How US Media Played the Wrong Hand on Right-Wing Success
Hate speech had never been considered good strategy in the presidential politics of the United States. But the world woke up on 9 November 2016 to learn that this was no longer the case. For the first time in modern history the US had a president-elect whose victory was applauded publicly by the Ku Klux Klan while the American Nazi Party was equally exultant.
In Donald Trump’s campaigning Mexicans were called rapists and murderers; African-American communities were “crime-infested hellholes”; ‘total and complete shutdown’ of Muslim immigration was proposed. Trump accused his opponent, Hillary Clinton, of conspiring with shadowy “international bankers” to steal the election, in language echoing the anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.
Ethical and factual considerations aside, few in the US media saw these slurs as a winning script for a presidential race. On the contrary, they were widely considered so crudely and self-evidently objectionable as to be almost automatically disqualifying.
Trump’s victory marked the first time a US presidential candidate was elected despite the editorial-page opposition of almost every major state and national newspaper, including several which had always endorsed Republican nominees.
Many of them cited his comments about immigrants and women as a central reason for their editorial stance. Yet until late in the campaign, few US news organisations devoted much coverage to the even darker substratum of Trump’s most bigoted supporters, who had cheered his electoral success as a vindication of their contempt for blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, gays and others they consider inferior to white Christian “European-Americans”.
Immediately after the election, however, many more journalists began to pay heed. It became clear that the most destructive consequence of Donald Trump’s successful presidential race could be its mainstreaming of racist political rhetoric and, with his victory, the implicit legitimisation of once-marginal voices on the “white nationalist” right who endorsed his candidacy.
One of Trump’s first moves as president-elect was to name a champion of these white supremacist groups as his administration’s Chief Strategist. Stephen Bannon, publisher of Breitbart News, described by the Anti-Defamation League as the “premier website of the ‘alt-right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists, unabashed anti-Semites and racists”. The KKK, the American Nazi Party and other like-minded groups praised Bannon’s selection.
The outraged president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) tweeted his reaction: “Racism has been routinised; anti-Semitism normalised; xenophobia deexceptionalised; and misogyny mainstreamed.”
— Cornell Wm. Brooks (@CornellWBrooks) November 9, 2016
Within days, as Bannon’s and Breitbart News’s long history of race- baiting, misogynistic and anti-Semitic commentary was spotlighted in leading media, a viral “stop Bannon” movement became the first broad-based challenge to the incoming administration.
But it was not as if Bannon had been a political unknown, or his publication’s racist-right views a secret: he was, after all, Trump’s general-election campaign manager, and Breitbart News had been an early and influential Trump supporter in the Republican primaries. Breitbart was already infamous for denigrating African-American “Black Lives Matter” activists and Muslim-American civil-rights defenders among its many other ethnic and political targets.
Yet too few in the media took Bannon seriously as a political force and potential powerbroker. Those who did focused less on his publication’s role as a platform for white racists and more on its jeremiads against the Clintons and leading Republicans as corrupt “insiders” (Bloomberg News ran a prescient profile of Bannon in October 2015, calling him “the most dangerous political operative in America”).
Even after his elevation in the new Trump administration, Bannon was often euphemistically labelled in news accounts as a “provocateur” or “ rebrand” without specific reference to his disparagement of blacks, Jews, Muslims, gays and “liberal feminists”.
This record notwithstanding, is it fair to attribute these views to the president-elect and the 60million-plus Americans who voted for him?
There is little evidence that racial prejudice was a prime motivator for most blue-collar Trump supporters, many of whom felt threatened by globalisation and wage stagnation and were angered by what they saw as a betrayal of the working class by Washington elites.
Unquestionably, though, Trump’s serial bigotry was central to his appeal for many, as was made clear afterward to those he had targeted.
In an unprecedented wave of post- election attacks, supporters across the country hurled threats and insults at blacks, Latinos, Muslims, gays and other minorities.
Swastikas and KKK insignias were spray-painted on mosques, synagogues and student centres. Hate crimes reported to police rose to record levels. Fears of suddenly legitimised discrimination prompted post-election protest marches in most major cities.
Why didn’t more in the media see this coming?
From the beginning of the campaign, coverage of openly bigoted pro-Trump groups presented an ethical dilemma for news organisations. No longer could they be dismissed as “fringe” extremists when their views were being openly championed and their support seemingly welcomed by a major-party presidential nominee.
Yet there was still little evidence that they represented an election-swaying voting bloc. And it could be argued that giving front-page prominence to their racial prejudices would only give them the publicity they craved and an undeserved political legitimacy.
Moreover, major US news organisations shared a belief that a Trump victory was highly unlikely and that after his seemingly inevitable defeat these groups would either retreat or be pushed back into obscurity.
The candidate himself, meanwhile, was inflammatory enough. Journalists who considered Trump’s persona and discourse more outlandish than dangerous were lulled into further complacency by their own polls which gave Clinton a seemingly insurmountable lead.
Now news organisations are taking this far-right political-media ecosystem seriously. Liberal commentators are belatedly warning against the post- election “normalising” of the racial biases and misogyny of leading Trump advisors and backers, as well as of those voiced by the man himself.
Is this “new normal” of campaign hate-speech really new? American political discourse has never been free of racism, misogyny, xenophobia or other prejudice. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects even the vilest verbal attacks on other people’s ethnicity and religious beliefs and many bigots have taken up these legal protections.
Appeals to racial prejudice led to the mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in the second world war and drastic restrictions on all Asian immigration decades before. The Klu Klux Klan itself also held election-period protests in northern states against the hiring of Catholic immigrants by big-city governments and police forces. (As a young man, Donald Trump’s German-American father was arrested by New York City police at an anti-Irish KKK march.)
Yet more recently, most “hate speech” was considered beyond the pale in political campaigns. This was not primarily for ideological or ethical reasons but because it was simply seen as bad form, bad politics and guaranteeing press condemnation. Even an avowed segregationist like George Wallace, the Alabama governor who ran for the presidency in the 1960s, was careful to avoid overtly racist language.
Political endorsements from groups like the KKK were considered politically toxic and quickly disavowed by most right-wing politicians. The rare media portrayals of smaller hate groups and publications typically focused on their influence on white domestic terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City claimed 168 lives.
These groups and their lone-wolf acolytes were seen as comprising a tiny if virulent minority on the far right. What was missed was how widespread anger at the election of the first African-American president and resentment against Latino immigration had fused into broader right-wing dissidence that embraced the racially charged rhetoric of these groups and sometimes these groups and their leaders themselves.
Still, there were limits. Most American conservative leaders spurned the “identitarian” ideology of Europe’s anti-immigrant right as antithetical to US traditions of ethnic and religious pluralism, even while they were blocking efforts to legalise undocumented immigrants. Among GOP legislators and past presidential aspirants, few associated themselves with the world views of Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders or Le Pen père.
But Trump made common cause with Europe’s anti-immigrant right, attacking Angela Merkel for opening Germany’s doors to Syrian refugees, cheering on the Brexit movement and even appearing with Farage by his side. After the election, Farage volunteered to serve as a United Kingdom liaison with the US president-elect.
Hard-right groups were delighted, citing Trump’s popularity as proof that their views could no longer be considered extreme. “Our message is more visible than ever before,” wrote Brad Griffin, editor of the white nationalist website Occidental Dissent, in early 2016. “It’s also all due to Trump’s presidential run … Can you imagine a world in which White Nationalists have come out of the closet, the charge of ‘racism’ elicits only a ‘meh’ and shrugged shoulders, and we have begun to openly organise?”
President Obama’s historic election in 2008 prompted an upsurge in openly racist anti-black rhetoric, the most common and deep-rooted form of US racial prejudice, but one rarely voiced aloud by politicians or media commentators.
In Obama’s case, this anti-black racism was intensified by xenophobic claims that the president was not really “American” but rather a Kenya-born Muslim, which received wide airing on right-wing radio and television, most prominently on Fox News, the country’s most-watched cable channel. The most prominent spokesman for this “birtherism” was Donald Trump, who used the issue to propel his rise as a GOP (Republican Party) presidential contender.
What was radically different in 2016 is that for the first time in American political history the standard-bearer of one of the two major US political parties had not only personally engaged in overt bigotry but deliberately positioned these prejudices at the centre of a presidential campaign.
As a result, scores of once-marginal far-right groups that had never before backed a major-party candidate became active supporters of Donald Trump. And Trump, to the dismay of many Republican Party professionals, refused to denounce these groups even though the party’s long-term viability depends on significant support from “minority” voters, who in much of the country are collectively nearing majority status. But Trump campaigned with contempt for the Republican establishment and other proponents of “political correctness”.
Trump never disavowed the support of self-declared neo-Nazis, who praised him as a kindred spirit. The chairman of the American Nazi Party, Rocky J Suhayda, told his followers that Trump’s campaign statements, “if nothing else, have shown that ‘our views’ are not so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”
The fascist-nativist Vanguard News Network declared that: “Only Trump can turn back the brown tide, and thinking Whites know this”. James Edwards, a white nationalist radio talk-show host, said with satisfaction: “Our people just needed a viable candidate and they’ve identified Trump as that man.”
In September, in an unusual campaign address, Hillary Clinton catalogued the many extremist groups backing the Trump campaign, most of them part of the self-proclaimed “alt-right”, the movement popularised by Breitbart News. Rather than take offence at Clinton’s speech, these groups welcomed her attacks and use of their preferred terminology as evidence of their growing influence.
“The term ‘alt-right’ is a rebranding of white supremacists for the digital age,” says Mark Potok, who monitors US “hate groups” for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
After Trump’s victory, not only in the reliably Republican south but in such former Democratic strongholds as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, are these hate groups now poised to expand their influence by placing their own candidates in races across the country, running as pro-Trump Republicans?
As Potok’s research shows, some already have, with the blessing of local GOP leaders, despite their white supremacist antecedents. Others entered major-party politics for the first time as Trump delegates in the Republican primaries. Few received national media attention at the time.
A common denominator of many of these activists is their prominence on the right-wing websites and radio shows that have reshaped the US media and political landscape and for which there is no equivalent on the left side of the spectrum.
Some of the more prominent include:
- William Johnson, head of the avowedly white-nationalist American Freedom Party and a Trump delegate in the presidential primaries, who proclaimed in campaign calls on Trump’s behalf: “The white race is dying out in America and Europe because we are afraid to be called ‘racist’.”
- Retired Lt Gen William G “Jerry” Boykin, one of the few former senior military officers publicly endorsing and campaigning for Trump. Boykin was best known for being reprimanded by then-president George W Bush for portraying US deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan as “a holy war against Islam” and proposing a ban on the construction of mosques throughout the United States. Now leading a militant evangelical Christian group called the “Kingdom Warriors” Boykin appeared often on television news shows as a Trump supporter and surrogate before and after the election.
- Frank Gaffney, from the hard-right Islamophobic fringe of the national security commentariat, was named as a foreign policy advisor to Trump’s transition team. Gaffney, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, runs the Center for Security Policy, a small, anodyne-sounding nonprofit organisation which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a “hate group” for its attacks on Muslim-Americans and accusations of “treason” against the non-Muslim American officials who defend them. He also hosts his own online radio show, with leading white supremacists as frequent guests.
- David Duke, a former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, who had been roundly condemned by national Republican leaders as he courted their voters in his previous campaigns for state and federal office. In 2016 he ran again, as an independent Louisiana candidate for the Senate and a vocal advocate for Trump.
Early in his campaign, Trump refused to disavow Duke’s support, disingenuously professing unfamiliarity with both Duke and the KKK. He later backtracked, claiming “microphone problems” and saying he did disapprove of the Klan. Duke campaigned for Trump for months afterward, without drawing any public rebuke from him. Not until late August did the Trump campaign publicly condemn and disavow him.
Trump complained that he and his voters were caricatured in the media as “sexist, as racists, as xenophobes”. Yet he never directly rebuked supporters who were vociferously anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and/or misogynist. This was no oversight: his success in securing the Republican nomination and then victory in the election showed that those views are shared or at least tolerated by large segments of the electorate.
Moreover, the “mainstream media” that Trump lambasted was largely responsible for that unexpected success. His crude daily attacks on women and minorities created a ratings bonanza for the cable news networks, which broadcast his unscripted speeches live and at length, over an entire year, a favour not given to other candidates. Outbreaks of violence and Trump’s threats against protestors perversely legitimised the disproportionate coverage of his rallies, which the networks could claim were breaking news events.
Trump boasted, correctly, that in contrast to his rivals, he did not have to pay for television advertising. The New York Times estimated in March 2016 that he had already received the equivalent of more than $2 billion in free advertising from major media companies – about triple the broadcast and print coverage given to Hillary Clinton.
All that free publicity paid off. Trump ultimately collected more votes in the 2016 primaries than any Republican candidate before him. In the general election, he won northern states that hadn’t voted Republican in decades.
Throughout the campaign Trump consistently won majority support from white men, a demographic group accustomed to dominating US political life since the country’s founding. Many of them, as the election showed, remain deeply unsettled by the erosion of their long-unquestioned supremacy: exit polls showed white men favouring Trump over Clinton by two to one, a stunning margin, considering that Clinton actually carried the overall national popular vote.
That white male anger is not likely to dissipate, even with the victory of their chosen candidate. Activists on the bigoted right will continue to try to exploit these resentments and make further inroads into mainstream electoral politics.
Journalists have a responsibility to take this very seriously, to track and expose groups and “news sites” that promote and exacerbate prejudice and race-based grievances while professing allegiance to the next president, while also forcing Trump and his advisors to state on the record whether they accept such support.
News organisations may have been reluctant during the campaign to spotlight pro-Trump activists of the racist right, not wanting to make them appear more influential than they objectively were. But Trump has now brought these once-marginal forces into a governing national coalition, one which not only questions legal protections against racial and religious discrimination but actively condones hate speech.
This has all the makings of an unprecedented political and perhaps constitutional crisis. The ethical guideline for journalists in the months and years ahead is perhaps best summed up in the hashtag now frequently attached to news tweets about president- elect Trump: #NotNormal.