Breitbart.com CEO and former White House senior counselor Steve Bannon has called himself a “Leninist.” It’s an apt description because, though a conservative, he agrees with the Communist dictator’s view that politics is war. He takes a dim view of policy debates as a way for reasonable people to put forward competing ideas and ultimately agree to disagree. The essence of Breitbart’s approach is that politics is no-holds combat in which the sole object is the utter destruction of your opponent.
That is why President Donald Trump is Bannon’s kind of politician, and between the two of them they’ve done a lot to coarsen American political life.
So it’s hardly a surprise that many of those who can’t stand Bannon and Trump — including many in the Jewish community — are using the same playbook to try to destroy them, and are feeling no reticence about damning Bannon as an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer. But while I’m no fan of either man, there must be some limits. That’s especially true when it comes to Jews lobbing around accusations of anti-Semitism at a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism has been sweeping across the globe.
Lately, Bannon has been under fire from moderate Republicans who don’t like his attempt to seize control of their party. They’ve echoed the same litany of charges — including anti-Semitism — that many on the left have been using to attack him. That has led one ally on the right — Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton Klein — to leap to Bannon’s defense, noting, among other reasons, his record of steadfast support for Israel.
Klein is, however, not alone. One liberal voice, Forward columnist J.J. Goldberg, has written that while he despises Bannon’s views, the evidence does not justify calling him an anti-Semite.
Goldberg is right. Part of the problem is that most of those who assume Breitbart is a latter-day version of the Nazi rag Der Sturmer don’t read it. Journalist Andrew Breitbart founded the publication as a provocative alternative to mainstream liberal journalism, in part because of the need for a pro-Israel outlet. It has remained true to that mission since Bannon took over after Breitbart’s untimely death in 2012.
But along with preserving its Zionist bent, Bannon made it a home for the sort of populist conservatism that Trump would champion in 2016. That involved some pandering to the far right. At one point, Bannon even claimed it was a “platform for the alt-right.” But, as Goldberg points out, that term embraces a wide range of views, from conservatives who are against illegal immigration to genuine racists. They are united by hostility to the establishment and civility, not anti-Semitism or white supremacy.
There’s a lot to dislike about the way Bannon and Trump have flirted with dog whistling to extremists. But the same can be said of liberals who tolerate left-wing anti-Semites and anti-Zionists out of a common desire to “resist” Trump. Moreover, despite Bannon’s boast, anti-Semites and white supremacists weren’t actually provided with a platform at Breitbart. Indeed, the one instance cited as proof of its anti-Semitism —an article by David Horowitz claiming William Kristol was a “renegade Jew” because of his opposition to Trump — was actually a case of one conservative Jew attacking another because he believed Trump’s election was necessary for Israel’s security. I thought Horowitz was wrong to attack Kristol in that fashion, but it wasn’t anti-Semitic. Yet since style often becomes indistinguishable from substance, Bannon is branded as a “white supremacist” even if his views don’t justify the label.
Bannon’s reputation has become so toxic among Jews that one community leader expressed to me his reluctance to appear at a local ZOA event simply because the Breitbart publisher will appear at the group’s dinner in New York. Goldberg credits such hysteria to “an epidemic” of Jewish insecurity. That’s especially true for liberals who are genuinely panicked by Trump’s rise. Since his appeal is incomprehensible to them, they put it down to hate rather than resentment of the guardians of the status quo.
Just as important is that, in spite of their abhorrence for him, many on the left have embraced Bannon’s approach in which political opponents must be delegitimized rather than merely opposed. You don’t have to like Bannon or many of his ideas about immigration and foreign policy to understand that crying “wolf” about anti-Semitism is as dangerous to the Jews as it is wrongheaded. Unless you agree with him about turning the public square into a Bolshevik fight to the death, even Bannon’s liberal opponents need to stop calling adversaries anti-Semites or white supremacists just because they can’t stand their politics.