How the Fringe Alt-Right Is Trumping Traditional Media
After Donald Trump surprised pundits and won the election last week, he took congratulatory phone calls from former presidents and world leaders. Then he dialed Alex Jones.
A far-right radio host, Jones had long been relegated to the fringe for promoting conspiracy theories, such as that the 2012 Newtown elementary school massacre was “completely fake” and that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama smell like “sulfur” because they are “demon-possessed.” But days after the election, he told listeners that Trump had called Jones to personally thank him and his audience.
“I just talked to kings and queens of the world, world leaders, you name it,” Trump said, according to Jones. “It doesn’t matter. I wanted to talk to you to thank your audience.”
Trump then promised to appear on the radio show soon, Jones said.
While the mainstream press is worrying that President Trump will limit access, Jones — along with many other heroes of the alt-right — a loosely defined group of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, anti-immigrant provocateurs and trolls–will likely enjoy growing prominence in the Trump years. Other alt-right fan favorites, Breitbart journalist-provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Jones, and radio host Michael Savage, have long championed Trump’s candidacy, and their audiences and influence are exploding.
Former head of Breitbart, Stephen Bannon, was named Trump’s senior advisor and chief strategist, and Breitbart is expanding its U.S. operations and launching sites in Germany and France, Reuters reported. Breitbart says its election-related articles overtook the New York Times, CNN, and Fox News in terms of Facebook engagement, with 923,746 total engagements on November 8. Breitbart also had 37 million unique visitors in October, it says.
Former stalwarts of conservative media, meanwhile, stand to lose “big league,” as Trump would say.
According to Google Trends, interest in Alex Jones and Breitbart News, which Jones regularly cites, has more than doubled over the past 12 months, while interest in old guard conservative icon Rush Limbaugh has dipped, albeit slightly.
Some younger conservatives are attracted to these alternative outlets because, as Chloe Davis, a member of the New York Young Republicans, puts it: they “are just more in touch with the online world.” She adds Breitbart is often the only outlet covering stories she is interested in.
Alex Jones’ videos urge viewers to “join the resistance” and are quickly posted to YouTube. Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, charges fans for access to audio and video simulcasts of his shows via an app that mimics the design of an early-2000s Flash site. The content is not shareable on social media.
Being more in touch with the online world has also helped transform Right Side Broadcasting Network (RSBN) into the go-to source for Trump-related videos. Fervent Trump supporter Joe Seales says he founded the channel after growing frustrated with the availability of Trump videos online. The outlet now has over 241,000 subscribers on YouTube, surpassing MSNBC’s 225,000.
In recent days, RSBN tweeted that it has “hired many many people, producers and new talent, moved into new offices and have a camera stationed in DC,” hinting at the possibility of receiving White House press credentials.
Directly addressing younger, predominantly white, male audiences has also helped make Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos an Internet celebrity, adored by the alt-right and maligned by many others. (Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter after he was accused of inciting a vicious, racist campaign against actress Leslie Jones.)
“I do something radical that no other conservatives do—speak to young people with humor and frankness about the topics they are pounded over the head with by liberals every day,” Yiannopoulos tells Fortune.
This week, the Anti-Defamation League denounced Bannon’s White House appointment and Breitbart, describing it as a site for “white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” The New York Times, among others, pointed to several Breitbart headlines, including “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”
Breitbart’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief Aaron Klein dismissed the denunciations, telling Fortune that Bannon is “dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and racism.” Klein cited Breitbart’s coverage of the anti-Israel boycott, and divestment and sanctions movement on college campuses.
Klein also denied that Breitbart News is part of the alt-right, questioning the term itself. “What does it mean? Who are they? There are multiple definitions and explanations,” he says. “We are a platform for independent reporting, and we don’t adhere to any one political philosophy or ideology other than the truth.”
As recently as late July, however, Bannon himself called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right.”
Whitney Phillips, author of a book on online trolling, says embracing the term served as a “dog whistle.” “It’s a way to communicate white nationalist sympathies without having to come right out and say you’re a white nationalist.”
Alfred Miller is a journalist based in New York City. A recovering engineer, he writes about technology, startups and sometimes baseball.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Adam Taxin cofounded RSBN. The story has been corrected to reflect that RSBN was founded by Joe Seales. Fortune regrets the error.