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'National Review' Writer Looks Back On Op-Ed About Alt-Right

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The defining sound of 2017.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) You will not replace us.

INSKEEP: White nationalist groups chanted, you will not replace us, among other things at a rally in Charlottesville, Va. This was, ostensibly, a protest against removing a Confederate statue, but white nationalists were frank about their real goal of seizing the national stage. And their confrontation with critics turned violent. After that incident, we spoke with the writer David French about the alt-right's influence. Now that some time has passed, Rachel Martin invited him back.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: You posted your column for the National Review that same evening. And your column felt like a call to action or, at least, a strong warning against dismissing the events of that day and the alt-right movement in general as some kind of fringe phenomenon. When you look back on it, do you feel as if your words then had an impact?

DAVID FRENCH: Well, I - let me just say, I feel a lot better about where we are now than I felt at that point. At that point, I felt we were beginning to see the cresting of a very dangerous wave. The alt-right had been weaponized online in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, one of the president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had explicitly said that he had turned Breitbart.com into the platform of the alt-right. Bannon was sitting just a few feet from the president in the oval office advising him. Then we had that awful day in Charlottesville. The president had given one of the worst statements of his public life, much less his presidency. After that day...

MARTIN: This is when he said that there was blame to go around on both sides.

FRENCH: Well, and he had said that there were good people on both sides, which was a simply stunning statement if you know anything at all about the alt-right, which Bannon most certainly did. And we now know from emails that were published in BuzzFeed that Bannon was much more involved than we even previously knew or suspected in sort of whitewashing the alt-right and trying to present a respectable face to the American public.

MARTIN: There are different segments of the population, though, minority groups in particular, who say that, sure, Steve Bannon may be gone, but the president himself has said things that those groups have perceived to be racist and discriminatory. Do you think that all these concerns have been put to rest now?

FRENCH: Oh, of course not. I think Steve Bannon is gone. But Donald Trump is still Donald Trump. And that means he's a person who's very impulsive. He's very temperamental. When he identifies an enemy, he attacks viciously. And when he identifies an opportunity to exploit existing grievances and tensions in the country for his personal gain, he'll exploit those relentlessly. The alt-right wave, however, has receded. And when Steve Bannon is apparently increasingly on the outs, not just having been ejected from the White House, but less and less in Trump's personal orbit if reports are to be believed, at least that some small measure of solace from this.

MARTIN: He may be outside of Trump's inner circle, but, at least according to Steve Bannon, he feels power right now. That's a direct quote from the Vanity Fair piece recently. He is back at Breitbart. He draws large crowds. I mean, he was campaigning for Roy Moore in Alabama. And people went to see Steve Bannon can be argued. So his influence isn't exactly waning in the general population among those core supporters who voted for Trump in the first place.

FRENCH: Well, there's no question that Steve Bannon has a core base of support. And there's no question that Breitbart still commands an audience of millions. However, I would say few people's star has dimmed more than Steve Bannon's in 2017. If you think about it, he comes into 2017 being seen by many people as the architect, as the mastermind behind a Trump political win that was - overhyped his influence to begin with. And then he ends it indispensable in losing an un-losable (ph) Alabama Senate seat, one that republicans normally win by 30 plus points. And so I think his influence is diminishing. I think he's on the downturn. But still, the reality that he can command the audience that he can command and then he does so to spew such incredibly personal and vicious rhetoric as a matter of course is still very disturbing.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for talking with us again, David.

FRENCH: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Happy New Year.

FRENCH: Happy New Year to you, too.

INSKEEP: National Review columnist David French with our co-host Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.