Any thought that President-elect Trump would be less controversial than Republican-nominee Trump disappeared this week with the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist and senior counselor. This appointment doubles down on the tenor of the Trump candidacy, delighting his most ardent supporters and horrifying his detractors.
The biggest charge leveled against Bannon is that he’s a racist, a claim the Trump campaign has faced since its inception. It’s easy for those bothered by Trump to parrot this accusation, just as it is easy for Trump supporters to write it off as “mainstream media” bias; however, for church leaders wanting to be a voice of unity and hope it’s helpful to take a step back from either reaction and attempt to look at the issue with fresh eyes.
The truth about who Steve Bannon is—and how he has shaped Trump’s ascension—is intimately connected to ideas of race, identity and what the concept of “America” even means. All this plays out in ways vitally important for the church to understand and reveals important points about racial perspective, and how the church engages with these ideas. Understanding what is politically happening right now could be crucially important for the unity of the church moving forward.
WHO IS STEVE BANNON?
Bannon is a Naval officer and investment banker turned conservative media mogul. In addition to making documentaries promoting Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin and having a Sirius XM radio show, Bannon is executive chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative news website that has mainstreamed the term “alt-right.” Initially founded by Andrew Breitbart as a proudly pro-Israel counter to what he believed was a faux objective American media, Breitbart pivoted under Bannon’s leadership to a more aggressive brand of conservative thought that, depending on your point of view, is either a breath of fresh air in the stuffy halls of establishment Republicans, or a dangerously xenophobic return of white nationalism similar to the aggressively racist movements seen in Western European politics.
WHAT IS THE “ALT-RIGHT”?
“This is not Republicanism as we have known it. These are racist ideas. These are race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women ideas—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt-right.’”
The above quote is from Hillary Clinton months before the election, and it effectively summarizes how most liberals and some conservatives would identify the political group known as the “alt-right.” How fair this description is necessitates understanding how the alt-right movement describes itself.
The alt-right movement is difficult to define as it is a relatively new term and often refers to a collective of online commentators and bloggers; however, Breitbart has brought the concept of the alt-right into the mainstream over the past few years, and Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos is credited with drafting the first “official” alt-right manifesto. While it is long and dense (and worth reading) a careful examination of it helps explain not just what the alt-right movement is, but how Trump managed to shock pundits by winning many of the white Rust Belt states in the Nov. 8 election.
Yiannopoulos defines the alt-right as consisting of several groups, but ultimately it’s his description of what he calls “natural conservatives” that could serve as a summary of how he describes the alt-right movement in general: “[natural conservatives] are mostly white, mostly male middle-American radicals, who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritizes the interests of their own demographic.”
What Yiannopoulos ultimately suggests is that with the exception of a fringe group that haunts every movement, alt-rights aren’t racist. They don’t care if someone is gay, Jewish, black, white or other; however they do believe that a white, European cultural heritage and values are being slowly destroyed. As Yiannopoulos puts it, “The pressure to self-censor must be almost overwhelming for straight white men—and, for most of them, it appears to be, which explains why so much of the alt-right operates anonymously.”
The article then goes on to claim what, post-election, feels fairly obvious: This alt-right feeling, the frustrated, angry and voiceless white middle class American male, is a huge part of the popularity of Donald Trump. In looking at the direction of both Breitbart News and the Trump campaign under Bannon’s influence, it becomes clear that the alt-right movement has a very powerful champion now in the White House.
RACISM, THE CHURCH AND THE NEXT FOUR YEARS
This article hasn’t even touched on some of the controversial headlines seen in the above images, because debating those articles will lead nowhere. To call them offensive is missing the point. They’re meant to be offensive, not because the alt-right magazine particularly hates women or black people. As a matter of fact, the infamous Breitbart headline calling Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew” was written by someone who is Jewish. Rather, the alt-right is trying to deliberately offend the sensibilities of what they perceive to be a ludicrously over-sensitive liberalism and a cow-towed conservatism too afraid of being labeled racist to call them on it.
This is why Donald Trump’s most outlandish moments weren’t just politically survivable, but actually increased his popularity among a core group of constituents. Trump was and is the perfect alt-right candidate: someone who thumbs his nose at political correctness and never apologizes for saying that Mexico is sending America rapists and murderers and “I’m sure some of them are good people.” It’s why Trump can call black communities unlivable war zones, and weather being caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. He is giving voice to a frustration the alt-right movement has felt for years: “Why does everyone care so much about them and not about us?” Or to put it another way, Trump is the release valve for Yiannopoulos’ “censored white man.”
What’s fascinating is this line of thinking bears very little similarity with an evangelical support for Trump. Publicly at least, white evangelicals claimed they were supporting Trump because he would protect religious liberties and appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court. This may explain why so many white evangelical Christians have expressed genuine befuddlement at why anyone would consider them racist for actively supporting Trump.
And yet it’s not hard to see how the alt-right’s message of an angry white male wanting to “make America great again” might sound disturbing to the second-generation Hispanic businessman whose grandmother was an illegal immigrant. Or to the black social worker attempting to save the communities she loves that Trump called war-torn and unlivable. Or to the woman who was sexually assaulted and was told to keep it quiet because it wasn’t that big a deal.
It’s important to realize that to many minority groups the idea of “voiceless white men” seems laughable. When they look at Congress, CEOs and church leaders, they see mostly white men in the positions of power. For them the quest for equality in our country has been a long, uphill battle that still has a long way to go. And to them—whether you agree or not—the alt-right message cannot help but feel racist and sexist.
With the appointment of Steve Bannon to one of the highest positions of power in the White House, the alt-right has scored a major victory, but if the church truly cares about promoting a Gospel of reconciliation that is for all people, it probably should feel less for us like a victory and more a sign that the need for peacemaking that reaches across political, ethnic and gender lines is needed now more than ever.