Steve Bannon
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Last week we learned that, after convincing his billionaire benefactor Robert Mercer to invest in creating Cambridge Analytica in 2014, Steve Bannon controlled the company’s efforts to establish a data base for the psychographic targeting of voters. What was he looking for?

The year before Trump announced his presidential bid, the data firm already had found a high level of alienation among young, white Americans with a conservative bent.

In focus groups arranged to test messages for the 2014 midterms, these voters responded to calls for building a new wall to block the entry of illegal immigrants, to reforms intended to “drain the swamp” of Washington’s entrenched political community and to thinly veiled forms of racism toward African Americans called “race realism,” he recounted.

Keep in mind that, at the time, Bannon was the executive chair of Breitbart News—which he bragged was the “platform for the alt-right.” In other words, these focus groups were designed to identify messaging that would tap into a similar audience.

Just as the “alt-right” is a euphemism for white supremacists, “race realism” is the new phrase for what was once called “scientific racism.”

…the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism (racial discrimination), racial inferiority, or racial superiority; alternatively,it is the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes or genotype into discrete races.

In other words, it is the same sort of eugenics that was used to justify slavery in the United States, Jim Crow laws in the South and the genocide of Jews by Nazis during World War II. That is what Bannon wanted to tap into.

Khalil Gibran Muhammed explained how the alt-right uses race realism to make racism more acceptable—to liberals as well as conservatives. He talked to Jared Taylor, whose website American Renaissance is home to the advocates of race realism.

He cites George Zimmerman’s acquittal [in the murder of Trayvon Martin] and the Justice Department ruling that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was justified in Brown’s shooting as proof that it was all just “a baloney story.”

Taylor believes that plenty of Americans, even liberals, instinctively share these views but have been stifled by political correctness. Indeed, four days after Zimmerman’s acquittal, the Pew Research Center asked people in a nationwide survey if they were satisfied or dissatisfied with the verdict. The racial divide could not have been starker: 86 percent of blacks surveyed expressed dissatisfaction, compared with 30 percent of whites. When respondents were asked if “race is getting more attention than it deserves” in the Zimmerman case, 60 percent of whites agreed, compared with just 13 percent of blacks.

That 60 percent of whites goes way beyond conservatives and taps into a relatively significant portion of people who would identify as moderate to liberal.

Muhammed also talked to the son of Don Black, who started the white supremacist web site Stormfront.

According to Derek Black, his father targets liberals who believe that blacks and some Latino groups have a crime problem and are less intelligent. “The goal of the movement is to get people who are already against affirmative action and Hispanic immigration, and who are already worried that black communities aren’t policed enough, to be explicit that they think it is about race,” he says.

This is the kind of targeting of both liberals and conservatives that Steve Bannon was attempting to do with political messaging on race realism via Cambridge Analytica. If you didn’t see anything that looked like that during the 2016 campaign, remember that one of CA’s favorite tools was to use “dark posts” on Facebook that can only been seen by those they were targeting.

It is often suggested that a vote for Barack Obama in 2012 indicates an absence of racism and therefore, those who switched and voted for Donald Trump must have done so for other reasons. That assumes that racism is confined to the most obvious and overt forms. Most of us should have come farther in our understanding of how this all works than that. Growing up in this country means that we are all imbued with—at minimum—implicit bias that is ripe for exploitation if we aren’t paying attention.

We now know that as early as 2014 Steve Bannon was running focus groups and designing strategies to spread concepts like race realism by tapping into either the implicit or explicit bias of voters, just as white supremacists like Jared Taylor and Don Black have been trying to do for years now. While it is difficult to measure how successful he ultimately was, we have to incorporate that into our understanding of the so-called “Obama-Trump voters.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.