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For those who've forgotten one of the worst elements of the 2016 election, a short refresher is in order. Almost from the moment that Donald Trump descended on the lobby of Trump Tower to make his campaign announcement, an army of online trolls leapt to his defense. They cheered his denunciation of Mexicans as "rapists," they relished his attacks on so-called globalism, and heaven help anyone who dared attack their populist hero.
I'm speaking, of course, about the alt-right, that motley crew of white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and outright Nazis who share a common belief that culture is inseparable from ethnicity. To these folks, Western civilization cannot exist unless it is a white civilization.
The alt-right's primary "contribution" to Trump's election was a sustained, vicious assault on his opponents. I've told my story before. I saw our young daughter photo-shopped into gas chambers, terrible images of dead and dying black men and women plastered all over my wife's blog, e-mailed threats, and terrifying phone hacks. And I was hardly alone. My friend Ben Shapiro endured an avalanche of anti-Semitism. Erick Erickson's family faced a nightmare of threats. There was hardly a conservative Trump opponent who didn't face such trash to some degree. I knew multiple journalists who, for the first times in their careers, legitimately feared not just for their lives but for their family members' lives as well.
In response to this evil movement, Breitbart stood out among prominent conservative outlets, publishing perhaps the most influential apologetic for the alt-right and promoting that piece's co-author, Milo Yiannopoulos, as its premiere writer and personality. Yiannopoulos himself "trolled" and attacked Trump's opponents relentlessly, blasting out anti-Semitic messages at his targets and inspiring legions of Twitter followers to do the same. Meanwhile, Breitbart published bizarre hit pieces against its critics, including a video directed specifically at Shapiro that's chock-full of alt-right language and themes. The site's comment boards transformed into an open sewer, a virtual meeting place for the alt-right.
None of this was subtle. It all happened in plain view. In fact Breitbart's then–executive chairman proudly declared that his publication was "the platform for the alt-right." His name was Steve Bannon. He is now the "chief strategist" for the president of the United States.
Breitbart's influence was thoroughly malignant. It normalized, minimized, and desensitized conservatives to a truly malicious and dangerous movement, all for the sake of "destroying political correctness" and helping Donald Trump. Here, for example, is an excerpt of Yiannopoulos's infamous piece justifying some of the hateful, vile, and threatening images that were filling Twitter in 2016:
Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock'n'roll, so too do the alt-right's young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish "Shlomo Shekelburg" to "Remove Kebab," an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide. These caricatures are often spliced together with Millennial pop culture references, from old 4chan memes like pepe the frog, to anime and My Little Pony references.
Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the 80s were actually Satanists. For them, it's simply a means to fluster their grandparents.
I guess it's all fun and games until a member of the meme brigade drives into a crowd of people, sending bodies flying through the air.
There's a good reason that white nationalists rejoice at Steve Bannon's proximity to power. There's a good reason that countless Americans look at that man so close to the Oval Office and fear his influence on their president's mind and heart. How can Trump look the American people in the face and say that he unequivocally condemns the alt-right when one of the men who did more than anyone else to enhance its influence works down the hall?
Moreover, there's strong evidence that Bannon is still up to his old tricks. According to an avalanche of reports, he's set his sights on the president's national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, and is furiously leaking damaging stories to get McMaster fired. Once again, the underbelly of the Internet has had his back. As it became clear that Bannon was gunning for McMaster, a meme began to circulate depicting the latter as a puppet of international Jewish interests. Dark, unsubstantiated rumors started to spread about McMaster's personal life. Is it any wonder that he pointedly refused to say yesterday that he could work with Bannon?
Bannon's actions indicate that, if nothing else, he's a vicious opportunist. As alt-right leader Richard Spencer explained, under Bannon's leadership, Breitbart turned into a "gateway to alt-right ideas and writers." His former colleague Ben Shapiro called him a "vindictive, nasty figure, infamous for verbally abusing supposed friends and threatening enemies." Vindictive men who promote the work of racists and normalize their ideas obviously shouldn't be within 100 miles of political power, never mind two steps from the Oval Office.
Earlier today President Trump clearly and explicitly repudiated racism and white supremacy. This was a positive step, a vast improvement from his statement on Saturday, which pointedly omitted any reference to white supremacy, Nazism, or their acolytes. While today's political violence is still far from that seen on the worst days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, this weekend's events have rightfully shaken millions of well-meaning Americans.
If the president wants to take decisive action to distance himself from America's most hateful elements, there is one thing he can do today: He can fire Steve Bannon, the man who gave them a platform.
Commentary by David French, a senior writer at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAFrench.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.
©2017 National Review. Used with permission.