The news that President-elect Donald Trump chose Steve Bannon as his top strategist should put Americans on their guard.
It has already caused exuberant celebrations in white supremacist and neo-Nazi communities. It ought to produce a symmetrical response among the majority of the country.
All Americans who reject Bannon’s views and tactics should prepare to defend against them.
We’re gradually watching the Trump presidency take shape, and there are clear trends emerging. The first is that Trump likes to have competing fiefdoms vying to shape his policies. The second is that one of those is extremely dangerous.
On Sunday, Trump named Reince Priebus chief of staff. Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, is an establishment man. His job will be to keep traditional Republicans calm and to, “make the trains run on time,” in the words of Ken Blackwell, a Trump transition man.
Blackwell chose the saying attributed to the original Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, in keeping with the Trump team’s odd practice of adopting slogans from 1930s Europe.
The choice of Priebus on its own was a reassuring one, and so was Trump’s call during his “60 Minutes” interview for backers to stop attacking minorities. But the Bannon selection, which came only hours earlier, has far outweighed any progress.
The announcement of the two men who will run the Trump administration listed Bannon first, and it was clear in asserting that the chief of staff and the “chief strategist and senior counselor” will be “equal partners.” Only Trump will be more powerful than Bannon.
Before he joined the Trump campaign, Bannon headed the website Breitbart.com. The site pretends to be a news operation, but it is really a propaganda mill appealing to the extreme right wing, promoting racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, homophobic, sexist views and inciting white Americans to hate.
Bannon pushed the pseudo-news site to become ultra-extremist. It delights in highlighting the race of criminals as long as they are not white, and especially relishes stories about Mexicans, Muslims and blacks.
Days after the massacre of African-American parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, Breitbart urged readers to “Hoist [the Confederate flag] High and Proud.”
When prominent Republicans turned against Trump, Breitbart editors wrote the headline: “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”
Bannon’s views are well known. His ex-wife (whom, police reports indicate, he physically attacked) accused him of anti-Semitism during divorce proceedings, saying he refused to send their daughters to a top school in Los Angeles because it had too many Jews.
It’s no wonder members of the “White Nationalist Community” website Stormfront celebrated the news of Bannon’s new digs near the Oval Office correctly noting that he “will have Trump’s ear more than anyone else,” and adding, “Nothing you dirty Jews can do to keep him out.”
In Europe, news reports are already describing Bannon as Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.
It may seem a stretch. Let’s hope it is.
But Bannon, once a filmmaker, has acknowledged that he studied the work of top documentary makers, including Leni Riefenstahl, the creator of Hitler’s powerful propaganda films. “You have to learn from those past masters,” he said.
Now Bannon, who continues building an international network of Breitbart outlets, and appears intent on crafting an axis of ultra-right wing politicians joining Europe and the United States, will be Trump’s top strategist.
One of the most dangerous trends in America today is the blurring of lines between fact and fiction, between propaganda and news. Bannon has stood at the vanguard of that pernicious trend and he found his vehicle in Donald Trump.
We can expect that the White House itself will become the source of disinformation, of lies and distortion, backed by propaganda sites such as Breitbart and others posing as news organizations, trying to shape the narrative of what Americans receive as news; trying to create a new reality to suit their political ends. Legitimate media will come under withering attack.
The vast majority of Americans, including most of those who voted for Trump, are decent people, not bigots. That is not what they want.
We don’t know how much influence Priebus and traditional Republicans will have, how much their counterweight will guide Trump’s direction.
A crucial challenge now is to learn to differentiate truth from innuendo, fabrication and outright lies.
We are entering a new era. Apathy is the enemy.