Steve Bannon’s “Washed Out” Antisemitism

About Spencer Sunshine

Steve Bannon speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Stephen K. Bannon was the Executive Chairman of the Far Right media website Breitbart from March 2012 to August 2016, and from August 2017 to January 9, 2018. Between the two periods he took a leave of absence to be Donald Trump’s campaign adviser during the 2016 presidential election, and then his Chief Advisor and member of the National Security Council principals committee. After ongoing tensions with other members of the administration, Bannon left the White House in August 2017 and returned to Breitbart. In January 2018, a scandal regarding his comments about Trump’s family resulted in him stepping down from his position. During his tenure with Trump, Bannon was a lightning rod for controversy, personifying the conspiracy-driven nationalist wing of the administration. He has frequently been accused of White nationalism and antisemitism.

Bannon has said, “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.” This means “you have to control three things,” he told Vanity Fair, “borders, currency, and military and national identity.” He has publicly repudiated both White nationalism and antisemitism, and openly courts both people of color and Jews for his political project, for example speaking at the 2017 Zionist Organization of America meeting. (However, few would question that Breitbart is Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and misogynistic.) But, especially looking beneath the surface, the political views and influences that Bannon admits to, his personal comments and political relationships, as well as Breitbart’s content itself, all provide plenty of ammunition for accusations of antisemitism.


The most concrete political act linking Bannon to antisemitism was Breitbart’s publication of “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt Right” by Milo Yiannopoulos, then still an editor at the publication, and Allum Bokhari in March 2016. It promoted the Alt Right, while both sanitizing its commitment to White nationalism and completely ignoring the movement’s aggressive antisemitism. This was one of the movement’s most important breakthroughs into the mainstream. During the Republican National Convention in July 2016, Bannon said Breitbart was the “platform for the alt-right.” He told Mother Jones, “I don’t think that the alt-right is anti-Semitic at all,” but also clarified this by saying: “Are there anti-Semitic people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. Are there racist people involved in the alt-right? Absolutely. But I don’t believe that the movement overall is anti-Semitic.”

Internal Breitbart emails discussing the Yiannopoulos and Bokhari article were later leaked to Buzzfeed and published in October 2017. They disclose that Bannon personally approved the Alt Right article, and that Breitbart staff actively discussed how to deal with the antisemitic beliefs of the same Far Right figures they were seeking to promote and work with, such as neo-Nazi hacker Weev. More recently, Alt Right figure “Baked Alaska” (Anthime Gionet) said that when he worked for Breitbart, they also asked him to delete his antisemitic social media posts.

While this does show that Breitbart was completely aware of the antisemitism of the Alt Right, it also shows that they did not wish to promote these views. There is no evidence they tried to challenge the content of the beliefs or do anything more than whitewash or hide them.

In July 2016, Bannon still would not clearly admit that the Alt Right was white nationalist and antisemitic. He told Sara Posner, “Look, are there some people that are White nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe.” He continued, “Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe. Right? Maybe some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right? But that’s just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements.”

By November 2016, he started to hedge on this. Bannon told the Wall Street Journal, “Our definition of the alt-right is younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment.” He said, “We provide an outlet for 10 or 12 or 15 lines of thought—we set it up that way,” of which the Alt Right is “a tiny part of that.” He admitted the movement has “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones.” The Wall Street Journal summarized that Bannon “makes clear he has zero tolerance for such views”—a statement which Breitbart ran as a headline.

In a November 2016 interview on the Slate podcast The Gist, former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro—who had left the publication in disgust—was asked about Bannon and antisemitism. Shapiro said, “I have no evidence that Steve’s an anti-Semite. I think Steve’s a very, very power-hungry dude who’s willing to use anybody and anything in order to get ahead, and that includes making common cause with the racist, anti-Semitic alt-right.” When asked if that constituted antisemitism, he replied, “I want to be careful about attributing personal anti-Semitism to him. I will say that it is appeasement of anti-Semitism, which in my book is certainly not a good thing.”


Breitbart’s content under Bannon includes a strong emphasis on stories which reflect various traditional antisemitic narratives, but where the actor is not named as “the Jews.” Instead it is sometimes another group which has traditionally been used either as a “code word” for Jews, while at other times it is a specific Jewish person who the narrative is used against. There are a range of these articles. As Political Research Associates contributor Matthew Lyons writes in his forthcoming book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, this approach allows one to harness the emotional power of the antisemitic narrative, and appeals to conscious antisemites, while simultaneously giving a kind of plausible deniability against accusations of antisemitism.

Endless Breitbart articles decry the “globalist elites” and “globalism,” and in one particularly pointed statement, Bannon decries the “establishment, globalist clique.” Numerous articles target liberal financier George Soros, who is described using traditional antisemitic imagery at least twice: one article calls him the “Puppet Master,” and a Breitbart Tweet says he is “Like an octopus.” “Cultural Marxism” is a frequent target; this narrative emerged as a form of coded antisemitism where the Frankfurt School philosophers, who were largely Jewish, were accused of being the cause of all the social ills that antisemites usually blame “the Jews” for. Terms like the “coastal elite,” “puppet masters,” “string pullers,” “banksters,” and the “octopus”—all of which have been used as antisemitic code words—are frequently trotted out. So are institutions which antisemites frequently target as the mechanisms of Jewish control, including the Federal Reserve and Trilateral Commission.

How Coded Antisemitism Works

A Nazi antisemitic cartoon, circa 1938, depicts an octopus with a Star of David over its head with tentacles encompassing a globe. Credit: Library of Congress, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.

This analysis should be treated with some caution. Antisemitism both frequently hides itself by using “code words”—terms that are understood by some listeners to mean one thing, while other listeners understand that the term is supposed to refer to another subject. (Sometimes this is also called a “dog whistle.”) The vicious antisemite David Duke, for example, consistently refers to “the Zionists.” While listeners may think he is referring to supporters of Israel, his regular followers understand that Duke really is talking about “the Jews.” And there are dozens of such code words that refer to Jews.

The challenge becomes: what is the difference between actual criticism of the named subject, and when is this antisemitism? The background of the speaker are one way. For example, looking at Duke’s history, we can see how he used “the Jews” before switching to “the Zionists.” Another analysis is to look at the narrative structures. Any conspiracy theory that names an individual or collective subset of Jews can be considered to be antisemitic. (This approach is a literary technique called synecdoche, where a part is used to stand in for the whole.) Conspiracies about Soros and the Rothschild family are common examples of this. It’s no coincidence that Jewish bankers are frequent targets of conspiracy theories, while other bankers who have more wealth and power very rarely are.

The second kind of antisemitic technique is to use a code word that does not refer directly to an agent which is Jewish—for example, “cultural marxism” or “international bankers.” In some cases, the origin of that kind of conspiracy theory can be traced back to its formation by antisemites as an intentional synecdoche. For example, the “cultural marxist” conspiracy theory originated by naming the Frankfurt School (a Marxist school which focused on theorizing the role of culture) as the agent, who were identified as being Jewish. Over time, the agent of the narrative moved away from the Frankfurt School specifically, and became “cultural marxism”—something that was now two steps away from the original antisemitic formation.

Another approach by antisemites is to deploy conspiracy theories that name agents like like “international bankers” or organizations like the Federal Reserve. In the original form, for example, the Federal Reserve was accused of being formed by Jewish bankers. “International bankers” became a commonly used code word referring to Jews, as well.

However, when someone invokes these conspiracy theories today, they may or may not be aware of these histories. Here, the background of the speaker is of importance; we should treat the use of these differently if a known antisemite like Duke invokes them, rather than if they are espoused by an otherwise unproblematic left-wing critic of globalization.

However, the intention of the speaker does not necessarily have anything to do with the impact of the narrative. In both cases, the speaker is using the emotional power of the antisemitic narrative: an apocalyptic battle between a secretive evil elite and a virtuous people. And, intentionally or not, these narratives are also received by some listeners as code words: antisemites will understand that the Federal Reserve and the international bankers refer to the Jewish conspiracy.

While it can be argued whether conspiracy theories about the Federal Reserve, international bankers, or the New World Order constitute antisemitism when used by otherwise unproblematic actors, they are both politically fallacious world views, and anyone who takes antisemitism seriously would avoid the use of these terms and narratives because of their histories.

In Bannon’s case, he has read the classics of reactionary nationalist literature, and understands very well that some of his listeners will interpret the constant invocations of classic antisemitic images and narratives to mean “the Jews.” Just as with his approach to ethno-nationalists, it appears that Bannon wants a “washed out” antisemitism, based directly on the antisemitic narrative structure and using its imagery (octopuses, puppet masters, cliques of international banker) while either naming individual Jews, or groups that others had previously been identified as Jewish (as the Frankfurt School, the Federal Reserve), as the villains. He is no doubt intentionally using these narratives to appeal to both antisemites and those who don’t understand the double meaning— while simultaneously inoculating against accusations of antisemitism.

Breitbart actually has attacked leftists and Islamists for both antisemitism and coded antisemitic statements—albeit different ones than those that the site uses. For example, they criticized former Congressional representative Cynthia McKinney for blaming Israel for Islamist attacks in Nice and Munich, as well as for insinuating that Israel was behind 9/11. (However, consistency is not Breitbart’s greatest virtue, as it has also accused a Mexican-U.S. dual citizen of having dual loyalties.) While the image of the Octopus is used to attack the radical left—and even the International Seabed Authority, which was decried as the “the international octopus’s tentacle” reaching into “the Yankee boat”—Breitbart has also criticized the Palestinian Authority newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida for an antisemitic conspiracy theory about Mossad and Israel. Breitbart also attacked then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi for antisemitic comments and conspiracy theories. The publication has also run articles decrying antisemitism in Europe, as well as dozens of stories about U.S. campuses.

Strange as this may seem, it is not uncommon, especially for Islamophobes, to used coded antisemitism while simultaneously supporting Israel—Norwegian mass murderer Anders Brevik, for example, was very pro-Zionist while obsessed with the idea of “Cultural Marxism.” But what Breitbart does is different: it uses a selective coded antisemitism against its enemies, especially those who are left-leaning; while simultaneously denouncing them when the exact same code words and narratives are used against conservatives. It plays out as the “good Jew” / “bad Jew” division, a dynamic which is used against almost all historically oppressed people. Here, the “bad Jews” are opponents, often but not only on the left, and who become the potential targets of attacks which use antisemitic narratives, while the “good Jews,” who are Breitbart’s political allies, will be protected from such things. (See below for criticisms of how the publication treated Bill Kristol and Anne Applebaum.)


During Trump’s campaign, an October speech and November television ad both relied directly on what are traditional antisemitic narratives but with different agents. In the West Palm Beach, Florida speech, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.” In an ad which ran the weekend before the election, classic antisemitic narratives about Jewish bankers acting in secret against the nation were deployed. Four figures were pictured: Clinton, and three Jews involved in finance: Soros, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen. The ad said:

The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests. They partner with these people who don’t have your good in mind…. It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.

The last two words are enunciated slowly and carefully—like a verbal wink—signaling that the listener should understand that a code word is being invoked. Christian Picciolini, a 1980s Nazi skinhead leader who later founded the group Life After Hate which helps people leave racist organizations, said about the campaign ad: “When I saw that video the first thing I thought was ‘Wow, this is a White Power video.’ I would have made this 30 years ago and I could have written the speeches that he [Trump] is saying.” The Anti-Defamation League tweeted that “This #Trump ad touches on images and rhetoric that anti-Semites have used for ages. Jason Greenblatt, the Trump campaign’s Vice President, replied, “The ADL should focus on real anti-Semitism and hatred, and not try to find any where none exist.”

The author of the speech and ad have not been revealed. However, the rhetoric is consistent with Breitbart’s, and Bannon is thought by some to be the author of both pieces, which are out of step with Trump’s general rhetorical approach. But even if he was not the actual writer, as with the Breitbart stories about Applebaum and Kristol which appeared while he was not at the publication, Bannon’s presence and approach seems to have helped create a political climate inside these organizations where these kinds of statements are acceptable.


Sometimes scholars make a distinction between “antisemitism,” the notion of a global Jewish conspiracy, and “anti-Jewish prejudice,” which is a commonplace ethnic bigotry. In the latter, Jews (usually Ashkenazi) are seen as pushy and cranky—but are not said to be devious international bankers engaged in a plot to enslave the world. The most damning evidence against Bannon is actually an accusation of everyday ethnic prejudice.

Bannon’s ex-wife Mary Louise Piccard, during their 2007 divorce proceedings, said that when the couple was looking at the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, Bannon said he did not want his daughters “going to school with Jews.” According to Piccard, “He said he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiney brats.’” She also said the Bannon asked the director of another school they looked at why there were so many Hanukkah books. Bannon’s spokesperson denied the allegations, saying “Mr Bannon never said anything like that and proudly sent the girls to Archer for their middle school and high school education.”

Despite these comments, there is no evidence that Bannon has ill-treated Jewish employees at Breitbart. He befriended Andrew Breitbart, who was Jewish, and took over the company after he died. During his tenure, Bannon started a Jerusalem branch, and has openly courted Jewish conservatives—most recently speaking at the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) gathering in November 2017. (Despite his warm welcome, even there the audience reportedly bristled when he denounced the “global class.”)

No Jewish employees have come forward to say they experienced antisemitism either at Breitbart, or from Bannon. Joel Pollak, a Breitbart editor and orthodox Jew who holds an MA in Jewish Studies, describes Bannon as “outraged by anti-Semitism” and that he “cares deeply about the fate of Jewish communities.” Even Shapiro, who quit Breitbart in disgust over questions of antisemitism, said he had no knowledge of Breitbart discriminating against Jews—including himself.


Bannon has cited two thinkers of particular note. The first, Charles Maurras, was part of the important French proto-fascist group Action Française. An open antisemite, he took the right-wing position in the Dreyfus Affair.1 During the Nazi occupation, when French Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothes, Maurras said this was an opportunity to rid the country of the “Jewish scourge.” He was later imprisoned and convicted for aiding the Nazis after France was freed from German occupation.

The second, René Guénon, was a Traditionalist religious philosopher; this anti-modernist current believes that all major world religions are representatives of an underlying true current of belief. (Bannon told a reporter that reading Guénon’s Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta was “a life- changing discovery.”) Guénon was a conservative but not a fascist, and Traditionalist influences can be found in a wide variety of different political and spiritual traditions. However, Guénon’s antipathy to democracy and equality clearly lean right, and he directly influenced Julius Evola, an Italian fascist philosopher who has been in vogue for a number of years, influencing both the Alt Right and Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin.

On the other hand, the influence of the antisemite Evola on Bannon has been overblown. The New York Times dedicated an entire article to a dismissive passing mention of Evola in Bannon’s 2014 speech at the Vatican. (Considered one of the most comprehensive elucidations of Bannon’s philosophical views, this Skype address was delivered to a conference hosted by the Human Dignity Institute think tank). Bannon said:

Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he’s got an adviser [i.e., Aleksandr Dugin] who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.

More recently, in emails leaked from Breitbart where Bannon discusses his thoughts on the draft of the infamous Alt Right piece before publication, he wrote, “I do appreciate any piece that mentions Evola.” Nonetheless, the published article only mentions Evola’s influence on the Alt Right as a matter of fact, and there are no other pieces in Breitbart where Evola is cited in an appreciative manner.


Bannon has also cultivated ties to a variety of European right-wing populist parties. Some of these parties initially emerged as a mainstreaming of fascist politics, including France’s Front National, which Bannon has cultivated ties with. However, current party leader Marine LePen has worked hard to cleanse the party of direct antisemitism, going to far as to expel Jean-Marie LePen—both the founder of the party, as well as her father—after he reiterated that the Holocaust was just “a detail of history.”

Bannon has admitted as much about these parties, although he has tried to downplay the situation. At his Vatican talk he said, “I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that they have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial.” However, he described these as fringe elements, and said that “over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.” He repeated this in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, saying, “I’ve also said repeatedly that the ethno-nationalist movement, prominent in Europe, will change over time. I’ve never been a supporter of ethno-nationalism.” Just after Charlottesville, in an American Prospect interview, he used stronger language: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more,” adding, “These guys are a collection of clowns.”

Bannon does seem to reject any insistence on a racially homogenous nation—the demand for a White ethnostate, which is the defining element of the White nationalist Alt Right. This is in line with his Christian nationalism, based in turn on his ultra-conservative version of Roman Catholicism (his family rejects the move away from the Latin mass, which was part of the modernizing Vatican II council in the 1960s). He constantly makes appeals to West’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage—although his supporting details seem to never refer to Jewish history in the West, and references to this joint history appears to be a used to summon up the notion of a joint Christian-Jewish alliance against Islam.

In November 2016, Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter that, “we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years.” This is not the perspective of a White nationalist—but it is consistent with a Christian nationalist with reactionary social views who is influenced by proto-fascist, European reactionary thought.

Bannon’s own words seem to nicely summarize his views: he wishes to use the themes, images, and speaking points of ethno-nationalists, while divesting himself of their insistence on racial purity. He seeks a “washed out” ethno-nationalism, based on its original arguments and goals, but while not insisting on a purity of identity.


While endorsements by third parties cannot be taken as evidence of someone’s own views, they do show who Bannon’s work reverberates with and how antisemites see their views as in tune with his. Numerous Alt Right and other antisemitic White nationalists praised his time in Trump’s administration, including the Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin, Richard Spencer, David Duke, Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party, and the Traditionalist Worker Party’s Tony Hovater, who was infamously profiled in the New York Times in November 2017.

“Breitbart went hardcore when he was running it,” Anglin said about Bannon in November 2016. “It is still hardcore now. It really changed from being this kind of basic cuckservative type website to being this, I mean, the articles that they publish about blacks in America and about Muslims in Europe, it’s basically stuff that you would read on the Daily Stormer.”


While Breitbart avoids explicit naming of “the Jews” as the agents of the conspiracies it spreads, the comments section is less circumspect. An SPLC study showed that between 2013 and 2016, the comments had moved increasingly to vilify Jews. According to Politico,  Bannon “said the best things about Breitbart are the comments section and the callers.” In the piece attacking Applebaum, numerous antisemitic comments appeared and have never been removed.2 In November 2016, Shapiro said the comments section had become “a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”


Last, there have been two Breitbart articles which were widely accused of being antisemitic because of way they singled out Jewish individuals who were being criticized.  The first was a September 2016 piece where the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum was attacked for her “attempts to impose a globalist worldview upon citizenries that reject it,” and which denounced her by saying, “Hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.” Breitbart specifically pointed out that she was Jewish, even thought it  was completely irrelevant to the rest of the article. The second was a May 2017 David Horowitz article, “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew Prepares Third Party Effort to Block Trump’s Path to White House,” which was widely criticized for the phrase “renegade Jew.” (The title was later shortened, although the “Renegade Jew” phrase remained.)  Similar to Appelbaum, Kristol’s Jewishness had little to do with the rest of the article. Although Bannon was on his leave of absence and working with Trump when both appeared, the editorial direction he instituted at Breitbart persisted.


Bannon and Breitbart harness the narrative power of antisemitic conspiracy theories, while not naming “the Jews”—or blaming all Jews. Breitbart defends and encourages right-wing Jews, while using antisemitic attacks on those that clash with his project. It is the conclusion of this analysis that Bannon uses a “washed out” antisemitism knowingly. He is quite aware that his Far Right nationalist project abuts open White nationalism and antisemitism, and Bannon wishes to both use these ideas and court the support of these activists, while giving himself a position of deniability from the larger social taboos against these movements. After all, their end goals are mostly the same: they both want a majority White, heterosexual, Christian country. Bannon is just willing to accept an outcome with a lower level of homogeneity.

End Notes

1 The Dreyfus Affair was a famous case in France in the late 1890s and early 1900s. A French Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was of Jewish descent, was framed as being a spy for Germany; he was convicted and sent to a penal colony. Protests on his behalf, including by novelist Émile Zola, led to the “Dreyfusard” movement, which was driven by supporters of equal rights. They were opposed by “anti-Dreyfusards,” who were antisemitic nationalists with strong Catholic elements. The Dreyfus Affair was one of the famous antisemitic incidents in Western Europe until Hitler rose to power in Germany.

2 Comments include examples like: “ANOTHER Marxist Jew who believes themselves to be superior (as opposed to simply xenophobic tribalistic practices that block any, who aren’t in the tribe, and thus, any voice who points out their criminal failures..)” and “Now Why Would An ( ( (Applebaum) ) ) be shilling for Globalist/NWO ????”

Spencer Sunshine, Ph.D. (associate fellow) researches the Patriot movement, unorthodox fascist currents, left/right crossover movements, and left-wing antisemitism. He is the lead author of the 2016 report Up In Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement, which is a collaboration between PRA and Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project. Follow him on Twitter at @transform6789.