The FRONTLINE Interview: Alex Marlow
When Alex Marlow met Andrew Breitbart, he was still an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. Breitbart’s website had yet to become the news empire that it is today, and when Marlow was hired as the first employee, the two worked together on a shoestring budget out of Breitbart’s basement.
A little more than eight years later, Marlow is the editor-in-chief at Breitbart News, presiding over a media behemoth built from the legacy of Andrew Breitbart, who died in 2012.
It’s in that role that Marlow came to know the Steve Bannon. In this interview, Marlow speaks at length about how Bannon took the reins at Breitbart after its founder’s death, how Bannon turned the site into a dominant media force in Republican politics, and fires back at critics who say Bannon injected racism into the site’s coverage.
“There’s no racism; there’s no bigotry,” says Marlow. “It’s about values; it’s about fairness.”
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on March 21, 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with when you get to Breitbart. What was the whole big idea of the site?
I started with Andy Breitbart as his first employee. I was a student at UC Berkeley at the time. … He hired me to do odd jobs and to do a little editing, but there was very little editing to be done at the time. It was mostly being a glorified personal assistant. But just because it was always such a shoestring budget, we worked out of his basement. I started on a card table in my Berkeley apartment.
I picked up so much from him, and I learned so much from him, because he was a super genius at the news cycle because of his experience with Drudge. He just really understood the news narrative. He was an incredible student of the institutional left. He understood the way Democrats and people on the left were able to get victories and what tactics they used. His genius was pretty substantial, and I got to absorb a lot of it.
But the premise was creating a news outlet, an online periodical, newspaper, whatever you want to call it. But, as opposed to what The New York Times does and CNN does, which we view as decidedly left of center, we would say, “This is where we’re coming from, and you can judge us accordingly.” So that’s the theme of Breitbart, is we’ll tell you we’re populist, nationalist, grassroots-oriented, conservative, and we allow a lot of diversity of opinion. We have a lot of agreements and disagreements within the various people of the website. We love publishing dissenting voices.
But we will tell you, by and large, you’re going to get a specific worldview, and we will admit that openly. That’s where we think we’re more honest than a lot of our peers in the establishment press.
… Now, so let’s bring Bannon in, a friend of Breitbart, close after [Bannon’s] Reagan film [In the Face of Evil] rolls out. Did you see the Reagan film?
I don’t think I saw it when it was first rolled out. I’ve seen many of Steve’s films. I don’t know if I’ve seen that one.
The way the story goes, Breitbart comes up to him afterward and sees a fellow: “OK, I get it. This guy gets media. This guy is in Hollywood.” That’s sort of the way the story goes. Is that sort of the way you noticed it to be?
I don’t remember it exactly that way. Not to say it’s wrong. I just remember when Andrew first met Steve, I was there that day. It was actually Steve [who] came over with the director, named Michael Pack, to show a movie they had worked on together called The Last 600 Meters. It was a war documentary. And Andrew couldn’t get his DVD player to work. So we had a roomful of people sitting there, preparing to watch this movie, and we couldn’t get the technology to work.
So I ended up watching Andrew and Steve, basically, talk for two hours. They’re both incredibly knowledgeable on a million different topics. And it was pretty exciting. You could definitely see that they understood each other. They had a lot of chemistry. I think Steve was brought aboard at least in some capacity to Breitbart pretty soon after, and that was very early on. People act like Steve came to Breitbart late in the game. He was there very early on.
So describe him. What did he seem like to you?
… Well, at the time I thought of him as a conservative filmmaker, someone who was trying to tell stories for conservative audiences that were underserved by Hollywood and the media establishment, the entertainment media establishment, which seems to make a lot of products that are for center-left thinkers, shall we say. He was trying to tell stories of war heroes and conservative icons and conservative presidents, and that seemed like something that there could be a good market for that. So that’s all I really knew of Steve at the time, because again, I was very low on the totem pole, associate editor at the time.
I got to know Steve a lot more in the years to come, but I was introduced to him as a filmmaker. …
What did he look like?
I would say similar to now. I think maybe his hair was even a little shorter. But he’s cleaning up for the White House, but he had the same look, where he never really cares about how he dresses. He always had cargo shorts on. His signature was wearing four collared shirts at the same time. He liked to have a bunch of pens clipped to his shirt, constantly writing in a notebook. Certainly he presented himself as an artist. And I think Steve is an artist in a lot of ways.
Did you know he was rich?
I didn’t know. It became pretty clear that he was going to be very helpful to Breitbart on the business side. And in editorial, I got the impression he had big-picture conversations with Andrew. But he was going to be very helpful businesswise, trying to make moves to get Breitbart to the next level.
You said that when they were sitting in front of the crowd and the projector doesn’t work or the DVD player doesn’t work, that it sounds like sparks between these two guys, that it was really interesting. Do you remember what they were talking about?
They talked about the movie. They talked about the various wars that we were involved in at the time. They talked about their background in Hollywood, because Steve was an executive in Hollywood in the music business, and the famous Seinfeld stories. I don’t think Seinfeld came up, but Steve has a rich history in the entertainment business. So I think they talked a lot about Andrew’s various projects, what he’s trying to do at Breitbart, the type of people that Andrew has been associating with in Hollywood. Andrew was a big champion for right-of-center conservatives in Hollywood. So I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation, but there certainly was a chemistry and an energy between the two of them, where you could see that they were both thinking, this is a person who could get me to the next level.
You’re in an origin moment there.
Yeah. Oh, absolutely, in hindsight, yes. At the time, I was just frustrated I couldn’t see the movie, but in hindsight, that was a big moment in the history of conservative America in particular.
Well, just because I think that what Andrew built, and then Steve built upon, with Breitbart, and then what we’ve been able to continue since Steve had left Breitbart, is pretty extraordinary. It’s making it the really first conservative publication online that has pretty much universal name recognition now, at least among people who read the news in the United States. That’s pretty cool. And a lot of it did start in that room at that moment.
When Andrew passed away, that day when you heard about it, tell me how you heard about it. And what did you think the implications were going to be of Andrew’s untimely death?
It’s an amazing thing that the human body does to protect itself, and the mind does, because I immediately went into a mode like I needed to work, and I needed to fight for Andrew’s website. I got the news at 3:30 in the morning, like it was out of a movie, a horrifying moment … and it was Steve on the other line. He gave me the bad news very quickly … And I had a delayed response. I couldn’t process it at that moment. But then I realized, after I got myself together, that we needed to go, and we needed to present the website; we needed to start putting up content. We needed to contact people and make sure that people were prepared to continue Andrew’s legacy. … That was what I was focused on instantly.
… When Bannon [takes over], does the editorial focus change? Does it become more political and less Hollywood? Or what happens?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that we have to play to our strengths. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt. When you lose a once-in-a-lifetime personality like Andrew Breitbart, it would be disrespectful to Andrew to say that the voice of the site didn’t change a little, just because how could you recreate Andrew Breitbart?
… Steve was more of a political animal than Andrew was. Andrew always said he didn’t care about politics. So Steve saw a lot of people — he was the first to see this, and a lot of us at Breitbart saw it soon after — but there’s a lot of people who feel disenfranchised, not just by the media, which was Andrew’s bailiwick, but by both political parties. And Steve saw, whereas he agreed with the Republican Party for the most part, there were issues like trade, immigration, corruption, too readily willing to get into foreign entanglements, where the Republican Party was a little too — wasn’t really seeing eye-to-eye with Middle America either … And to act as though the Republicans were a pristine party, that’s never been a worldview of anyone at Breitbart. If you read our content, you would know that.
But Steve did shift more of the focus to focusing on some of these battles that were brewing in Washington, but I do think it was in a similar spirit of being anti-establishment, and in trying to fight for disenfranchised people whose voices were not given enough attention in the mainstream political conversation.
What was he like to work for?
Steve was a tough boss. Some of the rumors about Steve are completely sensationalized. He’s got a big heart. He had a paternal nature to him that was really warm and endearing. I’ve never seen anyone work harder. And when there were stories of Steve yelling or going off on people, people never mentioned the one thing that it almost always comes from the same thing, when he feels like you’re not working as hard as you can. That’s the only thing he demands of people, is that you put in 100 percent effort, and if you make a mistake and he catches you on it, then if you just said to him, “I’m on it,” then he felt good about it. That’s all he needed.
He was theatrical. He was quick to give high praise, and he was quick to rebuke when you did something he didn’t like as much. But he always had a sense of forward progress, that every day was precious and we should be moving forward every day. Are we better at the end of the day than we were at the beginning of the day?
And just an absolute lover of the news… He was emotional, but he was also had an incredible vision for the news. And ultimately I loved working with him.
Does he bring a big idea with him?
Steve was really the first person that I saw to really identify this populist, nationalist, conservative wave, not just in the United States but globally. I remember I had a conversation with him. I was visiting our London bureau — and this was a few months out from the Brexit vote — and we’d been covering the Brexit vote for a few months at Breitbart. Most of our colleagues in the conservative press hadn’t touched on it much. We did a lot of stories on it, and we were keenly aware of the UK Independence Party [UKIP], Nigel Farage, who we thought was a fascinating character and extremely likable and articulate, really virtuoso public speaker, and someone with a lot of values we shared.
It’s funny, by the way, Breitbart, Bannon, Farage, kind of the same kind of guys in lots of ways, right?
Very similar in a lot of ways, aside from Farage would have multiple bottles of wine with lunch and Steve’s a teetotaler. But politically, they have the same worldview, and they’re kind of two sides of the same coin, if you will. And Steve called me, or I called Steve, and we were catching up, and I told him how things were going. And he said something to me that the night of the Brexit vote is going to be the biggest night in Breitbart’s history. I was listening to him, and I was thinking — I was skeptical. I wasn’t negative on the idea, but I was thinking that we are going to have — a vote to remove the United Kingdom from the E.U. will be the biggest vote in our American website’s history.
And I thought, OK, maybe I’ll hear you out on this, Steve, and he just explained that this is a wave that is catching, that people understand the issues; they’re upset with the global bureaucrats trying to decide for them what to do with their lives and dictating policy from Brussels, unelected bureaucrats dictating policy to people in the United Kingdom from Brussels, who do not have a vote. He says: “This is a big moment, and Breitbart’s going to own this. It’s going to be a huge night.”
And I said: “OK, fine. I buy it. It’s a big story. We’ll keep covering it fully.” And then, when it started to look like the polls were tightening, and there was a chance that the U.K. was going to vote to leave, I went back, and I spent the week leading up to the Brexit vote in the U.K. — we broadcast our Sirius XM radio show from there. And that night, when Brexit succeeded, when Farage won and the U.K. voted to remove itself from the E.U., it was at that point the biggest night in Breitbart history. Traffic-wise, it was the most paid views we’d ever had.
And it was. Our audience was fully coached up, fully immersed. They loved it. They loved every second of it, the drama of it, the values that were shared. It was an incredible moment for Breitbart. And it actually did exceed my expectations, but not Steve’s. I knew it was a big moment; Steve knew it was the biggest moment. And I think that really precipitated the rise of Trump and Trump’s victories, was seeing that Brexit, where all of the prognosticators, all of the pundit class, they all said it never had a chance. Farage even conceded himself when he looked at the exit polls. And then you started to see some of these rural towns, and the numbers were trickling in, and there’s very high turnout for the leave side, the leave-E.U. side. And the rest is history.
So he’s got the golden gut. What does that tell him about what would eventually produce Trump?
I think that there is a few things that Trump saw that Steve would agree with. A couple of them, first of all, I keep saying anti-establishment. What I mean by that is that I think people were ready for a change from Barack Obama, who is a very left-wing president relative to other presidents. I know that some people think he wasn’t left enough, but from the Breitbart audiences, the perspective is he’s very left-wing.
Then you have a Republican establishment that we think enabled President Obama to get through the vast majority of his agenda. And then you also have a legacy of George Bush, of getting us into foreign entanglements that didn’t turn out. You’ve got the Republican establishment allowing for widespread corruption, widespread debt, and then even discussion of an amnesty bill, where you’re going to legalize tens of millions of illegal aliens.
These are all things that we identified very early on — Steve first, but the rest of us at Breitbart very quickly after that were seeing patterns that the problem wasn’t as much left or right as it was establishment/anti-establishment. And that’s what translated. That was similar in the U.K. as well, with Farage. It was less about left or right, more that the coalitions were changing; that what was traditional, what was traditionally the Republican coalition, was different than it was, what was. Steve was really the first person, I think, to identify this as a trend that had the potential to go all the way to the White House.
And Trump, as a figure, really knew exactly what notes to hit with Middle America. Going around the media, attacks on the media, attacks on the establishment, talking about draining the swamp — the fight that Trump had in him is still underestimated by left-of-center people and establishment people. They act like that’s a parlor trick, and that’s a bar trick. It’s not.
Steve and I have talked repeatedly about President Obama, about what made him so effective. President Obama would do whatever it takes to get his agenda through. If it was through the legislative process, great. If it was through the executive order process, just as good. The point was that he would fight for his ideas and his values, and this is very commonplace left of center. People right of center, we think, do not fight nearly as hard. They like to make a good speech or write a good op-ed, and they congratulate themselves at cocktail parties in Washington, D.C., in the Georgetown area, and not actually get anything accomplished.
That’s not how Steve is wired. Steve is results-oriented, winning-oriented; Trump, winning-oriented and results-oriented. And I think that’s what they — many things they saw in one another.
Let’s pick one issue that’s a bellwether, that has causes and effects and results that are measurable. In 2012, Romney loses, and the Republicans do an “autopsy.” They conclude: We’ve got to go do whatever we can do to get millennials, women and Hispanics in the fold or else we’ll never win again.
That becomes the conventional wisdom.
Breitbart, Bannon, [Stephen] Miller, [Jeff] Sessions, everybody on that side, that far side of the Republican Party, not the establishment side. The establishment is all over here; you guys are out there somewhere else. How does that happen?
Why would you trust the people that got everything wrong and wasted billions of dollars on the Romney campaign? Why would you trust them to analyze themselves and decide that here is why we got it wrong? … You were the guys that made us lose, or at least didn’t help us win, at a minimum. So we had other ways of looking at it. First of all, not to mention that when it comes to immigration, not to mention that it’s a national security issue, not to mention having open borders undermines not just our national sovereignty, but law and order in general, those are top-line issues.
There’s another reality of it, which is that at the rate that the Democrats are able to assimilate new immigrant families into their voting rolls, it was going to basically mean you give an amnesty, and the Republicans will never win again, … unless they start co-opting Hispanics at a quicker rate. Now, Trump did better with Hispanics, slightly, than Romney — about the same, and hopefully he makes more headway with them. I’m not disparaging that as a goal. It should be a great goal.
But one thing to consider is that, with a lot of these new immigrant families, you’re looking at — Jay Leno’s joke was “undocumented Democrats,” was that’s what illegal aliens are.
There was another way to look at some of these issues. The Republicans went to work on an amnesty bill, an open borders bill, where you have millions of new citizens come before border security, which is totally backward in our view, but also the view of most of the Republican base. And this was a grave miscalculation for the establishment, which is that there are nuances within the Republican Party base in terms of how many people should get an amnesty. Should it be zero? Should it be all of them? Probably somewhere in between, depending on the circumstances. But one thing that is for certain is border security is a top issue, if not the top issue.
And when the Republican establishment was putting out the Gang of Eight amnesty bill, Breitbart was reporting on the border surge at the Texas border and really throughout the southland, showing incredible pictures of “The Death Train,” “The Beast,” which was a train coming up from Central America where people would ride on the roof in order to try to get to the United States, where they could cross in illegally. And then they get their permisos, their papers to agree to appear in court if they made it that far. And they wouldn’t show up. The 98 percent then wouldn’t show up to court. You know, they were supposed to show up. They disappeared into the country.
Then some of them were rounded up into the holding tanks, essentially warehouses, where children would be sleeping under tinfoil blankets. Just incredible humanitarian strife that was happening at our border, and people weren’t really taking it seriously. Ironically, some people on the far left were taking it seriously because of the humanitarian element, and Breitbart were taking it seriously for all of the above. It’s a security issue; it’s a law enforcement issue; it’s a humanitarian issue.
In the meantime, you’ve got the Republican Party just talking about amnesty first, then security. I’m thinking, hello, guys, we’ve got to think about the border right now. And you start seeing these issues play a bigger role in the midterms in 2014.
Likewise, trade is next on the horizon, issues that start animating the base, where they’re completely out of step with the Republican establishment. The Republican establishment [is] pushing big global trade deals, these massive, multilateral deals, where it seems like every time America gets the short end of the stick.
Well, Breitbart, we were presenting voices that were saying: “Well, these deals, we always seem to get the short end of the stick on this one. These deals seem to be hurting the average American worker and helping some of the richest Americans and no one else. So these bills seem to help the newest immigrants, many illegal, and the richest among us, and not the average normal American voter.” And this is something that Trump sees go on, Bannon sees go on, and then a handful of other Tea Party-type candidates as well.
What is [Stephen] Miller’s role in bringing [Jeff] Sessions to the table? But more than that, what is the energy that Stephen, another California boy, brings to the table.
My history with Stephen is actually really interesting, which I don’t know if it’s ever been captured in a format like this. Stephen and I both interned for L.A.-based talk show host Larry Elder, who is a nationally syndicated talk show host, back-to-back. He was at Santa Monica High School one year ahead of me. I went to Harvard-Westlake High School, both in West L.A. So we grew up right around each other, at the same exact moment, in Los Angeles.
Stephen was the most common guest on my favorite radio show, Larry Elder’s show. He was on every week or so talking about bias at Santa Monica High School, and he was just brilliant, just a mind that is clearly perceiving the world at a level that is just much sharper than your average high school student.
So I was a fan of Stephen’s 15 years ago, 20 years ago, I guess 15. … He understood the way Capitol Hill works and how to push an agenda through that was an anti-establishment, Tea Party-type agenda. He was so far on the cutting edge of trade and immigration that he set a lot of the tone for the anti-establishment discussion of these issues. Jeff Sessions, same way. So Miller was in Sessions’ office. I forget his exact title, but he was —
OK, communications director. And Sessions really is the intellectual conscience of the conservative movement. … At the run-up to the 2016 election, the one person in Washington I could trust pretty much implicitly was Jeff Sessions; was if Sessions weighed in emphatically on something, that Breitbart was almost certainly going to have the same emphasis.
And mostly because of just how intellectually rigorous he was, his office just put out a brilliant data and information to back up their claims. But it was forward-thinking, and it was those big ideas that you talk about, that Bannon was onboard with as well, about rethinking trade, rethinking immigration, rethinking globalism, rethinking the destruction of the American workforce, the fact that there was a record number of people out of the workforce at the time, thinking of the world in those terms, instead of the terms that the establishment Paul Ryan wing wanted you to think of them. And that’s where Sessions and Miller really were influential over Breitbart’s coverage.
Did you have common cause? I mean, would you see each other? Would you talk?
From time to time. I can’t speak for everyone at Breitbart. I know that Miller and Sessions were with Steve and Matt Boyle, our Washington political editor. For me, I didn’t have to deal with them directly as much. Because there was such a huge appetite within the company to work with them, I didn’t need to micromanage it. I just waited for the stories to come in, and then I’d try to set a good headline on them.
But that was — we were able to really change. They provided a lot of the intellectual backbone for the movement. And Breitbart was the website, that was the online voice of the movement at the same moment. There was a lot of synergy there, so it was not surprising to see that Sessions was the first addition to the Trump Cabinet and that Miller’s in the Oval Office with Bannon, or in the West Wing with Bannon. That makes sense completely.
… So let me go to 2013, I think, where there’s CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference]. CPAC doesn’t invite [Bannon], doesn’t want Breitbart around, as they said. He does this sort of separate CPAC-like get-together. Tell me about that. What was the idea?
… Steve thought that CPAC was not covering foreign policy, national security, radical Islam, at the level it needed to. And if they weren’t going to do it, then Steve isn’t one to take no for an answer when he wants something. So he put on his own — with Breitbart, we put on our own event. We got to bring a lot of the voices that were kept out of CPAC for a variety of reasons, and we got them to have a forum, talking about issues that were not part of the main conference. And they got a lot of attention. Breitbart gave it a lot of coverage. And I think CPAC ultimately started to include more of those voices at a bigger level because of it.
The idea of radical Islam, … why is it so important for Bannon? Why is it so important to Breitbart?
Well, again, I think it comes down to the media. I think the media has for whatever reason, they have decided that they’re not going to cover radical Islam. I do feel like there’s a bit of whitewashing of it in a lot of the establishment press. And a lot of our decisions have consequences. If you look at what’s happening in Europe, in Sweden, for example, which used to be one of the safest places in the world, it’s been described as — this is my phrasing — the rape capital of Europe. And I’m not saying that’s accurate, but I’m saying that, to go from one of the safest places in the world to having descriptors used about it like we’re seeing now, when you’re seeing reports of “no-go zones,” which we’ve reported from, which the media doesn’t want to admit there’s “no-go zones,” but at Breitbart we’ve reported them, where basically there’s no law enforcement because of these radical Islamic communities that are popping up, and the amount of terror, which I don’t think — if you contemplate ISIS, it’s a — Islamic terror now is, as a movement, is stronger now than it was at 9/11. And that’s a failure not just of the Republicans or Democrats; it’s everyone. It’s the fact that radical Islam has become more influential in 2017 than it was in 2001, is because we’ve either covered it wrong, or we fought the wars improperly. Probably a combination thereof.
These are important stories that resonate with a lot of people. They do feel like Islamic terrorism is a threat to them personally, and they think culturally, a lot of what Sharia law, for example, stands for is at odds with a lot of American values. And these are stories that the establishment press in America and throughout most of the English-speaking world doesn’t even want to have this discussion. They want to ignore it, and they want to whitewash it, like President Obama wouldn’t use the word “radical Islamic terrorism.” How do you, if you have an enemy, how do you fight it if you can’t even name it?
At Breitbart, what we’ve done is, there’s plenty of voices who are Muslim voices who are reformists, who are progressive Muslims, who are saying that the essence of our faith is not these people who are on the radical wings of it. But the radicals are the ones who are growing in power, and we don’t feel there’s been an honest discussion about them, and that people who have tried to tell the truth about them are largely ignored in the American media landscape.
So now let’s go to the campaign and the election of Trump. So here are 16 of the best of the generation, the candidates of the Republican Party, and Donald Trump in the middle of all of that. Where is Bannon in the early days and all the way along? What’s the progression?
It’s a great question. And it really started where we were open-minded to just about all of the candidates I would say at the start, with the exception of probably Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, because Rubio was the poster child for the Gang of Eight amnesty bill, which was despised by the Breitbart audience. Whether or not the bill had merit, we need to talk about that. I’ll tell you, though, the Breitbart readers detested it.
And Jeb Bush was seen as not just an extension of the Bush family, which is the definition of the establishment, but he was also seen as very light on illegal immigration, and also probably someone you wouldn’t trust in terms of corruption and things like that — not to say he was corrupt personally, but just his family, as entrenched as they were in the political machine of Washington.
The rest I think we were pretty open-minded. But certain guys started to elevate, and Carly [Fiorina] was very popular as well, so I shouldn’t say “guys.” But the anti-establishment voices seemed to get more attention from the Breitbart crowd, in particular [Ted] Cruz and Trump, pretty early. We ran a straw poll, and pretty much consistently throughout the primary until the end, it was about a third of our readers supported Trump, a third supported Cruz and a third supported everyone else.
I think a lot of our readers liked the libertarian streak that Rand Paul had. I think a lot of our readers liked that Carly Fiorina really was articulate, attacking Hillary Clinton. And a lot of them liked the anti-establishment nature of Ben Carson, coming from a surgeon’s background, the Christian background, and just sort of a very civil person. He was popular as well.
But it became pretty clear that the people who were resonating were Cruz and Trump. Politico wrote that we were actually called — they called us the “Daily Cruz” at one point. So this conception that we’re “Trumpbart” or something like that, it was inconveniently they tried to label us as the “Daily Cruz” early on as well.
So Cruz and Trump started to separate themselves from the pack. I think part of it was because they really made the case that they were not party establishment, and that was the key portion of Breitbart’s brand. Now, where Trump started separating himself from Cruz was on a few key things. First of all was immigration, that when Trump launched his campaign, he said that there were rapists and murderers coming over the borders, which is a factually accurate statement. The media made it seem as though all people who were coming over the borders were rapists and murderers. Never said “all”; he said “some.” And people who had been reading Breitbart, we report on all sorts of different crime, but including crime committed by illegal aliens. They were familiar with Kate Steinle and Jamiel Shaw and some of these stories where illegal aliens did commit murder or not quite as bad, or the different crimes that were coming over our border.
One thing at Breitbart that we’re very proud of is that we have a series called the “Cartel Chronicles,” where we provide a voice to Mexicans who are having their lives tarnished by the Mexican cartels that run much of different parts of Mexico and are colluding with the government in many cases. So this is far from a race thing; this is a humanitarian thing as well. We want the destruction of the Mexican cartels for the sake of the Mexican people. A slight digression, but I think that that’s important context.
So when Trump says those words, even some of his supporters thought it would come back to hurt him.
Yeah, I thought that, well, if the audience was as savvy as I thought they were, then they were going to hear those words, and they were going to think, OK, maybe that wasn’t our fault; maybe that’s not a good politician’s answer. But there is a truth to it that, if he’s allowed to clarify himself, then the media might have to listen to him explain that plenty of great people — I love the Mexican people, as Trump would probably say, but when we don’t have border security, we don’t have a thorough vetting process, you’re risking having people who are unsavory and are a threat to your community come through. And we just want a commonsense law-and-order-based immigration system.
If he had that chance — and this is where he was a master media manipulator, where he would stake out an extreme position repeatedly as a negotiation tactic, and people always took him literally that he really meant all the things he said. And some people call that lying or dishonesty. And I understand that. But that’s not how most of his fans thought of it.
Did you and Bannon, even back then, summer of ’15, January of ’16, around the time Miller joins the campaign, are you guys knowing early: “Hey, this is lightning in a bottle time. He might be our guy”?
Yeah, I think that there’s some of that. But really, I wasn’t overly committed until very far down the road. And I think Breitbart was very open-minded in general for quite a long time. I think the fact that Trump turned that first hysterical media cycle into a huge boost in the polls was fascinating. And I think that the media’s continuing insistence on overreacting to things Trump says and Trump tweets has always benefited him, and yet the media can’t seem to help themselves.
If you pay attention to some of the subtle nuances, Ted Cruz was a little lighter on immigration, a little lighter on trade than Trump. Trump made trade a centerpiece, another thing that was an incredibly popular issue with the Breitbart audience. I don’t think much of the CNN audience was aware of how big of an issue that was until very far down the road. And then I think Cruz had a couple missteps we don’t have to get into toward the end of the campaign.
Then it became clear Trump was the guy. But him making the focus on [being] skeptical of the establishment; immigration; we’re going to close the borders, treat the border like a national security issue; we’re going to fix trade; the media is the opposition party — these are things that a lot of Breitbart readers were going, “This is perfect.”
… I think that it became clear that Steve and Trump had a very similar worldview as the campaign wore on. I don’t know the exact nuances of Steve’s thinking throughout the campaign. There was a particular moment where Steve decided, “I think Trump’s the guy.” But I know one thing that I do have to credit Steve and myself and Breitbart in general for, we were definitely the first to take him seriously as a candidate.
We interviewed him long before he announced, I think it was 2014, at an event that Dave Bossie put on in New Hampshire. Steve and I interviewed him in person for a Sirius XM show at the time. And I’ll tell you, he looked like a candidate. He didn’t look like he was joking around. He didn’t look like he was doing some gambit to try to increase his casino business by running for president. He looked like he was serious, and that was something that it seemed like it took the mainstream media to pass the primary, when he had already won the primary, to realize that he was serious or not.
It sounds like you guys knew that he’d passed the litmus test on the issues. You just had to believe that he was going to be a viable candidate.
Exactly. And I think in a different time in history, I don’t think people would have been as open-minded at some of the outlandish things Trump said. Like, I think his comments that The Washington Post broke about with Billy Bush and Access Hollywood, that that would have killed most candidates in most years. But this was a different year. He was up against an opponent that was perceived as incredibly corrupt, incredibly establishment, incredibly untrustworthy, incredibly unlikeable. And people were so fed up with both political parties, and the time and the place was correct for Trump.
Did you feel the hand of Bannon on things that were happening all the way out, including the breaking through of the blue wall, including the four women, the Paula Jones and Juanita Broderick, was all of that —
You give great examples. I was hoping you would give me examples, because I see Steve’s fingerprints on lots of different things. I don’t always know if they’re true or not. But those were a couple examples for sure.
Trump’s focus on the Rust Belt, of focusing on places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, even Wisconsin, the places where — Ohio, of course — I don’t think a lot of other Republican candidates could have won these states. Maybe none of them could have won these states. And Steve had that vision that Trump was going to reach out to those blue-collar Democrats, those working-class Democrats and union types even, that would not be perceived as part of a Republican coalition as recently as six months ago or I guess a year ago. Steve was thinking those people are in play due to immigration, due to trade, particularly trade, due to the fact that wages are flat, home ownership not so hot. These are the type of people who —
But that the government had broken faith with them and that it was time to break the government, that’s a big idea.
It is a big idea. And the restoring a healthy skepticism in our government, and not to mention our media, those were things that Steve did think would resonate in those parts of the country. And Steve knows this country very well. He’s been all over it. He’s lived all over it. That was something where I do see Steve. Also, some of the great media theatrics like, for example, bringing the four women victims of Bill Clinton’s sexual abuse to the debate, it seems to be — I never asked Steve this point-blank, but it seems very clearly a Steve orchestration, and highly effective. Clearly threw Clinton off. And that was a huge debate for Trump, a big turning point.
Trump gets elected, and he picks Bannon, the number two guy that he picks. Do you feel Bannon’s presence almost from the very beginning? Did you hear Bannon in the inaugural address?
Yeah, yeah, definitely the inaugural address spoke to a lot of the themes that we had covered at Breitbart over the years. It felt like a lot of Steve Bannon and a lot of Stephen Miller. There was some also rhetorical flourishes. But the intellectual backbone of the speech, the toughness of the speech, it did feel like many of the conversations I’ve had either in person or on radio with Miller and Bannon.
… Can you talk about the moment you find that out that Bannon is going to be the chairman in Trump’s campaign, and what did that moment mean from where you come from?
Yeah. So none of this, none of it, I can’t say I was surprised. Steve called me about a couple days before he made the announcement, and he said, “I’m going to go meet with Donald Trump, and I think he’s going to bring me in to run the campaign.” And then he said, “You’re going to do my job,” which I kind of rolled my eyes at that. I don’t know if I’m doing his job or not. I’m trying my best.
But my first reaction was, I think this is a good thing. Steve values winning; he knows the base; he’s willing to fight. His personality, I think, lends itself to the long hours and the thrill of the fight. Not to mention intellectually, Steve is second to none; work ethic, he’s second to none. So I thought it was going to help Trump win.
At Breitbart it was chaotic for a little while. But I think for the cause, I think for the conservative movement, it was a very big moment. I remember reacting very positively to it. It was a scary moment. It was high stakes. But I think it was a smart move by the president. And clearly, I think history is justifies that.
… At that moment, as Bannon is announced, he also comes under attack, sort of the racist allegations. What’s your reaction? What is that moment like? That must have been the most scrutiny.
Yeah. And something for me, having worked for Andrew and watched Andrew get called a racist and all these horrible things for years, and having been around so many conservative personalities and really legends in the conservative movement that I have been lucky enough to meet and get to know, eventually if you are seen as the most powerful right-of-center person in America, or one of the two or three most, you’re going to get called a racist, a sexist, a bigot, a xenophobe, a homophobe, an Islamaphobe, and there’s not much you can do about it. You have to be the most pristine person ever. The media and the Democratic Party will take any nugget they can get to try to tar and feather you in the public square.
I wasn’t surprised that this happened in the case of Steve. But Steve’s got it worse than anyone I’ve ever seen in the past. Breitbart, for example, is effortlessly diverse … The lies from the press about Breitbart [and] about Steve were so overwhelming. Steve was one of the biggest fighters for the Jewish community, for Jews, for Israel in American media, yet he was called anti-Semitic. We launched Breitbart Jerusalem with Steve’s guidance, literally to fight for and preserve the one Jewish nation on the planet, Israel. The editor in chief before me, Joel Pollak, Orthodox Jew. We’ve had Larry Solov, our CEO, is a practicing Jew. Andrew Breitbart was a Jew. I’m half Jewish. And Steve worked with all of us and was lovely to all of us.
The fact that he was called those names is so preposterous; it’s laughable. It really is. Until the point where they start trying to destroy your life with it and calling you all these things like Nazis, it really creates a climate of violence toward Breitbart. And that’s why you started to see things like when one of our employees spoke at the UC Berkeley campus, you see riots now are breaking out. And that’s because of these lies, and that’s because of these licenses to attack people right of center.
At Breitbart, I can’t say we’re surprised when our people get attacked at the level Steve was. But it just got to such a disgusting level, that we have so many people. As I started the “Cartel Chronicles,” we were trying to give a voice to Mexicans who are having their lives ravaged by drug cartels. There’s no racism; there’s no bigotry. It’s about values; it’s about fairness. So it’s unfair what Steve went through. But Steve’s a very tough guy, so I’m confident he’ll be able to move forward.
One thing we didn’t talk about was the financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party. Were those important moments?
Absolutely. For understanding Steve, the understanding the financial crisis is massive, because Steve was a Wall Street guy. He knows it well. And he watched his dad, who was a working-class Democrat in Richmond, Va., lose a lot of his nest-egg life savings during the financial crisis, and then no one from any of the big banks went to prison for that. That was the sort of thing that Steve saw as a bipartisan failure, from both parties, that they had let down the average American worker like his dad, blue-collar Democrat.
Steve absolutely was on a crusade, or probably still is, to hold those types of people accountable, that the too-big-to-fail banks are not going to be above the law. He saw that as a long-term project, but I certainly think that’s part of Steve’s character and part of his political worldview. So that was a very big moment for him.
… What was important about the film Bannon made about Sarah Palin? Some people say he was looking for somebody to lead the cause. Do you agree?–
Yeah. Well, I think so. I think Steve gravitates toward countercultural conservative figures that have an ability to resonate with Middle America. I think that was Andrew; that’s Palin; that’s Trump. I think that these are people that Steve has gotten close to because they tend to see things similarly to Steve and have the same goals. So it makes sense that — I think there’s absolutely a pattern between Steve being close with Andrew, with Palin, with Trump. I think that completely follows the theme.
… When immigration fails, how important a moment was that going from your card table at Berkeley to this moment when the thing that everybody said was going to happen doesn’t?
I think it’s a big moment. So for me, I feel like if I get too caught up in results, then that’s a very tough way to live, because you’re going to win some; you’re going to lose some. But it’s very hard not to have a moment where something like the Gang of Eight bill goes down, or at least people move on from it, and not feel a certain sense of pride and a certain sense of: “Oh, this is happening. I can’t believe this. This is happening.” And things get less surprising as time goes on.
But that was one where it was a big victory for our audience, because they thought that this was putting the interest of the permanent political class in Washington ahead of the common people throughout the country … that was a significant moment in our development and realizing we can get results. …