Steve Bannon, who is no stranger to controversy, faced a torrent of reproval when it was revealed not long ago that he had praised a detestable novel envisioning France invaded by an armada of brown-skinned migrants from India. The French novel is called “The Camp of the Saints,” and Bannon recommended it on several occasions when he was executive chairman of Breitbart News, to justify what he perceived as a mortal threat that whites face from immigration.
The book, published in the 1970s, had existed for decades as an obscure cornerstone of the utmost fringes of white racism. The Indian children in the novel were referred to as “little monsters,” and the adults were described as sexual maniacs who filled their ships with “rivers of sperm, streaming over bodies, oozing between breasts, and buttocks, and thighs, and lips, and fingers.” The novel ended with hundreds of thousands of them taking over France and, by extension, the West. When it came out in the United States, Kirkus Reviews noted that “the publishers are presenting ‘The Camp of the Saints’ as a major event, and it probably is, in much the same sense that Mein Kampf was a major event.”
Bannon, now a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, made his glowing comments during radio programs he hosted in 2015 and 2016. But his comments were brief and in passing. The most enthusiastic endorsement of the book from anyone at Breitbart, and certainly the longest endorsement, came from a young reporter who wrote a gushing 4,000-word article that said “all around the world, events seem to be lining up with the predictions of the book.” The article, which neglected to mention that “The Camp of the Saints” is widely regarded as utterly racist, merely described it as controversial, and made conspiratorial parallels between its fictional characters and Pope Francis, Marco Rubio, and even Glenn Beck.
The Breitbart reporter was Julia Hahn, a Bannon protégé who followed him into the White House as a special assistant to President Trump. Bannon and other alt-right figures in the West Wing, including Sebastian Gorka, have received enormous amounts of criticism for espousing ideas that are seen as racist or ridiculous. Gorka is reported to be leaving the White House, and there have been reports that Bannon might be edged out, too. But Hahn has gotten almost no notice for writing what appears to be the longest and most laudatory article about “The Camp of the Saints” that has appeared in the American media in recent years. The few in-depth stories about her getting a job at the White House have mostly focused on her lashing criticism of Paul Ryan, the House speaker whose conservative positions on immigration were far too permissive for Bannon, Hahn, and the rest of Breitbart.
At a glance, Hahn is an outlier among outliers. She was raised in Beverly Hills, attended a private high school, and the only wisp of political activity in her adolescence was a decidedly liberal, pro-immigration gesture: She raised money for a group that brought foreign orphans to the United States. She majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago, and the sole public trace of her time there is a video of a panel discussion in which she discussed Michael Foucault’s idea that psychoanalysis stigmatizes human sexuality.
Not long after she was appointed to the White House at the age of just 25, one of her college friends reacted by writing on Facebook, “It’s weird because she was always very nice and it’s disappointing when seemingly nice people turn out to be Nazis/Nazi-adjacent.” Another friend asked, “WTF happened???”
The question of what happened offers an opportunity of sorts. There has been a lot of discussion about countering extremism and identifying extremists before they do something that harms themselves or the nation. How do young people become radicalized? The preferred means for answering these questions are not mysterious — find out the ideas that young people are exposed to, find out the social environment they are raised in, and work from there. This framework has been applied mostly to Islamic extremism, with the goal of figuring out why some Muslims become terrorists.
But the tools of “countering violent extremism,” as it’s known, work extremely well for figuring out the riddle of rich white kids who turn to the fringes of the right. How does someone who raised money for foreign orphans write, a few years later, a screed for Breitbart headlined “Muslim Immigration Puts Half a Million U.S. Girls at Risk of Genital Mutilation”? One of the first things you would seek to do, in the effort to understand the creation of this extremist, is to investigate the place where she was raised. It turned out that I didn’t need to search far, because I grew up less than a mile from Hahn’s home, and attended the same high school.
In a way, Julia Hahn is the Patty Hearst of the far right, a daughter of privilege who veered wildly off the expected course. While she has said almost nothing about her journey to the virulent corners of white nationalism, and has not granted any interviews since starting in the White House (she turned down a request from The Intercept), the puzzle of her journey to the alt right can be assembled.
Hahn comes from fabulous wealth. Her grandfather Harold Honickman presided over a soft-drink bottling company that became one of the largest in the nation; in 2002, his net worth was estimated at $850 million. Honickman has used his wealth to support liberal causes, including organizations that help the homeless and efforts to tighten gun control. His family foundation has even provided funding for a poetry prize, and his wife wrote a genteel letter on the foundation website that said, “Our personal belief, at the end of the day, is that we are here to take care of one another.”
One of the Honickman children, Shirley, is the mother of Hahn, who was born on April Fools’ Day in 1991. Hahn was raised in a house that’s not far from Rodeo Drive and is valued at more than $5 million by Zillow. (Hahn’s White House financial disclosure form shows she owns bank and stock funds worth as much as $2 million.) The private school she attended (as I did, a generation earlier) is Harvard-Westlake. It’s hard to imagine a class of people who benefit more from immigrant and undocumented workers — who clean their homes, mow their lawns, maintain their pools, and cook their meals — than Hahn and other children of privilege in Los Angeles. The comfortable life she enjoyed was due, in no small part, to the immigrants she demeaned as a writer for Breitbart.
The dissonance appears to widen when you look at her secondary education. Harvard-Westlake is a model of West Coast liberalism. It is generally regarded as the most competitive school in Los Angeles, its student body drawing on the city’s entertainment and business worlds. When Hahn was named to the White House, the flummoxed student newspaper at Harvard-Westlake published a story in which her history teacher wondered aloud, “She was rather soft-spoken as I recall, so I guess no, I didn’t really see her headed to work for an organization like Breitbart or a person like Bannon.”
Paradoxically, a clue to Hahn’s radicalization is located at Harvard-Westlake. The school has a surplus of famous alumni, from Shirley Temple to Sally Ride, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Matthew Weiner (the creator of “Mad Men” who named one of his show’s characters for a popular teacher at Harvard). But the school has another alum who is more infamous than famous: Alex Marlow, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart.
Marlow graduated from Harvard-Westlake in 2004, before Hahn, and for a long time nobody at the school seemed to know or care where he had ended up. The school took notice in 2016, when Marlow was quoted in a New York Times profile of Bannon. A school official posted the story on Facebook. Parents and alumni of Harvard-Westlake were aghast. “This is an embarrassment to our school, and to our fantastic community,” read one of the comments on the post.
The controversy was duly reported by the school’s student newspaper, which published a story on Marlow and quoted some of his teachers who remembered him as a smart and polite student — just like Hahn. “I would never have imagined that he would get involved with an organization as deplorable as Breitbart News,” said his history teacher Dave Waterhouse.
The upshot is that a single school in Los Angeles was the breeding ground for two of the youngest and most vehement stars of the Trump movement. This raises the prospect of what is known, among experts who study extremism, as a cluster. It goes beyond Hahn and Marlow.
Where do America’s far-right leaders come from? Hahn and Marlow, who grew up 5 miles apart, are clues to an intriguing fact of political epidemiology. A surprising number of alt-right leaders come from a single wealthy liberal enclave: the west side of Los Angeles.
Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site that bears his name, was raised in Brentwood, at the center of the west side, and was living there when he died in 2012. Bannon, before becoming famous as the chairman of Breitbart and then Trump’s ideologue, was a Hollywood producer who sent his daughters to a private school in Brentwood. Stephen Miller, the 31-year-old presidential adviser who has been wildly provocative on immigration issues, was raised in neighboring Santa Monica, also known as the People’s Republic of Santa Monica because of its liberal politics.
This might seem weird. California voted in a landslide for Hillary Clinton. All of the state’s elected officials are Democrats, from the governor on down. Since 1961, only one Republican has been elected mayor of Los Angeles. But look again. While Trump got far fewer votes than Clinton, California’s population is so large that the only other state where Trump got more votes was Texas (which he won). According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, California has more far-right conspiratorial “Patriot” groups, 81, than any other state in the country (Texas, the runner-up, has 79). California may be the “Left Coast,” but it is also the beating heart of the far-right coast.
This is not an accident. People don’t like to be told what to think, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that an atmosphere of doctrinaire liberalism might produce reactionaries who delight in defying the dogmas that seemed so repressive when they were growing up. For instance, Miller, a key advocate of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, chafed at the multiculturalism of his high school and its tolerance of gays.
Social progress always seems to trigger a backlash. It’s a paradox that makes sense — environments that are constructed to stop extremism can, instead, provoke it. Trump’s whole rise cannot be viewed through this single lens, of course. But the dynamic is crucial to understanding how and where some extremists are born: when people feel the privileges of their race, gender, language, or religion are threatened.
In the popular telling, a common scenario of Muslim extremism occurs when a susceptible mind falls under the spell of a charismatic leader at a mosque or madrassa, though sometimes the contact occurs online (this happened with followers of Anwar al-Awlaki, for instance). I have reported on this dynamic in Pakistan, Iraq, and other countries that were like emotional depots for the unformed zeal of drifting youths. The spiritual leaders were spellbinding, their warnings were often apocalyptic, and the devotion of their youthful followers was complete, even if the logic of their maximalist ideologies was flawed and inhuman. Young minds, unshaped, were tinder for an ideological spark.
This scenario isn’t true only for Islamic extremists. When Hahn arrived in Washington, D.C., as another just-out-of-college aspirant, she was not political, according to every account of her that I’ve read and heard (I talked with more than a half dozen people who knew her at the University of Chicago). According to the Washington Post, Hahn jolted to ideological life in the first job she landed — as a producer for right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham. “It sparked her evolution,” the Post stated. “She moved quickly to the right.” A short article in the New Yorker reported much the same, that an apolitical Hahn moved to Washington to get a media job and turned to the far right after she started working for Ingraham. The Post quoted a former Ingraham employee as saying, “Laura will do that to people. She can be very convincing.”
This evokes a strange parallel between far-right radio and television empires presided over by the likes of Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, and Steve Bannon, and fundamentalist mosques and madrassas that manufacture the extremists of the Islamic world. Radical ideologies presented to impressionable minds in these locations are totalistic and comforting in an unsteady world. They offer simplistic antagonists — such as the infidels and the immigrants — and provide simplistic answers to social or economic problems (shut down immigration, eliminate education for girls, and so on). These spellbinding leaders, and the infrastructures around them, are vectors of youthful extremism.
Hahn worked for Ingraham for about a year, then became a spokesperson for David Brat, an insurgent Republican who used the issue of immigration to defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Brat, a total outsider, raised just $200,000 for his challenge to Cantor, and part of his upset victory was due to strong support from Ingraham as well as other right-wing media figures, including Mark Levin and Ann Coulter. Whether by design or chance, Hahn was at the center of the alt-right rebellion against not just the Democratic Party but the Republican establishment, too.
Her next step took her to the forefront — as one of the most prolific and strident reporters for the norm-pulverizing machine at Breitbart. Bannon was the dominant figure at Breitbart at the time, “prone to surrounding himself with like-minded young acolytes,” as the New York Times later noted. In an unusual look inside Bannon’s life before he joined Trump’s campaign, a Bloomberg reporter visited Bannon’s townhouse-turned-newsroom and wrote that he had a “group of young, female Breitbart News reporters whom he’s dubbed the Valkyries.” The Bloomberg story had a photo of Bannon at his Capitol Hill home with nine young reporters, including Hahn. After Politico published a story that criticized Bannon, Hahn rose to his defense and described him as “one of the most supportive, kind, inspiring and selfless bosses a reporter could ask for.”
Under Bannon, Hahn produced a torrent of articles that mimicked his incendiary ideas on immigration, Muslims, and Democrats. Her stories were perfectly attuned to the extremist ideas for which Bannon has become celebrated and despised; Bannon and Hahn even co-wrote a story that flayed Paul Ryan. One of Hahn’s stories accused Hillary Clinton of planning to resettle a million Muslims in America, and another article warned ominously that under Clinton the number of Muslims in America would exceed the number in Germany — an irrelevant comparison because Germany’s population is several times smaller. One of Hahn’s anti-immigration articles was headlined “Clinton Releases Plan to Dissolve U.S. Border Within 100 Days.”
That was the usual alt-right noise from Breitbart. But in 2015, when Bannon started talking about “The Camp of the Saints,” Hahn wrote about it too. Her story argued that the book was prophetic because it warned that “the liberalism of the West would cause Western nations to throw open their doors to so many migrants that it would spell the doom of liberal society itself.” Hahn’s story used the book to warn that, as she wrote, immigrants from failed countries will “remake the West in the image of those failed countries.” The book, however, is widely regarded as a racist fever dream. One of its most enthusiastic supporters is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front in France, who has a copy of it in her office and has tweeted out her endorsement of it.
Even in the conservative world, Hahn went too far for the comfort of some people. At the end of 2015, when she asked a panel of Republican legislators to raise their hands to indicate whether they would suspend or reduce Muslim immigration, Rep. Raul Labrador, a conservative from Idaho, lashed out at her. “I don’t answer questions from you,” he told Hahn, “because you are not a truthful reporter.”
The handful of published stories about Hahn have tended to focus on a seeming paucity of information that would explain who she is or how she ended up on the far right. “Hahn’s increasingly watched byline was all the more extraordinary for her utter anonymity,” the Washington Post reported. “Not only did she never appear on TV, she had no public social media presence whatsoever. Photos of her were hard to come by — and conspiracy theories about her true identity were beginning to circulate.” This makes for a good mystery story, but it misses the point. It took little effort for The Intercept to find photos of Hahn (there are some on Facebook, and Bloomberg had published a series of photos that included Hahn and listed her by name). While she does not appear to have been on television, Hahn was frequently on Breitbart radio and other right-wing radio shows.
The mysterious thing about Julia Hahn is that there is any mystery at all. Washington is bursting with strivers in their 20s just like her, eager to find their spot on the terrain of political power, while unsure of what their own attitudes about power really are. The lack of a political center in the young creatures of Washington is the stuff of parody; just watch an episode of “Veep.” Long ago, I was one of these creatures — as a student at Georgetown University, I applied for internships on Capitol Hill and took the first one I was offered, from a Republican representative famous for one thing — his father was Barry Goldwater, the iconic senator from Arizona. The son had little of his father’s charisma and his politics were vague, though he was kind to me and let me drive his Aston Martin. He was no Laura Ingraham.
Karachi and Kabul are a long ways from Capitol Hill but the hydraulics of youthful extremism are remarkably similar in all of them. Julia Hahn’s opposites are not the young and impressionable Muslims who adopt hate-filled ideas about infidels. They are her mirror image.