On Wednesday morning, as America rolled over in bed, bleary-eyed, to check its phone, it learned the news that quite a few things had gone bump in the night at Donald Trump’s campaign headquarters. Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, was the campaign’s new CEO. Pollster Kellyanne Conway was now Trump’s campaign manager.
Bannon’s onboarding has sucked up most of the attention. Breitbart News has been sympathetic to the Trump cause, and the idea that the campaign and the media outlet would now be inextricably linked seemed at once shocking and wholly predictable, a move of Berlusconian logic.
What seems sure now is that the Trump campaign will become more Breitbart-y — invested in the conspiratorial narratives once confined to the nuttier parts of the internet — but Breitbart has been riding the Trump wave for some time. The synergistic political-media marriage that went public this week seems, if you look back at the numbers, almost destined for this meet cute.
In October 2014, before “Trump for president” was a glimmer in our collective eye, Breitbart News ranked 27th in the general news category of websites, with about 8 million visitors, according to comScore data. That same month, Pew Research Center released a study on the political fragmentation of American Media, including a survey on news-consumption habits. Only 3 percent of respondents got their news from Breitbart, and 79 percent of those people had “political values that are right-of-center.” Nearly half of Breitbart readers (48 percent) called themselves “consistently conservative” (only 9 percent of respondents in the overall survey described themselves thusly and by comparison, only 19 percent of Fox News’ audience was “consistently conservative.) The site, then as now, was seen as a go-to for a vertiginously right-slanted point of view on the news of the day.
On the conservative media scene, Breitbart plays the ne’er-do-well renegade role, while outlets like RedState have served as the vehicle for movement conservatism and the National Review has remained a preferred platform for the thoughts of the establishment wing of the party.
Breitbart’s traffic numbers hummed along for much of the next few months, with its share of the general news market audience — visitors to sites such as CNN and Fox News — remaining anywhere from 3.5 percent to 4.6 percent. (This doesn’t mean those Breitbart visitors only visited Breitbart.) But then in June of 2015, the same month Trump announced that he would run for president, the site saw an uptick — it was read by 5.7 percent of the general news audience and went on to take a full 6 percent in July. By November it was at 7.8 percent. Last month, Breitbart traffic was at 9 percent of the market, with 18 millions visitors.
Political news sites in general, of course, have seen traffic gains since the campaign began in earnest, but Breitbart’s growth has outpaced that of other sites in the politics category during 12 out of the past 14 months, according to comScore data, perhaps reflecting the increasing perception over time that the site was the go-to place for Trump-sympathetic coverage. The tone of the site has, as its traffic has increased, taken a turn. In April, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted on its Hatewatch blog that Breitbart might be on its way to becoming “the media arm of the Alt-Right,” the white nationalist movement that has grown on social media recently:
Over the past year the media outlet has been openly promoting the core issues of the Alt-Right, introducing these racist ideas to its readership — much to the delight of many in the white nationalist world who could never dream of reaching such a vast number of people.
The tenor change of Breitbart did not go unnoticed or protested from within conservative circles. “Breitbart News is no longer a journalistic enterprise,” national security correspondent for the site, Jordan Schachtel, said in a statement in March announcing his resignation. Instead, Schachtel described Breitbart as “something resembling an unaffiliated media Super PAC for the Trump campaign.” Along with a number of other staffers, Schachtel’s departure came in protest of Breitbart’s perceived lack of support for one of its reporters, Michelle Fields, who was manhandled by then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at a Trump event.
Bannon’s hiring is widely perceived as a turning point in Trump campaign strategy. Instead of Paul Manafort’s attempts at polishing his diamond-in-the-populist-rough candidate for the establishment Republican set, Bannon is likely to steer Trump toward more rough and tumble lines of attack. Tuesday night, Trump participated in a town hall event hosted by Sean Hannity, a Fox News host who has been pushing rumors about Hillary Clinton’s supposed ill health. Trump didn’t make the same arguments that Hannity did, though he did say about Clinton: “I think she sleeps. I guess she takes a lot of weekends off.” In speeches on Monday and Tuesday, though, Trump called into question Clinton’s health more explicitly. “To defeat crime and radical Islamic terrorism in our country, to win trade in our country, you need tremendous physical and mental strength and stamina,” he said in Wisconsin. “Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that strength and stamina.”
Stories about Clinton suffering from “post-concussion syndrome, which can severely impact her cognitive abilities” could be found on Breitbart as far back as January of this year.
In a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile, Bannon told a reporter of the site’s bravado, even in the face of contradictory facts: “We’re honey badgers. We don’t give a shit,” a reference to an ancient internet meme from 2011. It seems impossible to conclude that at least some of this spirit won’t seep into the Trump campaign. The Clinton team seems prepared. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook repeated a number of times the sentiment that Trump’s vision for a Trumpian campaign had prevailed:
“We should expect in the coming weeks to see more of what, at the end of the day, really scares voters about Donald Trump: the hateful rhetoric, erratic judgment, and wild accusations and conspiracy theories.”