The rise and fall of Breitbart

Steve Bannon’s far-right media outlet has lost 75 per cent of its audience since Trump took office and 90 per cent of its advertisers.

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The Trump era has not, it seems, been kind to Breitbart. The rabid far-right media company, which was previously run by Trump’s hyper-nationalist former campaign CEO and chief strategist Steve Bannon, has experienced plummeting traffic since the president for whom they were one of the leading cheerleaders took office.

According to a report in the Washington Post earlier this month, the site has lost 75 per cent of its readership since Trump was inaugurated, going from more than 17 million monthly unique browsers at the beginning of 2017 to less than 5 million in May 2019. What went wrong?

Breitbart was launched in 2005 and named for its founder, a right-wing media maverick called Andrew Breitbart. He had been a protégé of Matt Drudge, whose site The Drudge Report remains one of the most powerful and influential news aggregation sites on the web, especially for those on the political right. Breitbart’s idea was to create a “Huffington Post of the right” – a site on which he had also worked. 

The site enjoyed lots of early successes, in part because Drudge helped out his friend by regularly featuring Breitbart stories on his site, funnelling monster traffic. Breitbart also broke some big stories; in particular, it was instrumental in the sexting scandal that led to the downfall of Anthony Weiner, then a rising-star congressman who was married to Huma Abedin, a close aide and confidante to Hillary Clinton.

Andrew Breitbart died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012, aged just 43. His successor as the site’s executive chairman was Steve Bannon, a former investment banker who had joined Andrew in launching the site from the film industry in which he was an investor and producer.

Bannon presided over a brisk redesign of the site and began to set the organisation’s sights on becoming the in-house organ for the nascent movement that would later become known as the “alt-right.” Bannon had already seen some of the latent power represented by disaffected white males online when he tangled with the Gamergate movement, and he wanted Breitbart to harness that power.

In 2014, Bannon hired a British tech blogger named Milo Yiannopoulos as a senior editor. Yiannopoulos quickly proved himself to have a talent for publicity and controversy, and he became one of the site’s most influential commentators. 

Gamergate – a movement claiming to be for “ethics in video game journalism” but which became a revolt among largely white male video game fans against what they considered to be the unwelcome diversification of their hobby and the industry that underpinned it, especially by women – was evolving into the wider political ideology known as “alt-right.” Yiannopoulos, who had quickly become the site’s most popular iconoclast, was key to putting Breitbart at the centre of that conversation.

The alt-right’s ideology, which was evolving on digital communities on Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, was a new kind of white supremacy updated for the internet age, run through with the powerful influence of the subcultures that birthed it. The alt-right took up where the Tea Party – a neo-conservative movement that arose in opposition to the Obama presidency – left off.

Self-conceived as set in opposition to what it derided as the “political correctness” of “social justice warriors” on the left, the alt-right was deeply influenced by chan culture in particular; trolling (the art of tricking people to get a rise or reaction out of them) and the widespread use of racist and homophobic slurs were cultural phenomena within the alt-right driven by the anonymity of the communities in which its proponents had come of age. 

Along with Yiannopoulos, Bannon – whom Andrew Breitbart once called the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party” – used Breitbart to help the alt-right develop and grow into a pervasive ethno-nationalist worldview that closely jibed with Bannon’s own, and a powerful movement in its own right. By the summer of 2016, when he left to run Donald Trump’s campaign for president, Bannon had successfully turned Breitbart into what he described as “the platform for the alt-right.”

But while the election of Donald Trump that November represented the wildest possible success for the ideology Breitbart had been instrumental in nurturing and disseminating – as well as catapulting the site to the forefront of the public consciousness – it also brought problems: deeper scrutiny, and activist enemies. 

Appearances by its writers, especially Yiannopoulos, were now regularly being protested, sometimes violently. In February, comments that Yiannopoulos had made in a livestream a year earlier that appeared to condone paedophilia were made public and sparked outrage. 

He claimed that the comments had been taken out of context, but he had made too many enemies. Following a wide public backlash, Yiannopoulos was dropped by his book publisher and removed from a keynote speaking engagement at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He resigned from Breitbart soon after.

Bannon was now in the White House, but his old publication was in trouble. A boycott campaign run by an online activist group called Sleeping Giants after Trump’s election led to the site being dropped by 90 per cent of its advertisers between April and June 2017. 

The site’s new chief, Alex Marlow, tried to tack at least a little toward the centre, but with little success. In footage taken by a film crew working on a spring 2019 documentary about him and released on Twitter, Bannon admitted that Breitbart was “in tough financial shape.” Lacking its biggest names, and finding its scrappy upstart outsider status flipped on its head by its public association with the Trump administration in the form of Bannon, Breitbart was haemorrhaging readers.

It was also being outstripped by new competitors. Sites like The Daily Wire, which was started by Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor who had resigned during the 2016 campaign, was siphoning off readers while Fox News’s website continued to dominate the digital market. 

Bannon had himself fallen out with one of the site’s main financial backers, the billionaire Mercer family, over remarks he had made about Trump that were published in Michael Wolff’s White House tell-all book Fire and Fury, for which Bannon was a key source. Bannon, who had returned to his position as Breitbart executive chairman after leaving the White House in August 2017, formally stepped down in January 2018. 

Bannon has continued to try and foster his nationalist movement. Since leaving Breitbart, he has taken his nationalist show on the road, advising, among others, the successful presidential bid of far-right Brazilian populist Jair Bolsonaro as well as attempting to insert himself (with less success) into nationalist political movements in Europe like Belgium’s far-right Parti Populaire and Italy’s La Lega.

But despite the fall of Breitbart, its influence lives on. Established by Bannon at the nexus of internet subculture and far-right nationalist politics, Breitbart changed the tone of right-wing debate forever by discovering, for the first time, how to combine and integrate them into an entirely new kind of politics: cruel, divisive, and digital native – a training-camp and stronghold for the insurgent fighters in the culture war that it inflamed. That is its true legacy.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.