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Friday, April 20, 2018

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.

Leading conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website are positioning themselves to capture Breitbart.com’s readership if the website doesn’t fire its Trump-scorned chairman Steve Bannon.

On January 3, President Donald Trump publicly dissociated himself from Bannon following reporting that Michael Wolff’s newly released book quotes Bannon as saying that the actions of the Trump presidential campaign were “treasonous.” The president slammed Bannon in a statement, accusing his former chief advisor of “leaking false information to the media” during Bannon’s time in the White House, and saying he had “lost his mind.”

This new controversy could exacerbate financial questions that continue to swirl around the Breitbart operation. A 2017 ad boycott rooted in disgust over the site’s extremism caused the outlet to lose nearly 2,600 advertisers. And now, following the presidential disavowal, Bannon’s biggest patrons, billionaires Rebekah Mercer and her father Robert Mercer, are reportedly uncomfortable with supporting his ventures and are reportedly looking into ousting Bannon from the website. Rebekah Mercer publicly rebuked Bannon the day after Trump’s statement was released. Matt Drudge, a major narrative driver in the conservative media apparatus whose contempt for Bannon predated the presidential spat, supported ousting Bannon.

Breitbart’s coverage of this schism failed to provide meaningful pushback or provide any defense of the disgraced chairman. The site’s readers, for the most part, sided with Trump, expressing their repeated support with comments that Infowars compiled and published such as, “I didn’t vote for Bannon,” and “Bannon blew any credibility he had by backing Moore.” Infowars quickly compiled and published the comments.

Infowars and Jones are currently exploiting the commotion to position themselves to fill the void Breitbart’s weakening and Bannon’s fall from grace might create. Now, nearly a year and a half after Infowars reporter and host Roger Stone bragged that he advised candidate Trump to hire Bannon, Jones is focusing his rage on the beleaguered Breitbart chairman, claiming he “stabbed the president and America in the back” and accusing him of being “at the heart of the attempt to take [Trump] down.” During other comments in the January 4 broadcast of The Alex Jones Show, Jones lobbed insults at Bannon (saying “Mr. Dandruff” has “big giant red swollen eyeballs that look like an owl on PCP that you poured 14 bottles of scotch on top of” and is a “pile of feces”) and suggested he be investigated for espionage. On Twitter, he attacked Bannon’s initial lack of response to Trump’s rebuke and praised Trump’s anti-Bannon statement.

The MAGA base has come to expect specific things from its news content, which Breitbart provided in relentless streams: a strong anti-establishment stance that included targeting the media and both major political parties, and a penchant for “triggering the libs,” a phrase used to ridicule progressive stances on cultural and social issues. Those are the elements that Trump weaponized to help him achieve victory.

After Trump took the White House, and following a year of reported chaos within the administration, the audience’s ethos now also includes unapologetic Trump loyalty, a defense mechanism that serves as a validation of their electoral choice. If Breitbart’s readers ultimately side with Trump and flee the website, Alex Jones’ Infowars seems like a prime candidate to pick up the disgruntled MAGA crowd by providing those readers the fix they’re looking for.

The fact is that Infowars has fewer constraints than Breitbart because it’s a financially independent outlet reportedly grossing close to $10 million a year — not from advertisers, but from selling nootropic supplements and other merchandise. And this relative independence will only incentivize Jones to push forward on the path of  bigotryhomophobia, and lies by pushing even more conspiracy theories and Trump propaganda that captivate the MAGA audience.

Header image by Sarah Wasko / Media Matters