earlier this week that right-wing British politician Nigel Farage should be the U.K.’s next ambassador to the United States. Within hours, Farage had written a gleeful column in response, saying he was ready to “help cement ties with the incoming Anglophile administration.”
But Farage, a major force behind Britain’s decision to quit the European Union, didn’t publish his column in The Sun, the Times of London or another British news outlet. Instead, in a telling move, he chose Breitbart News, the conservative, white nationalist-friendly media site that until recently was led by Trump aide Stephen Bannon.
With Bannon suiting up to be Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, he is likely to have significant influence on how Trump deals with Britain and the rest of the world in the coming four years. One way of understanding Bannon’s approach to foreign policy is to read the coverage he inspired and oversaw at Breitbart.
POLITICO scoured hundreds of foreign policy-related articles published by Breitbart News from mid-2012 to mid-2016, during which Bannon led the site, to get a sense of his worldview. While by no means a perfect measure — Breitbart is a platform for many people, and it relies heavily on aggregation — Bannon nonetheless served as the site’s chief editorial strategist, setting the tone and priorities for its coverage before joining the Trump campaign in August.
The themes that emerged from POLITICO’s perusal of the content bolster existing expectations that Bannon will push Trump to fight “Islamo-fascism,” even if it means cracking down on Muslim-Americans; that he will urge Trump to offer unyielding support to Israel, despite the cost to the Palestinians; and that he also could push Trump to undermine multi-lateral institutions, such as the United Nations, while offering a boost to nationalists such as Farage.
In many ways, how Breitbart has covered the planet is in line with Bannon’s vision of the world as he himself laid it out in a 2014 speech recently published by BuzzFeed. In that speech, Bannon warned of a rising Islamist jihadist threat and praised populist movements gaining traction worldwide. But under Bannon’s reign, Breitbart also published pieces that seem at odds with, or go further than, Trump may wish on foreign fronts.
For instance, Breitbart News has occasionally been tough on Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man Trump has repeatedly praised. It also has been critical of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, even as Trump has indicated he’s not willing to take on the Russian-backed Arab strongman believed responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. And it has provided often positive coverage of Pope Francis, with whom Trump clashed on the campaign trial.
Over the years, Breitbart has been accused of racism, misogyny and xenophobia, thanks to incendiary headlines such as “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.” Bannon himself has described Breitbart as a platform for the “alt-right,” a term that encompasses many white nationalists now rejoicing over Trump’s win.
In comments to The New York Times on Tuesday, Trump defended both Bannon and Breitbart.
“Breitbart, first of all, is just a publication,” Trump said. “They cover stories like you cover stories. Now, they are certainly a much more conservative paper, to put it mildly, than The New York Times. But Breitbart really is a news organization that’s become quite successful, and it’s got readers and it does cover subjects that are on the right, but it covers subjects on the left also. I mean, it’s a pretty big, it’s a pretty big thing. And he helped build it into a pretty successful news organization.”
Breitbart’s foreign affairs coverage, however, seems to lend credence to many of the criticisms thrown at it, especially when it comes to the Muslim world.
Its widely trafficked website has published many harsh news articles, opinion pieces and headlines with little regard for diplomatic sensitivities toward the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Because the site makes little effort to distinguish its news articles from opinion pieces, the two often seem to bleed into one primal scream. The pieces published, many of which rely on the reporting of other news outlets, often also treat allegations as facts or rely on dubious, conspiracy-theory style rumors to make a point.
“CIA hosts training by Muslim Brotherhood leader and Hamas supporter,” was the headline of an October 2012 article that insisted Islamist leaders were infiltrating the U.S. government. Pieces that hint at such “Islamist enemies within” possibilities are Breitbart favorites.
Breitbart also often gives a platform to deeply polarizing figures. A January column by Tom Tancredo, the ex-congressman known for pushing severe immigration restrictions, was titled, “Political correctness protects Muslim rape culture.” The Southern Poverty Law Center cited such columns in calling on Trump to rescind Bannon’s White House appointment.
Iran, which is led by an Islamist government, is frequently derided by Breitbart, suggesting it should not feel particularly comfortable under a Trump administration. “As with women’s soccer, Iran will cheat on the nuclear deal,” claimed an October 2015 article that tried to link the multilateral nuclear agreement to dubious reports that Iran was fielding men on its women’s soccer team.
The sharp rhetoric on Iran (“terrorist regime” is a typical modifier) is often combined with strong affinity for Israel. In what appears to be a July 2015 opinion piece about the nuclear deal President Barack Obama’s administration reached with Iran and five other countries, the author asserts, “Obama wants Iran to be a regional power, because Obama fears Israel more than he fears Iran.”
Breitbart has a Jerusalem bureau, which oversees much of its Middle East coverage. Its stories and opinion pieces in general brook little sympathy for the Palestinians, who are frequently described as terrorists. Meanwhile, people or institutions that try to hold Israel to account for some of its behavior, such as its construction of settlements on land claimed by Palestinians, are often called out. “A very incomplete list of anti-Israel biases at The New York Times,” was one such piece in October 2015.
Such pro-Israel coverage stands at odds with the anti-Semitic views of many in the white nationalist community that holds Breitbart News so dear. At the same time, it could comfort supporters of Israel who fear Bannon may have been influenced by such anti-Semitism. (Bannon himself has been accused of anti-Semitic comments by his ex-wife, claims he denies. Trump on Tuesday insisted Bannon was not at all a racist.)
In pushing nationalism, Breitbart News has given fawning coverage to right-wing figures such as Farage, France’s Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders of The Netherlands. Breitbart exulted in June after Farage and fellow members of the U.K. Independence Party triumphed in their bid to convince Britons to vote in favor of quitting the European Union. Meanwhile, multilateral institutions are often cast as money-grubbing bureaucracies of little value to the world.
In one September 2014 piece, Breitbart’s best-known provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, slams the U.N.-backed He for She campaign to encourage men to stand up for women’s rights. He calls the men who sign up for it “sexually-frustrated dickless wonders” and implies that the U.N. world view includes hating Jews.
The influx of migrants from war-ridden Syria and other parts of the Muslim world to Europe has been breathlessly covered by the site. The tracts at times conflate and confuse issues in a way that bolsters the hostility toward the foreigners harbored by figures such as Le Pen. Trump has been similarly suspicious of the migrants, and he has vowed to prevent any Syrian refugees being resettled in the United States.
“While thousands of born Germans remain homeless, one city is building trendy downtown apartments for single male migrants on the corner of the Oberhausen Peace Square,” read the lead of one such article about Germany in July.
But the man many of the Syrians are fleeing from, Bashar Assad, has received his fair share of harsh coverage by Breitbart. The site has often referred to Assad as a “dictator” who is murdering his own people, and it hasn’t hesitated to report on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. One September 2013 article mocked Assad’s wife, Asma: “Bashar Assad’s wife shops while country burns.”
While Trump hasn’t exactly praised Assad, he’s been more reserved in his descriptions of the Syrian leader than many others in his own party. Trump has indicated he may shut down U.S. support for moderate rebel factions trying to oust Assad in the nearly six-year-old civil war in the Arab state. Instead, Trump has signaled that he’ll back anyone who’s battling the Islamic State terrorist group, a category in which Trump includes Assad.
Trump’s views on Assad may be colored by his generally positive takes on Russia, the Syrian strongman’s most important foreign patron. Breitbart’s coverage of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, is often admiring as well. Putin is viewed as strong and capable, while Obama is cast as weak.
But Putin hasn’t gotten away scot-free in all of Breitbart’s coverage. One February article called Putin “a journalist-assassin and country-invader.” Another, in October 2014, said Putin “has cultivated an international image based heavily on his self-worship. He criticizes anyone who attempts to be exceptional or powerful, but he has no problem when people celebrate him.” In July of this year, Breitbart posted a piece on Putin “revoking religious freedom.”
One August 2013 parody column (carrying Putin’s byline) followed Obama’s decision to cancel a summit with the Russian leader after he gave asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. “Yeah, I’m a dictator and everything, but it always helps to have a strong base of support — and flipping the bird to the Americans is a great way to get the average Ivan to say, “Way to go! That’ll stick it to Uncle Sam!” the fake Putin wrote.
In his 2014 speech and subsequent Q&A, Bannon said Putin was running a kleptocracy. But he also said Putin is “very, very, very intelligent” and spoke admiringly of the Russian leader’s appeal to nationalism and traditionalism, forces that Bannon appears keen on seeing Trump harness in the United States.
Breitbart also has published significant coverage of the Vatican, including during Bannon’s tenure. Much of the reporting, however, plays it straight, faithfully relaying the latest words and activities of Pope Francis. That includes coverage of the pope’s repeated pleas to Europeans and people in other countries to take in Syrian refugees — messages that seem to be at odds with Trump’s views.
Trump and Francis have clashed over the migration issue, with the pope clearly signaling his displeasure over Trump’s plans to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. The pope said anyone who wants to build walls instead of bridges is “not Christian” while Trump said the pope was being “very political.”
Bannon, who is Catholic, has been criticized by liberal Catholic groups for saying the church supports immigration because it needs to boost its numbers, but he’s also appeared to agree with Francis on the perils of corrupt capitalism. (It’s a strange position for a man whose new boss, Trump, is a billionaire businessman under heavy fire for being slow in untangling his business interests from his soon-to-be role as president.)
Even though Bannon was said to have left Breitbart in August, his exact relationship with the site now remains unclear, a situation some critics worry will mean Breitbart will wind up being a propaganda arm of the Trump administration. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Bannon is on a leave of absence from Breitbart.
Even if Bannon has zero input into what the site publishes from here on, observers, foreign and domestic, will likely scour Breitbart every day for clues about what the administration will do.
On Tuesday, as word emerged that Trump may not pursue a campaign promise to jail Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton, Breitbart News at first appeared angry at the president-elect. It headlined a story on its homepage with the words: “BROKEN PROMISE.”
But later in the day, that phrase was gone.
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