To understand Andrew Breitbart's legacy, you first need to understand what he set out to do. If you happened to encounter him in Los Angeles during the middle of the last decade, when he was transitioning from Matt Drudge's anonymous No. 2 to building his own web empire, he would happily tell you, in a long, not easy to follow monologue, about the terrible creeping forces of "cultural Marxism." (To get a taste, here he is talking on the subject at the University of Redlands last September.) As he saw the world, there was still a grand battle raging between capitalism and communism, and the left -- the heirs to the Frankfurt School as he constantly reminded people -- had manage to twist the entire culture against capitalism. "The left is smart enough to understand that the way to change a political system is through its cultural systems," he told The New Yorker's Rebecca Mead in 2010. "So you look at the conservative movement -- working the levers of power, creating think tanks, and trying to get people elected in different places -- while the left is taking over Hollywood, the music industry, the churches."
His project was to take that cultural space back for free market conservatives. To make his brand of economic freedom cool. His cultural war may have aligned him with Republicans like Rick Santorum -- who joined mainstream Republicans like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Donald Rumsfeld in mouring his death -- but it was decidedly not the same battle. "Nothing drives me crazier than seeing an abortion van driving along at a conservative convention showing aborted fetuses," he told GQ's Lisa DePaulo. "I think that's the wrong aesthetic." Breitbart wore his shirts open-collared and his hair floppy, and he made jokes with swears. "I like to call someone a raving cunt every now and then, when it’s appropriate, for effect,” he told The New Yorker. “'You cocksucker.' I love that kind of language." Drugs, sex, and rock n' roll aren't America's problem; it was, as he saw it, that liberalism was hogging all the fun: "I just like doing things that are wrong, feeling like I can get in trouble," he once said.
At the Republican convention in 2008, The New York Observer's Spencer Morgan found him waiting in line for a beer at the National Review party. “The only thing that still bothers me is the dearth of artists in our party,” he said after surveying the blazer-clad room. It made no sense to him that the biggest proponents of capitalism were the ones who weren't living it up. Out in Hollywood, home of the "totalitarian" left, he said, "These people are like, ‘Hey more coke, more ecstasy, more this’ – these are the crass consumers that they themselves mock. And you go into a conservative party, the pro-capitalist people, the ones that are working, and they’re very moderate with their intake."
Breitbart started working for Matt Drudge in 1995, and became a gleeful master of pushing the media's buttons. His post for Drudge on Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction in 2004 was the reason broadcasters around the country uttered the words "solar nipple medallion." The Drudge Report had a become the national media's assignment editor, but Breitbart was looking to start something of his own. He launched Breitbart.com after securing subscriptions to the AP and Reuters news wires (which received frequent links back from his old boss). And in 2005, he teamed up with fellow L.A. Westsider Arianna Huffington on her own web empire. (The influence of Drudge on Huffington was clear; originally her project was dubbed The Huffington Report.) The unlikely pairing didn't last long; he quit shortly after it was launched "to get into what I had helped create for Arianna, but I wanted to do it from a different perspective," he told Mead.
Breitbart moved on to other projects. He mentored Hollywood agent turned drug-fueled conservative Pat Dollard, who, after he returned from making a pro-war documentary after embedding with Marines in Fallujah, Breitbart saw as a potential G.O.P. answer to Hunter S. Thompson. A fairly scathing Vanity Fair profile featuring copious amounts of methamphetamines and amateur pornography put an end to that. Dollard may have acted like a rock star, but he wasn't ready for Fox News primetime.
Then Breitbart created his sites Big Government, Big Journalism, and Big Hollywood -- all the pillars of the culture he wanted to take back. In 2009, he found a new mentee, a college kid named James O'Keefe, whose viral (and selectively edited) videos of himself getting advice from ACORN on importing hookers inspired congressional legislation, liberally sprinkled with shots of O'Keefe dressed up as a cartoonish pimp. It ultimately crippled the organization. And it also introduced a merry prankster style to Breitbart's work that had a pattern of inflicting collateral damage -- such as Department of Agriculture bureaucrat Shirley Sherrod who was forced to resign for another selectively edited video clips -- but always grabbing attention.
It's sort of fitting that his biggest accomplishment -- at least by his terms -- was taking down Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner not for some government scandal, but for sexting. Weiner didn't resign for breaking laws or even his marriage vows, but simply for looking like an idiot. He had, at least for one Congressman in New York, reversed the hardfast cultural dynamic that the Frankfurt School had deviously orchestrated.
The opening lines of his CPAC speech are a brand of conservativism you're unlikely to see at the Republican National Convention. They sound like rock song lyrics: "Everything has changed, everything has changed in the last few years, conservatives used to take it and we're not taking it anymore." He sounded like angry kids railing against oppressive suburban culture. But he also acknowledged that he didn't quite fit in with the conservative movement and a party that shows no signs of edging closer to his right-wing punk aesthetic."Two hundred of us went out to the Occupy people to stand toe-to-toe with them to say, 'We are here and we are not going to take your [artful hand gesture].' I didn't say it, I'm on TV right now, I'm a respectful conservative and my mom is watching."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.