The outlandish rhetoric of Republican presidential wildcard Donald Trump has left many journalists at a loss for words–words such as bigotry, xenophobia, racism, sexism and demagoguery.
Some media outlets raised these issues. Yet many reporters (or perhaps their editors) still seem reluctant to move past the aphasic and simplistic sports-reporting model, in which ideological content analysis is renounced.
An example of a typical article is the piece on Trump’s stump speech by Michael Finnegan and Kurtis Lee in the Los Angeles Times (9/15/15). It is well-written, colorful and even includes the obligatory single sentence from an anti-Trump protester. Yet there is little serious political or historic context.
One line does note that Trump borrowed from “Richard Nixon’s polarizing pledge to stand up for the ‘silent majority’ amid the social upheaval of the 1960s.” Nixon’s speech, however, concerned support for the Vietnam War. A more apt comparison would have been Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to garner votes from white voters (The Nation, 11/13/12).
Journalists and scholars familiar with the rise of contemporary right-wing populist political parties and social movements in Europe, however, recognize that xenophobic, anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric can lead to acts of violence.
For several years, I have had editors tell me that the contention that right-wing rhetoric can lead to violence is a liberal myth. Right-wing media pundits certainly reject this claim. Yet this is a well-studied chain of events, analyzed by scholars since the rise of fascism in Europe following World War I and the Nazi genocide during World War II. So I wrote a survey of the scholarship as a book chapter titled “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence.” In it, I summarized the consensus:
The leaders of organized political or social movements sometimes tell their followers that a specific group of “Others” is plotting to destroy civilized society. History tells us that if this message is repeated vividly enough, loudly enough, often enough, and long enough–it is only a matter of time before the bodies from the named scapegoated groups start to turn up.
Freedom of speech is not the issue. A free and open debate is a necessity for democracy. Trump therefore is not legally culpable for any acts of violence against his named scapegoats. Trump should be held accountable on a moral basis by the media for his using the tools of fear, such as demonization and scapegoating, that put real people at risk for attacks.
The progressive press has done a better job of pointing out this ugly potential. Writing for The Nation (9/14/15), Julianne Hing argued, “It’s clear that the xenophobia at the core of Trump’s campaign is resonating, and his antics are already echoing beyond the campaign trail into both culture and policy.” Hing quotes Mario Carrillo of the immigrant rights group United We Dream as saying Trump’s “rhetoric is leading to real-life consequences.”
Many instances of physical attacks are chronicled in Hing’s article, although motivation is usually unclear. One pair of attackers did tell police they were directly influenced by Trump’s rhetoric, according to the Associated Press (9/3/15). Trump said he does not condone violence. Nonetheless, immigrant rights activists worry violence will increase.
Adele Stan in the American Prospect (9/9/15) put it boldly:
What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.
The headline for Evan Horowitz’s piece in the Boston Globe (8/19/15) claims “Donald Trump Blazes a European Path in American Politics,” and Horowitz asks, “Does Donald Trump represent the emergence of a new force in American politics, a right-populist movement that could reorganize the American” political spectrum? Missing is the fact that, from President Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s through George Wallace in the 1970s to Pat Buchanan, there have been right-wing populist movements in the United States. It is not a European import.
Part of this confusion over Trump is definitional: Scholars write entire books trying to map out the contours of right-wing political and social movements, especially the line dividing right-wing populism and neofascism. The pre-eminent scholar in this area, University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, explained in the Washington Post (8/26/15):
The key features of the populist radical right ideology — nativism, authoritarianism, and populism — are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.
For many scholars, right-wing populism is classified as part of the “radical right,” while the term “extreme right” is reserved for insurgent groups seeking to overturn the constitutional order.
In his book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Mudde lists as common “extreme right” features nationalism, racism, xenophobia, anti-democracy and the strong state, including a law-and-order approach.
In his Ideology of the Extreme Right, Mudde wrote:
The terms neo-Nazism and to a lesser extent neo-fascism are now used exclusively for parties and groups that explicitly state a desire to restore the Third Reich (in the case of neo-fascism the Italian Social Republic) or quote historical National Socialism (fascism) as their ideological influence.
That’s not Trump. His ideology and rhetoric are much more comparable to the European populist radical right, akin to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. All of them use the common radical right rhetoric of nativism, authoritarianism and populism.
“Donald Trump Is an Actual Fascist” trumpets the headline in Salon (7/25/15) for Conor Lynch’s confused and badly researched article on Trump. Ignoring the current rise of xenophobic neo-fascist groups in Europe, Lynch tells us that “fascism died in the mid-20th century.”
Undermining Salon’s headline, Lynch tells us the “GOP are obviously not fascists, but they share a family resemblance.” The resemblance, according to Lynch, is explained in the famous quote attributed to Italy’s fascist dictator during World War II, Benito Mussolini:
Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.
According to Lynch, this “definition may very well fit the GOP ideology: a kind of corporate fascism.” Alas, the quote is a hoax, widely circulated on the internet but debunked years ago. Mussolini never wrote or said anything like that, since the fake statement refutes Mussolini’s views on fascism.
More complicated is the detailed and erudite polemic in Truthout (9/15/15) by Henry A. Giroux, expanded from Tikkun (9/9/15). In “Political Frauds and the Ghost of Totalitarianism,” Giroux invokes the theories of world-famous philosopher Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism. He warns that widespread civic illiteracy in the US population is more than the media manufacturing “ignorance on an individual scale”; it is, in fact
producing a nationwide crisis of agency, memory and thinking itself…a kind of ideological sandstorm in which reason gives way to emotion, and a willful limitation on critical thought spreads through the culture as part of a political project that both infantilizes and depoliticizes the general public.
According to Giroux, “Donald Trump is not the singular clown who has injected bizarre and laughable notions into US politics; he is the canary in the mineshaft warning us that totalitarianism relies on mass support and feeds on hate, moral panics” and what Arendt called the “the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude.”
Yet long before the appearance of totalitarianism in the modern era, the United States saw mass movements that used force to subjugate or purge the degraded and demonized “Other.” As a nation, we enforced white Christian nationalism through the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement and mass murder of black people for profit. For many decades, immigrants including those who were Irish, Italian, Polish or Russian were second-class citizens, not considered “white.” Women had few rights and were treated as the property of their fathers, then their husbands. Jews were perpetual outsiders. People with unpopular religious views were shunned and in some instances killed. Chinese were excluded, Japanese were interned in camps. Nativist racism periodically has cut a bloody gash through our body politic, without reliance on totalitarianism.
Trump is not an example of creeping totalitarianism; he is the white man growing hoarse with bigoted canards while riding at the forefront of a new nativist movement. Adele Stan bluntly suggests that to “ask if the rogue Republican’s surge is good for Democrats is the wrong question.” Instead, we need to ask what is wrong with America, “that this racist, misogynist, money-cheating clown should be the frontrunner for the presidential nomination of one of its two major parties?”
Trump feeds the resentment felt by many people who are white, male, straight or Christian who feel displaced by “Others” taking over “their” nation. These people see themselves as the real producers of value in the United States, and consider the disparaged “Others” to be parasites. Thus the 2012 campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was built around the clandestine theme of mobilizing the “makers” against the “takers,” as reported by Eric Schulzke in the Deseret News (9/19/12). This is called “producerism” by scholars, and it is a central element of right-wing populism in the United States.
What fuels this sort of bitter backlash movement now? The late scholar Jean Hardisty of Political Research Associates argued in 1995 that a confluence of several historic factors has assisted the success of the right in the United States:
- a conservative religious revitalization,
- economic contraction and restructuring,
- race resentment and bigotry,
- backlash and social stress, and
- a well-funded network of right-wing organizations.
“Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history,” wrote Hardisty:
While they usually overlap to some extent, they also can be seen as distinct, identifiable phenomenon. The lightning speed of the right’s rise can be explained by the simultaneous existence of all five factors. Further, in this period they not only overlap, but reinforce each other. This mutual reinforcement accounts for the exceptional force of the current rightward swing.
Scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, suggest that this set of circumstances makes many Americans fear the end of the “American Dream.” This backlash is picking up speed. The Republican voter base in the Tea Party long ago shifted its attention away from fiscal restraint toward anti-immigrant xenophobia, banning abortion and pushing gay people back into the closet.
Many scholars of fascism and neofascism now suggest right-wing populism can metamorphosize into these fascistic totalitarian forms, but they recognize that it seldom does–and that fascist movements seldom gain state power. Yet the demonization and scapegoating that accompanies right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a counter-subversion panic targeting immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, feminists, gay people, liberals and leftists. Planned Parenthood has become a special target to appeal to the Christian Right.
While racism is not confined to the American South, a recent study by sociologists Rory McVeigh and David Cunningham, described on Brandeis Now (12/4/14), found that a significant predictor of current Republican voting patterns in the South is the prior existence of a strong chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the area in the 1960s. McVeigh writes on the London School of Economics website (12/17/14) that although “populist politics appealed to many Southern voters in earlier times, the Southern Democratic Party was also a key instrument in the defense of white privilege and racial oppression.”
The passage of federal Civil Rights Act in 1964 propelled many Democratic Party “Dixiecrats” into the Republican Party, where they now appear at campaign rallies in freebie “gimme hats” touting Monsanto, Koch brothers fertilizers and Coors beer. They choose racial privilege over economic security. That’s What’s the Matter With Kansas. Now this mass base cheers Trump on while he is Mobilizing Resentment–the title of Hardisty’s 1999 book about the rise of right-wing politics in the US.
McVeigh argues that it is shifts in power dynamics and hierarchies in economic, political and social spheres that launch the processes in which radical right-wing groups attract members, and sometimes a mass base large enough to intrude into the larger society. Using as his analytical example the Klan in the 1920s, McVeigh demonstrates that the right-wing KKK in the 1920s was composed of white people attempting to defend their relatively more privileged position in the social, political and economic life of their communities (E-Extreme, 2-3/10).
According to McVeigh, in his book The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics, “the Klan can best be understood as a response to devaluation in the economic, political and status-based ‘purchasing power’ of the movement’s constituents.” McVeigh adds that “right-wing movements often provide individuals with an effective vehicle for preserving status-based interests as well as political and economic interests.”
During the 1920s, millions of Americans joined the Klan, turning it into a major electoral force in several states with an important role in national politics. The tropes of racial threats posed by people of color as rapists and murderers were glued to the American psyche even before decades of stories planted by Klan organizers in their stump speeches for membership, notes Gerald Horne of the University of Houston, whom I interviewed for the Washington Spectator (8/1/15) after Dylann Roof allegedly murdered nine black people in a historic Charleston, South Carolina, church. Roof told a participant in a Bible study: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country…and you have to go.”
In covering the story, the New York Times (6/22/15) invented a cowardly phrase, “white primacy,” to describe the blatantly white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, where Dylann Roof apparently learned this storyline.
On the day of the Republican candidates debate, the New York Times (9/16/15) burnished Trump’s rising star, declaring that Trump was starting to:
conform to some of the demands of a presidential race, making him, in some ways, more of a typical politician. It suggests that, as much as the Republican electorate is becoming more comfortable with the idea of Mr. Trump as its standard-bearer, he is embracing the rituals and expectations of the role, too.
The Trump candidacy and the shooting in Charleston are connected thematically by a mobilization to defend white nationalism while the racial and ethnic face of America changes hue. The populist right and the extreme right fuel each other. The more we as a nation ignore this process of nativist demonization, the more targets will be painted on the backs of our neighbors. History will record how long these right-wing backlash movements will spread their virulent rhetorical venom in our nation. But as Arendt observed, history judges us as individuals as to whether or not we stood up and spoke out against the banality of evil.
Chip Berlet has written about bigotry for over 40 years, much of it while an analyst at Political Research Associates. He is co-author with Matthew N. Lyons of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort and has published scholarly articles on the dynamics of right-wing populism, fascism and totalitarianism. Additional resources for this article are at http://www.researchforprogress.us/jump/fair2015.html .