This week, BuzzFeed published a longform article about “How Breitbart And Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream.”
Using internal emails and newly uncovered video, the article reveals close ties between white supremacists and Breitbart reporters and editors.
The new details are certainly disgusting — like Milo singing “America the Beautiful” in a karaoke bar as white nationalist Richard Spencer raises his arm in Nazi salute — but hardly surprising to anyone who has paid attention to Breitbart.
But what did catch my attention is the banality of it all.
In his emails, Milo comes across as a rank amateur with few reporting and writing skills. He casually emails a neo-Nazi with the question: “Fancy braindumping some thoughts for me.” He’s not exactly a deft interviewer.
A ghostwriter ends up doing the heavy lifting for Milo’s writing and reporting, but Milo’s huge ego wants to take sole credit for a ghostwriter’s work under Milo’s name. He’s overruled by others at Breitbart who think it might be better to include a co-byline with someone who has a “brown-sounding” name.
Eventually, Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon himself stepped in with a simple command: “Drop your toys , pick up your tools and go help save western civilization.”
Milo seems to misinterpret Bannon’s message. Milo is thinking tactical (“I’ll do a Week of Islam next week”) and Bannon is thinking strategic (“we r in a global existential war”)
This sounds like something right out of the straight-laced business manuals Built to Last or Good to Great, except for white nationalists. One of the fundamental tenets of guru Jim Collins’ principles is every great business needs a Hedgehog Concept (What lights our fire?) and a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (What impossible task can we accomplish in a decade?). Bannon is applying business principles to create a culture war.
This should make sense. Bannon is, at his heart, an investor and a venture capitalist. As a vice president for Goldman Sachs, he expanded the company from New York to Los Angeles. He still gets cash from Seinfeld reruns after he received a financial stake in the show rather than accept a flat advisors fee for the sale of Castle Rock. Bannon thinks big.
Now it just so happens his focus has shifted his view from Seinfeld and TV shows to social media and a “global existential war.”
Back to Milo. To me, Bannon sounds like a master manipulator. He’s playing on Milo’s ego (“u r Social Media”) to be his loyal foot soldier and troll. Milo seems to comply (“message received”).
In 1963, political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” when writing about Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Throughout the trial, Eichmann kept insisting that he was simply following orders, and he fell back on “stock phrases and self-invented clichés” to defend himself. Arendt’s findings, backed by a team of psychologists that examined Eichmann, is that Eichmann was a “normal” person, and not a psychopath or fanatic.
The idea of “the banality of evil” is that the average person can get caught up in being motivated by ego and desire for professional promotion, not necessarily moral beliefs and ideology.
To me, the frightening thing about Breitbart is how normal it seems.