President-elect Donald Trump announced his first top-level appointments on November 12, three days after routing Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election. He chose Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, as his chief of staff, and Stephen Bannon, his campaign manager, as his senior counsellor and chief strategist.
Bannon’s appointment was hailed by white nationalists and white supremacists, who endorsed Trump’s candidacy. Bannon’s popularity in these toxic circles is hardly surprising. When he was chairman of Breibart News, a major website of the disaffected, he forthrightly described it as “the platform of the alt-right.”
An ultra-conservative race-based ideological movement backed by extremists, the alt-right makes the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party look positively liberal.
The connection between the alt-right and Bannon is unambiguous. Richard Spencer, a major alt-right ideologue who heads up the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist foundation, claims “the alt-right has clearly influenced Breitbart.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors American hate groups, calls Bannon “the main driver” behind Breibart‘s transformation into a “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.”
Ben Shapiro, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire and a former Breitbart News editor, contends in a Washington Post piece that Bannon was instrumental in turning “a mainstream conservative website into a cesspool of the alt-right,” which is “shot through with racism and antisemitism.”
During Bannon’s tenure at Breitbart News, it published a succession of articles by alt-right figures, including Milo Yiannopoulos, who claims that “Jews run the banks and … the media.”
It’s debatable whether Bannon is an antisemite, but what is certainly true is that he allowed Breitbart News to become an outlet for the alt-right, a malignant infection on the American body politic.
Where there is smoke, there is fire.
Nine years ago, when he and his wife, Mary Louise Piccard, were going through a bitter divorce, she said he expressed opposition to sending their twin daughters to a private school in Los Angeles because too many of its students were Jewish. According to court documents, Piccard stated: “He said he doesn’t like Jews and doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiny brats.'” When Piccard and Bannon visited another school, he wondered why there were “so many Chanukah books” in its library, she added.
If one accepts Piccard’s incriminating comments about Bannon as the gospel truth, one can only conclude that he’s an intolerant and ethnocentric type, a person whose values run counter to mainstream opinion in the United States.
It’s telling that Trump selected a man like Bannon to such an influential position. But, as Hillary Clinton has suggested, the new boys in town should be given a chance to govern before they’re tried and convicted. As Clinton said, “Donald Trump is going to be our president, and we owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”
In line with Clinton’s recommendation, I’m keeping an “open mind” about the incoming Trump administration. But let’s be clear. I haven’t forgotten the highly inappropriate manner in which Trump comported himself during the campaign, or the xenophobic invective he unloosed during that divisive period in American politics. As for Bannon, let’s see what advice he passes on to Trump.
Even if Trump moderates his views, I’ll be surprised if he measures up to President Barack Obama in terms of his affinity with the vast majority of Jews in the United States.
Writing in Haaretz recently, Chemi Shalev observed: “Whatever differences American Jews may have had with Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal and Middle East peace, they’ve never had a president who was more in tune with their Jewish and liberal essence.”
Shalev added: “Obama was the realization of the American Jewish vision of a multicultural society, a dream come true for a generation of civil rights activists. He promoted and embodied the liberal ideals that American Jews are more attached to than any other religious group in America. And he was more knowledgeable about American Jewish culture and Yiddishkeit than any previous president, bar none. Even when they disagreed with him, most American Jews, with the exception of the vocal minority that hated his guts, viewed Obama as a mensch.”
Can Trump transform himself into a mensch? Can Bannon do likewise? I have my doubts, but let’s wait and see.