From Berkeley to Breitbart

He is the most consequential countercultural figure to come out of UC Berkeley since the Free Speech Movement. And he just helped get Donald Trump elected.

San Francisco magazine

January 26, 2017

The ominous gray sky
 threatened hail, but from the concrete deck at the Lawrence Hall of Science in the Berkeley Hills, Alex Marlow, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart News, could see all the way to the luminous San Francisco skyline. The 31-year-old Marlow had come to the East Bay on a cold late-November day from his home in Washington, D.C., just off K Street, accompanying his wife, Christina, who was visiting medical schools in California. This two-day jaunt to his old Bay Area stomping grounds was as close to a vacation as Marlow would come in 2016. If he’d had more time, he’d have wanted to play a round of golf at the course in Tilden Park, where he used to dodge the wild turkeys while hacking with a 5-iron. But he and Christina had to be at the airport later that day, and it was already noon.

Earlier, as Marlow had driven his red rental car up Centennial Drive, past the Cal football stadium and the UC Botanical Garden, he’d talked in low-grade disbelief about how far he’d come in the eight short years since he’d graduated from UC Berkeley. “I kind of hung on for dear life,” he ruminated about the end of his college years and the beginning of his professional career. “There were a lot of lean years.” 

This seemed a bit of an overstatement. Even before he graduated in 2008, majoring in political science with a minor in music, Marlow was already on his way, working part-time for conservative media impresario Andrew Breitbart as an associate editor at Breitbart News—the site’s first hire. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to write and edit full-time; just four years later he was promoted to editor-in-chief. His rapid ascent did have its setbacks, the sudden death of his mentor and boss in 2012 the gravest among them. Then, last year, he briefly stumbled with the defection of several editors and writers after Breitbart News became embroiled in a spat with Donald Trump over campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s grabbing of a female Breitbart reporter, an incident for which Lewandowski faced battery charges (later dropped).

But that was all in the past. Now, from our perch in the Berkeley Hills, he paused, as if to survey the entire liberal cosmopolis unfurled beneath his feet. “What a view,” he said, his eyes scanning from the leafy flats of Berkeley and Oakland to the hills and spires of San Francisco. “It’s just a gorgeous spot.”

Having recently assumed a position of almost unimaginable power in American journalism, Marlow could afford to smell the roses. Perhaps more than any other person working in media today, he has a direct line into the head of the 45th president of the United States. His most recent boss and constant adviser, Steve Bannon, stepped down as executive chairman of Breitbart in August to run Trump’s campaign and has been named senior counselor in the White House—one of the two or three closest advisers to the most powerful man on earth. Throughout the race to become president, and in the surreal and improvised weeks after the election, Trump tweeted links to Breitbart News more often than to any other source—more than to right-wing stalwarts like the Daily Caller, the Drudge Report, or even Fox News. When Marlow publishes a piece on his site, he can do so with a high degree of confidence that it will be noticed by America’s commander in chief, who shares with the site a nationalist, populist worldview, a provocateur’s love of a publicity stunt, and a military-grade understanding of how to weaponize a news story.

On the morning of Election Day, Marlow was in New York City, holding down his normal three-hour news program on SiriusXM Patriot Channel 125 from 6 to 9 a.m. eastern time. The show runs daily, and although Marlow trades hosting duties with other Breitbart employees, as well as former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, he was on the mic for three hours that morning at the SiriusXM recording studio in the old McGraw-Hill building in Midtown Manhattan.

Call-in guests included Trump himself, who dialed Marlow after late-night rallies in New Hampshire and Michigan. “Donald,” said the host, “you are closing your campaign in blue states!” “The cars—that industry was ripped out of Michigan, so much of it, and moved to Mexico and other places,” Trump answered. “People understand. We’re going to bring great unity to the country.” 

At 10:08 a.m., Breitbart’s headline story read “Hyper-Accurate Election Model Still Predicts a Trump Victory.” At 1:02 p.m., the site picked up a story from pollster Frank Luntz arguing that Trump “may have a realistic chance of winning the state of Michigan.” At 4:09 p.m., it carried reports of Republicans in Philadelphia complaining of rigged polling places. Thirty-two minutes later, Eric Trump’s wife, Lara, told a Breitbart reporter, “There’s actually an odd sense of calm that I have.” One minute after 9 p.m., the site published a tweet from liberal economist Paul Krugman calling it a “terrifying night.” Then a long wait, broken at 1:38 a.m. by a post quoting a tweet from French far-right leader Marine Le Pen congratulating Trump on his victory and, as 3 a.m. turned to 4, by Trump’s victory speech.

Marlow ran the site all day from his laptop in “the fishbowl,” a large, glass-encased studio used for special events with seating for a small audience, until 3 a.m., when he returned to his room at the Park Lane Hotel, across from Central Park, and managed two hours of sleep before returning to the studio at 6 a.m. On the morning of November 9, he proclaimed a victory that he’d seen coming a year and a half before it happened. “You’re going to see incredible amounts of hot takes trying to make sense of the election in the coming weeks,” he said on his radio show a few hours before Hillary Clinton conceded. “They could have listened to Breitbart radio.”

What the pundits could have learned, if they had been listening, was not just about Trump’s crossover appeal to Obama voters in the Rust Belt, or about Clinton’s struggles to connect with these selfsame citizens, but about Marlow’s own instinctive understanding of our two rival nations—Blue and Red. He’s a radical nationalist, yes, but he’s also the product of an elite West Coast education, the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, who likes his iced coffee from fancy third-wave cafés, who proposed to his girlfriend in the campus library at UC Berkeley, and who became an early adherent of the social-network-propelled new-media revolution right around the time Mark Zuckerberg was launching Facebook. Had they been paying attention, the experts might have gleaned that the head of the most important—and, some say, most insidious and dangerous—right-wing news site in a generation isn’t a them. He’s an us.

Marlow is wary
 about talking to the media. This is understandable, given that ever since the 2016 election cycle began and Trump started to live-tweet the site’s home page, the press has murdered Breitbart. New Yorker editor David Remnick summed up most liberals’ feelings about Breitbart a few weeks after the election, calling it “a Web site laced with racist poison and bogus ‘news.’” Conservative writer Ben Shapiro, who quit the site in March, called it “Trump Pravda.” NPR quoted its former spokesperson saying that charges of racism were “all completely valid and all true.” Mother Jones tied the site directly to the alt-right, a new name for the old-school racism favored by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, border militiamen, and Gamergaters—“childless single men who masturbate to anime,” as Republican strategist Rick Wilson put it. 

And while Marlow denies any connection to the alt-right, it’s clear that the site does consistently, if not exclusively, traffic in racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist speech. Two weeks after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African American congregants in South Carolina, hoping to start a race war, a Breitbart writer offered a piece titled “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.” The site called conservative pundit Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew” for endangering Israel by not supporting the virulently anti-Iran-deal Trump. It claimed that “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews,” and that “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.”

Any appraisal of Breitbart News, and of the man who runs it, has to start by acknowledging that the site is, in many instances, bigoted, bullying, and vicious in its assessments of a diverse, multicultural America. But in spite of Marlow’s dislike and distrust of the left-leaning media establishment, he agreed to meet me at the Blue Bottle café just west of the UC Berkeley campus. In part, his willingness to talk to me on the record was because we share a past. Years before Marlow helped Donald Trump take the White House, he was taking shots at me, a college newspaper columnist at the Daily Californian in Berkeley who served up the kind of soft-boiled, mushy-headed, center-left political opinions that a young(er) Marlow couldn’t help lashing out against. I was one of his first sparring partners. He was my very first troll. 

From my undergrad days, I remember Marlow as an underfed, unassuming writer type—glad to spit fire behind a keyboard, but nebbishy in person. And sure enough, a decade after I saw him last, he still cuts an unremarkable figure: a trim guy in his early 30s with unruly hair and the tired eyes of someone who hunches over computers all day. As we sat down to talk, strong black coffees in hand (his iced, mine hot), he asked solicitously about my wife, and I about his. He laughed at my jokes about getting too many radishes in my CSA box. We reminisced about old professors we knew, like the eminent political scientist A. James Gregor, a scholar of fascism. It was hard to see in Marlow’s affability the roots of something darker and more sinister. Try as I might, I couldn’t help it: I liked the guy.

Marlow grew up in Westside Village, about five miles from Brentwood, and was nine when that neighborhood’s national moment—the O.J. Simpson trial—came down. He calls his parents ex-hippies who converted late in life to conservatism—his father during the Reagan years, and his mother during Bill Clinton’s tumultuous administration. In a sort of upside-down nepotism, both parents now work for Breitbart News, his mother, Wynn, as a copy editor and his father, Robert J., as a sportswriter and editor of the site’s California vertical. “I found myself consulting them regularly on everything from their opinions on the biggest news stories of the day to edits on individual pieces,” Alex explained, “until it became clear that we should just hire them.”

When Alex was a kid, his parents turned the car radio dial away from music and toward the likes of Dennis Prager and Michael Savage (the latter a little too bombastic for Alex’s tastes) as they shuttled their only son to and from baseball practice. The Sage from South Central, Larry Elder, was Alex’s favorite, and between high school and college he interned for the radio host, who happens to be black. (“People never bring that up when they call me a racist,” he said.) The first political book he read was Elder’s The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America. (First Thing: “Blacks are more racist than whites.”)

Marlow’s parents enrolled him in the private Harvard-Westlake School in the Hollywood Hills, graduates of which include gay NBA pioneer Jason Collins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bridget Fonda, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jon Lovitz, Shirley Temple, former California governor Gray Davis, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s new progressive columnist David Talbot. (As they say on the Internet, ¯\_( ′′)_/¯.) Marlow ended up at Cal, in part hoping to walk on to the baseball team. But he was also drawn to Berkeley by the opportunity to descend into the belly of the liberal beast, and once there to give it a raging case of indigestion. He joined the Berkeley College Republicans as soon as he arrived in 2005, and started a blog and a podcast not long after. 

In the spring of 2006, about a year after Marlow enrolled in Berkeley, I began writing a weekly politics column for the Daily Cal. For $15 a week and at 750 words a pop, I waxed presumptuously about the war in Iraq, the shame of Proposition 8, and the Dadaesque personalities taking part in Berkeley City Council elections. I often wrote my pieces hungover on Sunday mornings: Mistakes were made. I loved writing the column, but I harbored few illusions about its impact or about the size of my audience. My girlfriend at the time didn’t read it. Students in the lecture hall in Wheeler certainly didn’t read it. Even members of the Cal Berkeley Democrats, the club I ran for a year as a sophomore, didn’t read it. But there was one person who paid attention to what I wrote: Alex Marlow.

Off and on over the two years that I cranked out that column, I’d garner an online rebuttal—sometimes scathing, sometimes merely chastising—on Marlow’s personal blog, I began to look forward to the Monday afternoons after my column’s morning unveiling, when Marlow would put together a few sentences or paragraphs arguing the polar opposite of whatever I was saying. Sometimes he made good points. Sometimes he dismissed me snarkily as yet another smug, liberal, establishment Berzerkeleyite. I would do my best to fire back. At various points during our prolonged and, if I’m being honest, tremendously geeky political debates, I would run into Marlow on Sproul Plaza and we’d hash it out in person, as if our respective arguments over Medicare Part D or the troop surge in Baghdad—he supported the war then, a position he’s since tempered—might catch the notice of the president, or at least help us get into law school. When I brought up these halcyon days to Alex at the café, his eyes lit up. “There were very few people” like me, he said, about whom he could write unkindly and who then would “want to talk about it in an unemotional way.”

It’s true: I wasn’t offended by Marlow’s constant heckling. To the contrary, I was flattered by it. Did I ever dream that less than a decade later, my tormenter would be chumming it up with the actual president and feeding tens of millions of loyal readers the freshest of right-wing red meat? No, I did not. But then again, neither did Marlow.

Marlow's big career break
 (aside, of course, from his site’s biggest fan getting elected POTUS) came at a conference held by the Young America’s Foundation in 2007. Marlow attended in the place of the Berkeley College Republicans president, who was busy running a race to lead the California College Republicans that ended in a blowout loss. At the conference, Marlow scored an invite to a future gathering to be held in Santa Barbara the same year. There, on a roof deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, he heard Andrew Breitbart give a speech, after which he introduced himself in the bar. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m from L.A., and I think you are right,’” he recalled to me. By the end of the night, Marlow had a job.

After graduation, he moved back to Los Angeles and went to work full-time from Breitbart’s basement. On his first full day as a Breitbart employee, he drove to his new boss’s house to find him asleep after an early-morning spot on Fox & Friends. After Breitbart woke up, he had Marlow spend the day buying an arcade game for his office and filling water guns for his kids. They hit it off instantly. “Andrew was the first middle-class media mogul,” Marlow told the Los Angeles Times in 2012, soon after the provocateur’s unexpected death from a heart attack at age 43.

The first of what Marlow calls Breitbart News’s “scalps” came quickly after his hiring. In 2009, the site acquired videos shot by conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles showing staffers at the community advocacy group ACORN allegedly helping the duo set up an underage-prostitution business by giving them advice on tax and immigration law. Incensed by the video, Republicans in Congress eliminated ACORN’s federal funding, and the group later disbanded. In 2011, acting on a reader tip, Breitbart broke the story that New York congressman Anthony Weiner had sent a picture of his genitals to a 21-year-old college student on Twitter. The scandal drove him from office. (Marlow told me he still has pictures of Weiner that have not been released. “They are more aggressive,” he said.)

But for all the bare-knuckled brawling that his site engages in, Marlow and his allies claim that the editor-in-chief does have a moral center. In a company that runs on an attitude, as the Internet meme goes, that “honey badger don’t give a shit,” Marlow has carved out a reputation as one honey badger who might. In a story about internal strife at the site during the campaign, CNN Money quoted an anonymous former reporter as saying, “Alex was generally on the side of good in the fight against evil while I was there. He fought for restraint, honesty, and standards.”

This restraint was most seriously tested last March, when Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields resigned after Trump campaign manager Lewandowski grabbed her arm hard enough to leave a bruise. Police charged Lewandowski with battery, but the state attorney of Palm Beach County declined to prosecute. Leaked internal chat logs showed senior editor-at-large Joel Pollak, not Marlow, ordering Breitbart employees not to defend Fields. But even though he wasn’t tied directly to the controversy, the incident still strained Marlow’s relationships with both his staff and his allies inside the Trump campaign. When I asked Marlow about it, he fell abnormally silent. “Obviously, that wasn’t my favorite moment as editor of Breitbart,” he said, finally. Could it be that Marlow’s instincts were to defend Fields, but that Bannon, then still running Breitbart, overruled him? Marlow pivoted away from specifics of the incident by blaming the mainstream media for pushing an overblown narrative about it.

He also denied that Breitbart gets its marching orders from the alt-right, adding that he doesn’t know what Bannon meant when he was quoted in Mother Jones saying that Breitbart was the “platform” for the alt-right.

“Have you asked him what he meant?” I wondered.

“I haven’t had a chance,” Marlow said.

Even if it’s not accurate to slot Marlow in with outspoken racists like Richard Spencer or David Duke, there are moments when the editor’s contrarian puckishness curdles into something mean and stupid. In a speech before a Young America’s Foundation audience, he joked about “Benicio Del Taco” and spent several excruciating moments complaining about Scarlett Johansson’s “pouty face.” On his radio show, he asserted that “Planned Parenthood was founded by eugenicists who wanted to eliminate black babies.”

Regardless of their offensiveness, Marlow’s views now carry legitimate weight, in no small part because of their similarities to the new president’s own worldview. In Marlow’s telling, the election was a revolt of the masses, who thought that America needed a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful; who believe that the economy is rigged; that traditional parties don’t represent people like them; and that the mainstream media is more interested in making money than in telling the truth. That is not just a bunch of political slogans, argues Marlow. “That,” he told me, “is the thesis of Breitbart in a nutshell.”

As the Trump administration dawns, Marlow hopes to keep the president bounded in that nutshell, away from the ambitions of more mainstream conservatives, a few of whom Trump has appointed to senior positions in the White House. It’s part of an inside-outside game that all presidents engage in with their most fervent supporters. In November, marquee Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos warned, “Establishment Republicans have a clear future: tough primary elections against Trump-like opponents intent on draining the swamp.”

That dynamic has the tacit blessing of at least one White House official: Bannon, who told the Wall Street Journal that he expects Breitbart to criticize the Trump administration if it doesn’t “stay true to its vision,” adding, “If we don’t, I assume they will hammer us.”

Marlow is still feeling out how to swing his hammer—and at whom. After Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said that Clinton would not be prosecuted under a Trump administration, Breitbart ran a story screaming “Broken Promise.” The headline quickly disappeared—but as lines are beginning to be drawn within the administration between status quo keepers like financier Carl Icahn and former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin on the one hand and bomb throwers like Peter Navarro and General Michael Flynn on the other, there’s little question about which side Marlow comes down on: the bomb throwers.

“He was a true believer,”
 says Andrew Quinio, one of two Berkeley College Republicans members who produced a podcast with Marlow at Berkeley. (Their “studio” was a basement study room in the Unit One dorm, inside which they placed a mic and laptop atop a piano.) They called it Cal Patriot Radio and attracted few listeners. Quinio himself couldn’t download it, because instead of an iPod he owned a Microsoft Zune.

Quinio remains proud of the ideas they voiced back then. Ethan Lutske, who also worked on Patriot Radio, does not. After graduation, he moved to the left politically, and is reluctant to talk about his foray into right-wing punditry. “It was confrontational,” he says of the podcast. “We were dicks.” That being said, Lutske doesn’t believe Marlow was trafficking in bigotry back then. “Was this an incubation of white nationalism and I didn’t realize it? I don’t think so.” However, Marlow was inarguably honing his later style, a down-to-earth, just-asking-the-question rhetorical approach that makes liberals like me want to set their hair on fire. His first successful trolling mission came in fall 2007, when conservative writer David Horowitz organized events on college campuses across the country dubbed Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. Following his lead, Marlow and Quinio set up rallies, lectures, and film screenings around Berkeley. It didn’t go over well. When Marlow read statements from Islamic terrorists on Sproul Plaza—the mecca of the Free Speech Movement—counterprotesters from an off-campus Marxist group surrounded him to chant, “Racist, go home! Racist, go home!”

“This was a significant moment in learning the tactics of the left,” Marlow told me. “Branding me a racist was much easier than saying why I was wrong.” But it wasn’t just Marxists who disagreed with Marlow; his words and actions made Muslim students feel uneasy. “I had friends who wore hijabs who were afraid to walk down the street,” says Saira Hussain, then a member of the Muslim Student Association and now a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. “People could see what they were trying to do, painting 1.6 billion Muslims as terrorists or agreeing with terrorists.”

Coincidentally, Hussain, who now works for the Asian Law Caucus, testified in April 2016 in favor of sanctuary city laws before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. During hearings on the same subject a month later, a reporter from Breitbart News, Lee Stranahan, was ejected from the chambers during a speech by Supervisor John Avalos, who complained that the reporter was being disruptive by videotaping the proceedings (and who later called Stranahan a “white supremacist” on Twitter). Two days later, Breitbart ran a story defending its reporter and claiming he was “attacked” by Avalos. Then SF Weekly wrote a story defending Avalos. Back and forth it went, adding another layer of acid to the conflict.

This, of course, is how Breitbart News under Marlow’s leadership often fuels its controversies. It starts by finding a story that resonates with its core audience, usually by taking original reporting from another publication, rewriting it with a conservative spin, and topping it with a provocative headline. If the site is lucky, the story then draws an attack from someone on the left, maybe even someone who overplays his or her hand, the way the Berkeley Marxists or Avalos did. That gins up more outrage from Breitbart’s supporters, while left-wingers craft their own enraged posts, memes, and tweet-storms. Breitbart can then repackage that closed-circuit tempest into yet another story, now with a new martyred protagonist: Breitbart News.

It’s the same circular, self-aggrandizing strategy Marlow used for Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. He’s been telling the story about the chanting Berkeley Marxists in speeches to conservative audiences for years now, often omitting mention of the much more highly attended counter-protest that students like Hussain organized under the banner of “Peace, Not Prejudice.” It’s an ingenious strategy—and there’s a word for it. “Trolling,” he told me, “is a valid tool in the tool kit of Breitbart.”

As the publication’s editor-in-chief, Marlow is the foreman of a veritable construction gang of trolls. Sometimes his staffers pick up stories from outsiders—like the O’Keefe and Giles videos. Often they figure out what types of narratives will resonate with their audience simply by listening to that audience—taking calls on the radio and reading Breitbart’s comment section. This mind meld with their readership has netted huge traffic: The site claims it had 37 million unique visitors in October, the most recent month for which data is available, numbers comparable to those of the Drudge Report or the Fox News website.

And most important among those 37 million sets of eyeballs are two that belong to the site’s most loyal reader (or at least most avid tweeter): Trump. A few weeks after the election, the president-elect sat down with a few dozen New York Times staffers, one of whom asked him about Breitbart News. “Yeah, well, Breitbart, first of all, is just a publication,” Trump said. “And, you know, they cover stories like you cover stories. Now, they are certainly a much more conservative paper, to put it mildly, than the New York Times. But Breitbart really is a news organization that’s become quite successful, and it’s got readers and it does cover subjects that are on the right, but it covers subjects on the left also. I mean it’s a pretty big, it’s a pretty big thing.”

And it all started, at least in some small part, because Alex Marlow didn’t think my Daily Cal columns were very good.

The hail was falling,
 and it was time for Marlow to catch his plane. In his rental car, we wound down the narrow streets in the Berkeley Hills toward the flats. Marlow talked about his site’s next steps: Breitbart already has two foreign bureaus, in England and Jerusalem, and Marlow is now hiring staffers for two more expansions, in Germany and France. The timing of these expansions is not accidental: In France, the populist leader of the National Front, Le Pen, is expected to finish strongly in the presidential elections in April. After Trump’s election, the National Front’s deputy leader tweeted his congratulations, saying, “their world is collapsing. Ours is building.” A German national election will also be held later this year, with rightist politicians surging in a country still reeling from the terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.

Marlow plans for Breitbart to be there when the right rises—and he hopes to be everywhere else, too. He’s tuned in to what the socialist magazine Jacobin called a “weirdly pagan resonance, being picked up around the world on some fascist subterranean frequency—the rumblings of a dark monitor stone, now come to life.” 

It’s a submerged resonance that he hears, yes, but it’s not necessarily a fascist one. If you’re being generous and seek to locate Marlow in a political tradition a bit closer to home, you need only look to Berkeley. He’s every bit the culture-jammer, throw-your-body-on-the-gears, power-to-the-people agitator that ’60s free speech icon Mario Savio was. Even if the world he’s busy tearing down is the one that Savio and his comrades helped to build, you could argue that Berkeley had a large hand in building Alex Marlow as well.

As Marlow dropped me off at the Downtown Berkeley BART station, he made an observation that revealed a lot about how he thinks about this world and his role in it. As he bid me goodbye, he also bid goodbye to the city. It was partly a one-fingered salute, but partly a genuine reflection of what the Bay Area had taught him. “Dissent was patriotic when I went to Berkeley,” he said to me. “Dissent was the highest form of patriotism.”