By Jim Miller
Nothing about the Trump-driven spectacle of the last few weeks should be shocking if you have been paying the slightest amount of attention to American politics.
It’s been an obvious fact for years that Trump is a racist and has done everything he can to stoke the ugliest aspects of the American political imagination. It was disgustingly clear when he led a campaign designed to “other” the first African American president of the United States by absurdly questioning his citizenship, and it was also evident in his very productive use of our long history of anti-immigrant fervor and xenophobia during and after his campaign for the presidency.
Thus Trump’s handling of Charlottesville and his pardoning of Joe Arpaio, the Bull Connor of our time, are simply the continuation of his long history of racism.
What is also not shocking is the attempt by many in the media to paint Trump’s recent behavior as an aberration, a strangely deviant manifestation of ideas that are not part of the American mainstream. This ideological maneuver might reflect a desire not to offend consumers and/or help us feel better about ourselves in the wake of Charlottesville, but it is a delusion.
As I noted in a column on Trump during the campaign:
The frequent portrayal of Trump as an aberrant figure who has stepped outside the boundaries of mainstream American political discourse simply protests too much . . . Donald Trump is not some “out of nowhere” demagogue who caught us unsuspecting; he is the pure product of the last thirty years of ugly American politics where “the center” has increasingly moved to the right.
Indeed, rather than being an appalling exception to the American rule, Trump is the lightning flash that illuminates our greater darkness. The truth is that large numbers of Republicans still support Trump because he is the culmination of years of right wing politics fueled by cultural backlash, resentment, and hate. Historical and/or any other kind of verifiable fact don’t mean a thing to these folks, whether we are talking about race, economics, or climate change. The uncomfortable reality is, as I wrote in that earlier column:
A sizable portion of the American public doesn’t just hate Muslims and other “minorities,” they hate unions, the government, feminists, science, the cultural elite, the “liberal” media, and pretty much anything that threatens their mythical sense of American identity that is one part John Wayne film, one party Disney, one part cage fight.
And part of the problem is that the mainstream media is failing miserably at its job which should be to thoroughly debunk the cultural myths that underlie our current reign of error.
We find that the structure and composition of media on the right and left are quite different. The leading media on the right and left are rooted in different traditions and journalistic practices. On the conservative side, more attention was paid to pro-Trump, highly partisan media outlets. On the liberal side, by contrast, the center of gravity was made up largely of long-standing media organizations steeped in the traditions and practices of objective journalism.
Score one for the liberals, right? What could be wrong with “objective journalism” that gives “both sides” of the story while covering Trump? Answer: It unwittingly legitimizes lies and normalizes racism. As Alterman observes, “If ‘both sides’ are quoted equally, then the journalist cannot easily be accused of favoring one over the other. It does not matter if one of the sides happens to be crazy or lying or racist or whatever. That’s up to the reader to decide.”
The result of this, Alterman argues, is that “the mainstream media is much more likely to follow the lead of the liars than to challenge them.” This is the aim of all the crying about the media from Trump and his enablers, to discipline and shape mainstream media coverage with the use of what Noam Chomsky called “flak” while the right-wing outlets present a readily consumable alternative reality for true believers. In the end, the entire public discourse gets pulled to the right.
Hence, Alterman notes:
[C]onservatives are winning a war that liberals, centrists and, indeed, anyone who believes that politics should be tethered to recognizable reality don’t even know they are fighting. Racism and Islamophobia from outlets like Breitbart and the lunatic ravings of Infowars’ Alex Jones — which somehow make even Breitbart appear relatively reasonable — drove the news coverage of the election even in our most prestigious outlets.
In the months following the election, this tendency has been continuing and that’s a very bad thing for our public discourse and democracy. While it is true that the Trump circus has been a legislative disaster, it has been successful in empowering racists and bringing things which should not even be subject to debate back into the public discussion. Matt Taibbi hit the nail on the head as he always does in a recent Rolling Stone piece:
This is Trump’s legacy. Because of his total inability to concentrate or lead, he will likely never do anything meaningful with the real governmental power he possesses – if he had a tenth of the managerial skills of Hitler, we’d be in impossibly deep shit right now. But as an enabler of behavior, as a stoker of arguments and hardener of resentments, he has no equal. Under Trump, racists become more racist, the woke necessarily become more woke, and areas of compromise among all quickly dwindle and disappear. He has us arguing about things that weren’t even questions a few minutes ago, like, are Nazis bad?
Trump has shown, once again, that his power to bring out the worst in people is limitless. And we should know by now that he’s never finished, never beaten. Historically, he’s most dangerous when he’s at his lowest. And he’s never been lower than now.
And that is a very dangerous thing indeed.