No media outlet did more to create Trumpism than Breitbart News, which now finds its audience collapsing. Under the direction of Steve Bannon, who took over after founder Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012, the website grew its reach and influence by promoting a politics of racial resentment, immigration restriction, protectionism, and anti-internationalism. In doing so, it was instrumental in the rise of ethno-nationalism on the right.
“We’re the platform of the alt-right,” Bannon boasted during the Republican National Convention in 2016. Bannon went on to become Donald Trump’s campaign CEO and then chief White House strategist, only to be fired for overstepping his authority and then banished from Trump’s orbit entirely for speaking ill of the president and his family to journalist Michael Wolff.
Breitbart has gone through an equally dizzying rise and fall. Once mandatory reading for those who wanted to understand the nationalist wing of the Trump coalition, Breitbart is quickly sinking in popularity. According to Politico, the site’s traffic “dropped from 15 million unique visitors in October, per comScore, to 13.7 million in November, 9.9 million in December, 8.5 million in January and 7.8 million in February.”
There are many possible reasons for Breitbart’s slide. Bannon, who returned to the company last year, stepped down in January—a move reportedly forced by billionaire financier and Breitbart stakeholder Rebekah Mercer. That was also the month that Facebook announced changes to its News Feed algorithm, prioritizing posts from friends over those from media outlets. Speaking to Politico, Harvard media scholar Rob Faris cited a different reason: Fox News. “A big part of Breitbart’s success was that there was a niche to be filled that Fox News was not able to fill at that point,” Faris said. “The role, the importance of Breitbart is diminished.”
The connection between Breitbart and Fox News is complex. While there is scant evidence that Breitbart is losing audience to Fox—while Breitbart has hemorrhaged readers this year, FoxNews.com has held steady—it is true that Fox News is becoming much more like Breitbart. Fox News not only has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the president, but has adopted the racial paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing of the alt-right.
Fox News has been a partisan Republican outlet since its creation in 1996, but the tenor of its politics has changed as the GOP has evolved. During the presidency of George W. Bush and the early Obama years, Fox News often featured mainstream conservatives, like National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who supported free trade and touted the benefits of legal immigration. But with the rise of Trump, the network has been giving less time to figures like Goldberg and more to Trump friendly-voices like English nationalist Nigel Farage.
In other words, Fox News used to be simply right-wing. Now it’s becoming a far-right outlet that resembles Breitbart at its peak under Bannon. The paranoia about the “deep state,” once confined to the political fringe, has become standard fare for hosts like Sean Hannity. On March 14, the day before Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Hannity told viewers, “McCabe is corrupt, and he’s as crooked as they come. He’s one of the deep state actors that we’ve been telling you about and he needs to be held accountable, and firing McCabe, by the way, should only be a start.”
Meanwhile, Fox News host Tucker Carlson is helping to mainstream alt-right racial paranoia. On Tuesday night, he warned about the impact of demographic changes on American society. Carlson allowed that “most immigrants are nice” but warned that “this is more change than human beings are designed to digest,” asking, “How would you feel if that happened in your neighborhood?”
As Mic’s Jack Smith IV noted, Carlson was echoing a common refrain of the racist right, that demographic change is a plot by elites to destroy white America:
This segment was only the recent of many Carlson episodes that have popularized alt-right ideas. In an interview with CNBC, former Fox News contributor William Kristol said Carlson’s show is “close now to racism” and a “combination of dumbing down ... and stirring people’s emotions in a very unhealthy way.”
This shift at Fox News is even too much for extremists like Ralph Peters, apparently. A Fox News contributor who once referred on air to President Barack Obama as the “reincarnation of Pontius Pilate” and a “total pussy,” Peters quit on Tuesday. “Today, I feel that Fox News is assaulting our constitutional order and the rule of law, while fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers,” he wrote in a letter to his colleagues. “When prime-time hosts—who have never served our country in any capacity—dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest assaults on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community... I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove.”
The Breitbartization of Fox is all the more troubling because television is a singularly powerful medium for reaching Republican voters. Debunking the recent tendency to blame Facebook and other new media for political radicalism, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that television played a much bigger role in creating Trump than the internet did. It was television that convinced millions of Americans that Trump was a business genius despite his record of bankruptcy, and which gifted him countless hours of free advertising through unchecked coverage of his campaign rallies and Twitter feed.
“It’s also clear—as the economists Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro wrote in these pages late last year—that among older white Americans, the core demographic where first the primaries and then the general election were decided, television still far outstrips the internet as the most important source of news,” Douthat wrote. “And indeed, the three economists noted, for all the talk about Breitbart’s influence and Russian meddling and dark web advertising, Trump only improved on Mitt Romney’s showing among Americans who don’t use the internet, and he ‘actually lost support among internet-using voters.’”
Breitbart gave Trump his ideology; television gave him his popularity. But what happens now that the most popular cable news network in the U.S. is pumping Breitbartian bile into millions of homes—including the president’s—every morning and night? How will this influence the Republican Party, and how will it influence Trump? There will be consequences not just for one side of America’s political divide, but everyone—citizens and (especially) noncitizens alike. And whatever the impact may be, it seems certain to dwarf whatever a few dozen Russians with Facebook accounts could accomplish.