On the populist right, the late Andrew Breitbart, a man regarded as an influential hero, is best remembered for these words: “Politics is downstream from culture.” Byron York wrote in the Washington Examiner that teaching that lesson was “by far the most important thing he did.” He quoted Breitbart:
The people who have money, every four years at the last possible second, are told, “You need to give millions of dollars, because these four counties in Ohio are going to determine the election.” I am saying, why didn’t we invest 20 years ago in a movie studio in Hollywood, why didn’t we invest in creating television shows, why didn’t we create institutions that would reflect and affirm that which is good about America?
Now Steve Bannon leads the institution that Andrew Breitbart created. Prior to Donald Trump’s rise, he deliberately positioned Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right. As National Review ran the artful prose of Kevin D. Williamson and the Weekly Standard published the incisive cultural criticism of Andrew Ferguson, Bannon and Breitbart worked to elevate Milo Yiannopolous to cultural prominence.
Later, during the height of the Republican primaries, #NeverTrump conservatives insisted that stopping Trump was important for the sake of U.S. culture.
As David French put it:
The true battle for our country isn’t political, it’s cultural and spiritual. In an era where fidelity and integrity are in increasingly short supply—with the breakdown of faith and family the chief factors in the struggles among America’s most vulnerable citizens—how can I responsibly cast a vote to give one of the nation’s foremost cultural platforms to a man who has openly, loudly, and unrepentantly bragged of his adulterous sexual conquests?
How can I support a man who demonstrates such a breathtaking level of malice and cruelty in his treatment of fellow citizens? Our nation can survive lost elections, but over the long term it cannot survive a decayed culture. And by God I won’t vote for a man who takes a wrecking ball to the core values I hold dear.
But Breitbart championed Trump’s reality-TV candidacy, and Bannon took a break from leading the website to join the vulgar campaign and then the Trump administration.
Now, most recently, National Review and the Weekly Standard reacted to allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore preyed on teenage women while in his 30s by arguing that there are more important things in the world than electing one more Republican. A National Review article by the columnist Katherine Timpf was headlined, “If You Refuse to Condemn Predators Because of Their Politics You’re Disgusting.”
And at the same moment, Bannon dispatched two Breitbart staffers to Alabama to try to cast doubt on the woman who claimed she was groped by Moore when she was 14, and continued urging Alabama voters to send Moore to the United States Senate, rather than his Democratic opponent, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Klan members for the bombing of a black church in Birmingham.
It was an approach mirrored by Republican politicians in Alabama, many of whom also came to Moore’s defense. “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here,” said Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler. “If they believe this man is predatory, they are guilty of allowing him to exist for 40 years,” Alabama State Representative Ed Henry said. “I think someone should prosecute and go after them. You can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion.” Bibb County Republican chairman Jerry Pow distanced himself from Moore’s acts, but stood by his support. “I would vote for Judge Moore because I wouldn’t want to vote for Doug. I’m not saying I support what he did.”
Andrew Breitbart may have said that “politics is downstream from culture.” He may have believed it. I have argued in the past that he did not practice what he preached. Others argued upon his death that the sites he created would be his legacy.
Today, Breitbart has done more than any other website to push the right in a direction where political victories are prioritized even when those victories mean the cultural elevation of men like Donald Trump and Roy Moore, who no responsible parent would want as role models for their sons—or as babysitters for their daughters. Whether Breitbart courted the alt-right and elevated these candidates for lucre, or political power, or to make the culture more bigoted and depraved, or to nihilistically destroy America as it exists under the delusion that it can then remake the nation it as it wishes, its influence has profoundly changed the GOP.
As my colleague David Graham asked when news of the allegations against Moore first broke, “If the party’s members can’t bring themselves to set aside narrow partisan interest and condemn a man whom they despise, with a track record of bigotry, and with multiple on-the-record accusations of improper sexual misconduct with underage women, what behavior and which candidate can they possibly rule out in the future?”
In 2011 and again just ahead of the election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. Back in 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand’s insistence on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But this year, 72 percent of white evangelicals now say they believe a candidate can build a kind of moral wall between his private and public life. In a shocking reversal, white evangelicals have gone from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office. Today, in fact, they are more likely than Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all to say such a moral bifurcation is possible.
This about-face is stunning, especially against the backdrop of white evangelicals’ outrage in response to Bill Clinton’s indiscretions in the 1990s.
As Jonathan Merritt documented, Pat Robertson called Bill Clinton a “debauched, debased, and defamed” politician. But this year, Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network featured multiple friendly interviews with Trump—the candidate who bragged about sexually assaulting women and appeared on the cover of Playboy. And Robertson had this to say directly to Trump: “You inspire us all.” The Trump era has effectively turned white-evangelical political ethics on its head. Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals have now fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, refashioning or even discarding principles as needed to achieve a desired outcome.
As my colleague Caitlin Flanagan notes, the legacy of Bill Clinton has caused many on the left to do their own about-face with regard to personal conduct and elective office, and a backward-looking reckoning with apologias since the 1990s is long overdue. The right’s task is more difficult because its most prominent badly behaved man is president now; because Breitbart, one of its most highly trafficked web sites, lacks a moral core; and because billionaire donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer seem willing to support politicians and publications deeply corrosive to America’s moral culture.
Things might have been different today if rather than starting a political website that spent its energy attacking the left, Andrew Breitbart and his earliest allies would’ve practiced what they preached, investing in a movie studio, television shows, and institutions “that would reflect and affirm that which is good about America.” Now, at the urging of Bannon, Breitbart, and Breitbart’s populist readers, the few political conservatives attempting a constructive cultural project are either attacked for their heretical political stances, or else they are ignored.
Politics is downstream of culture.
And Bannon and Breitbart helped shape a culture on the populist right where alt-right trolls and Republican candidates accused of sexual assault by multiple women were able to advance further in politics than anyone expected as recently as last year. The GOP can reverse course, or keep following Breitbart into a swamp of depravity.