Last year, Breitbart News launched its bureau in Jerusalem. In honor of the occasion, Breitbart’s President and CEO Larry Solov wrote about the moment the controversial right wing news site started to transform from one blogger’s hobby to a conservative media empire. It happened in Israel, he wrote, when Solov accompanied his friend, the late Andrew Breitbart, on a junket for conservative bloggers financed by pro-Israeli hasbara groups. At the top of the article there is a photograph of the happy bloggers, along with one Benjamin Netanyahu, then Leader of the Opposition. In a week that Breitbart’s spirit may have taken over Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it is a photo that is worth recalling.
Left wing conspiracy theorists have long alleged that Netanyahu was the mastermind behind breitbart.com, though Solov and Breitbart don’t seem to have needed any encouragement. “One thing we specifically discussed was our desire to start a site that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel. We were sick of the anti- Israel bias of the mainstream media and J-Street,” Solov wrote. And they kept their promise: over the years Breitbart News has heaped as much praise on Netanyahu as it has poured poison on Barack Obama: “Mr. President, You Disgust Me” was one such tasteful offering. The site summed up Netanyahu’s March, 2015 speech in Congress against the Iran nuclear deal with the headline: “Netanyahu’s Speech Unites Congress and Diminishes Obama.”
Breitbart, who died in 2012 at the age of 43, described himself as a reformed liberal who realized the error of his ways. He thrust himself at jaundiced journalism and partisan punditry with all the zeal of the newly converted. In 2010, The New Yorker described Breitbart’s organization as “The Rage Machine” for its ability to incite its readers against Obama, Hillary Clinton and other liberals and to make a handsome profit in the process. This was the same year in which Breitbart catapulted the Tea Party movement to national prominence and, in turn, was ensconced there himself.
According to the New Yorker profile, Breitbart believed in a spectacularly crackpot theory that Obama was a Marxist who was part of a plot against America hatched in the 1930’s by the Frankfurt School, the group of critical theorists who operated in Germany between the two world wars and again after the end of World War II, and whose ranks included Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin and Breitbart’s main culprit, Theodor Adorno, whose father was an assimilated Jew as well. In this and many other expressions, Breitbart and other Jews working for his website exemplified the kind of radical right wing Jews who hate their liberal co-religionists most of all: in many ways, they are auto-anti-Semites.
Breitbart died in 2012 at the age of 43, but his web site continued to serve as the standard bearer for an extreme brand of anti-Islamic nationalism, fortified by a hefty dose of general anti-establishment sentiments. The site was known as a home base for several well known anti-Islamic agitators, including David Horowitz, also a born-again ultra-conservative, who, in an article published in May of this year, described Bill Kristol, conservative pundit and head of the right wing Emergency Committee for Israel, as a “renegade Jew” for refusing to support Donald Trump. Even though Breitbart has employed several Orthodox Jews in its ranks, it was accused by commentators on both the left and the right of being anti-Semitic.
Together with the other right wing provocateur, Matt Drudge, who taught a young Andrew Breitbart everything there is to know about grade A mud-slinging, breitbart.com has been one of the most supportive right wing outlets for Trump’s presidential bid. At least one senior editor is known to have enjoyed the fruits of this collaboration by drawing a salary from both. When Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused by Breitbart journalist Michelle Fields of assault, the website refrained from backing her up. Breitbart columnist Ben Shapiro, who has been accused of harboring Kahanist views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, resigned in protest. In an article in the Daily Wire this week, Shapiro described Breitbart’s executive chairman Stephen Bannon, who was put in charge of Trump’s campaign this week, as a manipulative bully who turned Breitbart into the mouthpiece of the anti-establishment “alt-right” movement with its dominant racist, anti-Semitic and anti-establishment strains. In another interview he described Bannon as “a tornado of turd.”
Bannon comes across as a political brawler who prefers to fight dirty, if he can. Bloomberg News described him last year as “the most dangerous political operative in America.” Bannon supported Sarah Palin and even produced a film “The Undefeated” that was aimed at bolstering her supposed chances to compete for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. He has proven to be a nemesis for Clinton, producing the film and graphic book “Clinton Cash” about her alleged and illicit ties to corporate and foreign donors. When Bannon’s appointment was announced, Breitbart was proud to display the Clinton campaign’s response: the news site, Clinton’s people said, was racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic.
Bannon’s appointment makes it quite clear that Trump has no intention of pivoting to the center, as right wing presidential candidates are supposed to do at this stage. After all, Bannon and former Ted Cruz pollster Kellyanne Conway, who was also taken on by Trump, have usurped, if not formally replaced, Paul Manafort, who had himself replaced Lewandowski in March and had tried to persuade Trump to tone down his rhetoric and to start behaving more “presidential.” Trump’s inability and possibly lack of motivation to collaborate created the kind of campaign mayhem that contributed, at the very least, to his resent crash in the polls.
Bannon reportedly belongs to the “let Trump be Trump” school of advisers. Like Lewandowski before him, he wants Trump to get back to basics and to recreate the winning formula that beat his GOP opponents in the primaries, but to turbo-charge it in the process. If Trump was foul-mouthed until now, he can be expected to be downright vulgar. If he embraced nationalism, he will probably increase the accompanying doses of chauvinism and xenophobia. If he fought dirty before, he’ll fight filthy in the future. If he’s doomed to lose to Clinton and to the lying mainstream media that supports her, he may as well go out in a blaze of glory.
At this stage it may be premature to automatically assume that Trump will go from bad to worse, though most observers seem to believe that a new, hit-them-harder-than-before strategy will fail to win over reluctant Republicans or persuade wavering independent voters. At the same time, tougher tactics are sure to increase the partisan divide, inject copious amounts of venom into he campaign and probably inflame already tense relations between Trump-supporting whites and different groups of minorities. Traditional GOP donors will find it even harder to support Trump, at least in the open, and Republican Congressional candidates in more moderate states will probably try to distance themselves from Trump as if he lived on Mars. Inside the Republican Party, the split between conservatives could very well grow into a long-lasting schism.
Before Trump’s latest reshuffle of his staff, the reasonable scenario had Clinton winning the White House, the Democrats waging a fierce war to capture the Senate and the GOP retaining control of the House of Representatives. If the Bannon gambit flops, however, the Republican defeat could start to resemble Barry Goldwater’s electoral catastrophe in 1964, when the Arizona Senator won only 38 per cent of the popular vote and only six states in the Electoral College. Such a defeat could pulverize the party for many years, perhaps even for generations, as Michael Gerson noted in a Washington Post article this week.
Gerson points out that Trump enjoys the support of only one in five voters under the age of 35. First time voters who will support Clinton because of their aversion to Trump are likely to stay loyal to the Democrats in future elections as well. Trump, therefore, may be about to bestow a long period of political hegemony on the Democrats.
Which brings us back to Netanyahu, the Republicans’ favorite foreign leader who turned local hero because of his willingness to stand up to Obama when necessary and to humiliate him when possible. By nature, the more Republicans embraced Netanyahu the more Democrats became uncomfortable with him, especially as the partisan divide in Washington grew steadily wider. After Netanyahu openly promoted Mitt Romney in 2012 and brazenly colluded with GOP leaders in Congress in advance of his 2015 speech against the Iran deal, parts of the Democratic Party - not all of it, for sure - detached itself from Israel altogether, at least for as long as Netanyahu remains in power. This is especially true of the younger generation, the same one that has failed to warm to Trump: if we extend Gerson’s logic, the damage wrought by Netanyahu in recent years could also last for generations to come.
Netanyahu still maintains that his speech to Congress was “essential” and he more or less denies that it caused any damage to Israel’s standing in the U.S. Nonetheless, this time around, Netanyahu is being extra careful not to appear as intervening in the U.S. elections, not only because he’s once bitten and is now twice shy but also because of his obvious reservations about Trump and his realization that Clinton could be a last line of Israeli defense if the Democrats emerge triumphant from the November vote.
Netanyahu put all his eggs in the GOP basket, but a Trump defeat could unravel it altogether. Thus, it’s not too far fetched to imagine that at nights Netanyahu might sometimes dreams of an October surprise that will be followed by November sensation, in which Trump is elected with the help of an Islamic-bashing and Netanyahu-adoring wave, guided along by Breitbart’s Bannon and the website itself. If such a fantastic scenario materializes, the supposedly routine meeting between Netanyahu and Breitbart in Jerusalem nearly a decade ago will suddenly seem, with the benefit of hindsight, as truly historic.
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