But as 2017 draws to a close, reality has inevitably intruded, and the tendentious news site—founded a decade ago by the late Andrew Breitbart as a rebellious antidote to what he saw as the hypocrisies of the political and media establishments—spent the first year of Trump’s volatile presidency losing its former luster.
“It’s still Breitbart, and it still helps set the narrative in the right-wing echo chamber,” conservative pundit Charlie Sykes told The Daily Beast. “But I would say that the base continues shrinking, and they’re going to be the loudest intercom within the Trump bunker as we head into 2018. They will appeal to the 30 percent of hardcore Trump supporters. They will help set the tone for the Trump defense. But, again, it is a shrinking universe.”
At its heart, argued Angelo Carusone—president of the left-leaning press-watchdog organization Media Matters for America—Breitbart is becoming “a cult of personality,” with a core message that is increasingly about celebrating Stephen K. Bannon. He’s the website’s colorful and quotable executive chairman, whose oracular pronouncements about politics and policy are frequently touted in Breitbart’s headlines.
“A guy who is really as drivingly influential as Bannon would like you to believe he is doesn’t do a three-hour radio show every morning,” Carusone told The Daily Beast, referring to Bannon’s hosting of Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM. “This is all about himself. He’s high on his own supply.”
While Bannon reportedly speaks regularly to Trump, “Steve constantly goes a bridge too far, and usually the bridge falls apart,” said Chris Ruddy, a friend of the president’s and chief executive of the conservative-leaning Newsmax cable television and online outlet. “I hope the president continues to listen to Steve’s advice—and then does the opposite.”
The 64-year-old Bannon—who was in Tokyo giving a speech to the Japanese version of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and then traveling to the Middle East to spread the Breitbart nationalist gospel and market his ambitions for expansion, according to a spokesperson—declined to comment for this article.
But the spokesperson insisted Bannon habitually works 20 hours a day—more than enough time to host a radio show, dispense political advice to President Trump, give speeches around the planet, run a media outlet, and nurture and grow a global movement.
Yet, among the less than encouraging data points:
- Despite boasts of “massive scale” and being “dominant across every spectrum” with a “SirusXM deal [that] ensures future dominance” (per a text message from a Breitbart loyalist to The Daily Beast), the site’s readership, as reflected in web traffic measurements by Comscore, has plateaued at less than 15 million unique visitors a month after attracting millions more during the presidential campaign, according to The Washington Post. (By contrast, The Daily Beast racked up around 19 million uniques in November, according to Comscore.)
- Breitbart’s quest for permanent credentials this year from the Senate Press Gallery as a recognized journalistic outlet—an aggressive bid for media legitimacy—came to naught when the application was denied.
- Breitbart has yet to follow through on much-hyped plans to expand into France and Germany, where it would presumably tap into, and try to embolden, the same nationalist, populist, anti-immigrant strains it seeks to promote in the United States.
- In February, Breitbart was forced into a highly embarrassing separation from its most visible star, gay alt-right avatar Milo Yiannopoulos, after a conservative group revealed his apparent endorsement on a podcast of man-boy pedophilia. He was welcomed back for awhile in July, with Breitbart posting a lengthy excerpt from his self-published memoir, but seemingly shunned after BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein reported in October on Yiannopoulos’ active role, as a senior Breitbart editor, in giving an under-the-radar forum to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.
- In June, the website was compelled to fire longtime writer Katie McHugh for her persistently racist posts on Twitter (e.g., “British settlers built the USA. ‘Slaves’ built the country much as cows ‘built’ McDonald’s”) after effusively praising her the year before—perhaps because of the sensitivity of Breitbart’s once and future executive chairman Bannon’s tenuous position in the Trump White House. What a difference a year makes. “Neither Steve nor I are big fans of Twitter,” Breitbart editor Alex Marlow had emailed The Daily Beast back in March 2016, “but after reviewing these tweets, we’re considering giving Katie a weekly column.”
- In November, Breitbart’s most important single financial backer, right-wing hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, ended his participation in the website by selling his stake to his two daughters. Among Mercer’s reasons, which he described as “personal” in a resignation letter, was Breitbart’s association with Yiannopoulos, who Mercer said has “caused pain and divisiveness undermining the open and productive discourse that I had hoped to facilitate.” He also cited his political differences with Bannon.
- The rascally Bannon—who was frequently hailed as an unlikely political genius by the mainstream media he professes to despise (as well as, especially, by Breitbart)—served as CEO of the Trump campaign during its final three months. But he lost his White House perch as the president’s chief strategist, a mere seven months into the job, after a series of petty internal squabbles with the likes of Reince Priebus and Jared Kushner; his role in several mortifying fiascoes, notably the failure of Trump’s attempts to repeal Obamacare and ban Muslims from entering the country; and Bannon’s (irresistible to reporters) penchant for saying naughty things out loud and then basking in the predictable reaction of liberal outrage.
- Bannon, an avowed enemy of the GOP establishment, as personified by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has threatened to weaponize Breitbart to defeat every Republican incumbent senator up for re-election in primary contests next year with the exception of Texan Ted Cruz. But since Bannon returned to the website in August, his reputation as a strategist—along with Breitbart’s for clout—has taken a severe beating.
“This has been a rough year for Breitbart—they started out 2017 in great shape but ended up with a really bad year,” said political scientist Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It’s funny how these things turn out.”
The Dec. 12 downfall of Alabama’s Republican Senate nominee, Roy Moore, who was credibly accused of dating and sometimes molesting teenage girls when he was a thirtysomething prosecutor, served as a painful public humiliation for Breitbart and Bannon.
He had put the website at the service of the Moore campaign, and had repeatedly trekked to Alabama to stump for the candidate before adoring supporters.
Yet it was hardly the first time that Breitbart’s bid to influence an election outcome ended in tears; the website’s rabid support of Paul Ryan’s primary opponent in 2016, Trump favorite Paul Nehlen, didn’t stop Ryan from crushing Nehlen in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District by 85 percent to 15 percent.
“It was a demonstration of just how limited their clout really is outside of the Ann Coulter-Mercer universe,” Charlie Sykes said. “The dog whistles from Breitbart might activate a network that is still very influential in conservative circles, but whether it can win a general election is a completely different question. It seems most passionate in going after quote-unquote establishment Republicans. That seems to be its obsession. But it becomes much less effective going after Democrats.”
Sykes added: “The key point you need to understand about Steve Bannon is that he’s a nihilist and an arsonist for the sake of arson.”
Top Breitbart editor Alex Marlow—in an email to The Daily Beast provided by a publicist—claimed that Breitbart is unbowed, and perhaps not even bloodied, by the trouncing of its preferred candidate, Roy Moore, in Alabama.
“It is a long war,” Marlow wrote, adding that “McConnell [who urged Moore to step aside after The Washington Post exposed his disturbing past] is toxic—14% approval rating, and Ryan [another Moore critic] ready to quit.”
Marlow also addressed the much-repeated observation—seconded by University of Iowa’s Frank Durham and the University of Virginia’s Nicole Hemmer, two academics who’ve studied the history of conservative media—that Bannon and Breitbart are tribunes of political nihilism, with little interest in a vision for the future of the Republican Party.
“I paraphrase Steve but he is always always saying these comments to all audience he addresses / meets with,” Marlow wrote. “The people most affected by illegal alien labor, is the black working class and the Hispanic working class. Until we have the black working class and the Hispanic working class getting high-value-added jobs, we have failed as a society.
“We are a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.
“The foreign policy elite in the past two decades have left President Trump essentially the Bay of Pigs in Venezuela, the Cuban Missile Crisis in Korea and the Vietnam War in Afghanistan. What is in the vital national security interest of the United States is what we should commit to. Economic nationalism holds regardless of race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, every policy enacted by the state or federal government should be for the betterment of the citizens of the United States.
“Unfair multinational trade deals, burdensome regulations, unlimited immigration of illegal aliens, and high taxes hurt American workers, as well as our economy as a whole.”
In response to declarations of Breitbart’s waning influence, Marlow cited, of all people, Barack Obama.
“You know… Bannon and Breitbart did something pretty interesting,” the 44th president said at his inaugural Obama Summit in Chicago last month. “Now, they didn’t create a whole new platform but they did shift the entire media narrative in a different direction—in a powerful direction.”
Obama, however, added: “The question is, are you able to do that in reverse but to things that are true and are not designed simply to churn anger and resentment and frustration. So—solve that, will you?”