Gentle Reader – the attempt to “normalize” these bigots and racists has begun. Remember, the violence these people are capable of perpetrating upon us will always start with words; indeed the words have begun. They are not normal; this is not a normal time.
Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and how bigotry became a cool new trend
29 November, 2016
There is no journalism course that prepares students for the advent of a bigot in high office. How does one address the president-elect of the United States and his associates when they have clearly made racist, sexist or antisemitic statements? It is a protocol of tact and diplomacy that has not recently been tested in the western world. But some in the media have not risen to the challenge, choosing instead to treat the office and status with a respect that has been voided by its occupants.
Ivanka Trump is already the subject of the softest of “first daughter” profiles. And, days after the election, Jared Kushner – Ivanka’s husband – smiled at us while fixing his tie on the cover of Forbes, with the toast: “This guy got Trump elected – America’s new power broker is now poised to scale.” The Daily Telegraph, doing its bit to instil calm and serenity at a turbulent time, urged us not to panic about Melania’s style credentials – “so far she hasn’t put a foot wrong”.
High-office bigotry also necessitates a jarring cultural adjustment. This sort of thing happens to other people, in “undeveloped” nations, where infant mortality is high and women can’t wear what they want. Their leaders (though often elected) are womanising, nepotistic, corrupt despots living in gauchely decorated palaces. But is this so different?
Beyond diplomacy and cultural disorientation, though, there are more sinister reasons for some of the normalising: a deference to a winning class, an almost primal subordination to the victors as dominating facts of nature. Immediately a narrative of hagiography arises, framing the rise to power as the journey of a committed, principled zealot.
Trump’s pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions – a man accused of using the N-word and demanding that black people be careful how they address white people – was described as being “dogged” by his racist past by the BBC, the Times and CNN. The feat of contortion required to render Sessions passive in such headlines is beyond politeness or fear of litigation.
The term “alt-right” is proving to be a helpfully sanitising nomenclature that has saved many from calling things as they are. It is an innocuous, perhaps cool name for a movement that is defined by an ideology of ethnic purity, and encompassing neo-Nazis, white supremacists and even the Ku Klux Klan. Thankfully the Associated Press, for one, is now reviewing its use.
There are also other elements embedded in modern media DNA: the celebrity profile and a fixation on the new. White nationalists are not an existential threat to America: they are a “hot” trend, and you will not believe what they have to say! They are dapper and glamorously edgy, presented as if anti-heroes treading the corridors in House of Cards, flawed but somehow lovable. Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who called Hillary Clinton “a whore of Babylon drunk on the blood of the saints”, and who thinks the Sandy Hook massacre was staged, was profiled in the style section of the Washington Post.
The lack of abhorrence is not professional restraint: it is genuine. Whether it is awkwardness, laziness or morbid fascination, these are the privileges of the fundamentally unaffected. If there were more women, people of colour and gay journalists in senior positions, there would be far less preciousness over whether to call someone a racist, sexist or homophobe.
But there would still be some. The pull of money in a struggling industry is too strong. CNN’s coverage of the “Trump transition” is a modern version of a medieval freak show. Step right up and gawk at Richard Spencer, the Trump supporter and head of far-right thinktank the National Policy Institute, as he questions whether Jews “are people at all, or instead soulless golem”. Marvel at the black Trump surrogate who thinks Hillary Clinton started the war in Syria.
In pursuit of ratings – from behind a “freedom of speech” fig leaf – many media platforms have detoxified radical and untruthful behaviour that was until recently confined to the darker corners of Reddit and Breitbart. Outlets such as CNN treated the Trump nomination like a fun slasher flick. At some point one has to ask: is this still journalism?
Few are in doubt that swaths of the British and US media are no longer a fourth estate, speaking truth to power. But it is at moments like this – and there have been many since Trump’s victory – that history reveals itself to us. If it were ever a mystery as to how the media come to be co-opted in dictatorships and are appointed handmaidens to demagogues, this is how it happens. It rarely stars with brute oppression: it starts with hesitation, then deference – and culminates in collusion.