After Trump, Is the Media Normalizing the KKK?
I do not expect a corporate media that has never put morals, justice or decency above revenue to engage in a post-election reckoning and start doing the right thing. Particularly not after having spent nearly two years subjecting us—especially the vulnerable black and brown, Muslim and queer us—to a 24-7 reality show featuring Donald Trump dehumanizing us in the most bigoted, violent, racist rhetoric his fourth-grade vocabulary would allow.
I may have been embarrassingly foolish enough not to anticipate this same corporate media quickly and shamelessly capitalizing on Trump’s win by elevating, publicizing and mainstreaming the terrorists and bigots who championed his campaign. With the normalization of Trump a done deal, that’s exactly what they’re now doing. By dedicating TV shows and glowing articles to racists and hate groups, the media is moving Trump’s cheerleaders from the sidelines to the spotlight.
A&E has hitched its bandwagon to the Ku Klux Klan, the all-American terrorist group that made its name bombing and lynching African Americans, and which not coincidentally, went hard for Trump. The cable network has announced that in January, the docuseries “Generation KKK” will bring four Klan families into American households each week. All of the featured families include one member, generally a child or teen, who wants out of the Klan family tradition. The series will also include three anti-racist activists who—with the best of intentions, I honestly believe—are “working to break the cycle, by helping to convince members to leave the hate group,” according to an A&E press release. “We certainly didn’t want the show to be seen as a platform for the views of the KKK,” Rob Sharenow, the general manager of A&E, told the New York Times. “The only political agenda is that we really do stand against hate.”
It seems counterintuitive, even dumb, that in the moment after a loud white supremacist won a presidential election on the strength of being a loud white supremacist, the best way to “stand against hate” is to give loud white supremacists who supported him a primetime cable TV show. The seemingly endless first season of “Trump’s America” has already been picked up for at least four years, and probably far longer. Hardcore racism and harassment aren’t lacking promotional vehicles, and are already trending IRL for black and brown people. There have been more than 1,000 hate crimes documented since the election, with one-third of attackers referencing Trump.
Does the White House, where white nationalist sympathizer and propagandist Steve Bannon now has an office, and the presidential cabinet, bursting at the seams with white supremacists, not offer the movement enough visibility? After 150 years of documented Klan terror, is anyone in this country still confused about the KKK’s core tenets or who its targets are? Rewatch video from Trump’s campaign rallies if you’re having a hard time remembering how hatred, in its kinetic form, looks. They're all over YouTube. Just be sure you’re looking at footage from 2016 and not 1966, because it’s hard to tell them apart.
From here, it seems like A&E, which re-hired the star (and Trump supporter) of its cash-cow "Duck Dynasty" after he claimed black people were “singing and happy” before the Civil Rights Movement, is less interested in earnestly standing "against hate" and instead cynically invested in upping its ad dollars. During the campaign, every channel, newspaper and website became Trump’s bully pulpit, giving him an estimated $3 billion in free advertising and the kind of normalization you cannot put a price on. The flagging media industry grew richer off Trump and outspoken racism, but apparently it’s never enough.
If A&E really wanted to take a stand against hate, as numerous others have pointed out, it could offer pretty much the same show, only focused on Al-Qaeda or ISIL. They might include a special unit of friendly anti-terrorists to help guide potential deserters toward the light. Better yet—as the country’s biggest police union asks its law-and-order PEOTUS to reinstate racist racial profiling, to cut funds for sanctuary cities and to expand local police powers to deport Dreamers and other immigrants—why not a show aimed at stopping the hate against these marginalized groups and highlighting advocacy groups working on their behalf? Or perhaps an eight-hour series debunking the nonsense allegations that Black Lives Matter, a grassroots organization working to fight systemic inequality and police brutality, is a dangerous organization. Blow up the ridiculous idea that you cannot be pro-police and at the same time oppose police abuse and racist violence, which is an idea a lot of white people need help with. There are a million communities and organizations that will desperately need to be heard as Trump and his emboldened racist followers use regressive laws and even violence to try taking their country back. Why can’t they have reality TV shows?
This point deserves emphasis, especially since one of the subjects of A&E’s new program has already had multiple star turns. In the trailer for “Generation KKK,” Mississippi Imperial Wizard Steven Howard offers insight into why a Klan member would appear for free on a program that purports to be about taking the group down. “I want to be the next David Duke,” Howard says. “I want to see them saying my name at presidential debates.” To that end, Howard has prominently appeared in a short documentary film, an episode of "Nightline" and an installment of Vice Reports (in which he states, “In some way we can relate to Islamic extremists, just like we are Christian extremists”), all of which I found with a quick Google search. In one clip, Howard wistfully recalls that his obsession with the Klan began at age 9, when his mother brought home Mississippi Burning, a film based on the brutal Klan murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. That movie is, by every possible rational and sane measure, an anti-Klan film. Obviously, Howard recognizes the power of media to spread the Klan’s gospel to the lost and receptive, even when the stated objective is to use the ugliness of hate against itself.
There is, arguably, a point to knowing thine enemy, especially since homegrown terrorists and “patriots” pose far more danger to American citizens than ISIL does. No one is questioning that. What I am questioning is whether the dawn of Trump is the right time for intimate, sympathetic, humanizing images of Klansmen and their interior struggles.
“People involved in hate groups do so because they’re suffering,” Arno Michaelis, one of the show’s anti-racist interventionists says in A&E’s press release. It seems clear from that statement that this “Generation KKK” will dive into the troubled backstories of its Klan members to show us the Tormented Soul Within™. Surely, I cannot be the only person exhausted to learn of yet another venue for white pain to take precedence over the fear and intimidation of those victimized by it. No matter how long the history of violence of the gangs they join, no matter how horrific the crimes they commit, white people are allowed to be complicated. Inner anguish and trauma drive them to do terrible things, but they are always redeemable.
This is why an article about a white guy who murdered nine black parishioners in a South Carolina black church might even be headlined “Why didn't anyone help Dylann Roof?” It's why a report about Sandy Hook mass murderer Adam Lanza focused on his “depression and anxiety,” concluding “interventions and services...could have and should have been delivered over the course of his life.” Black folks never merit that kind of empathy or compassion. When a 14-year-old black girl at a pool party was tackled to the ground by a white cop who sat on her back and pulled a gun as she sobbed, Megyn Kelly saw fit to smear her as “no saint.” The New York Times labeled Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager murdered by a white cop, “no angel.” Sympathy and understanding is for white people, you see.
America loves stories of redeemable card-carrying white racists, because it allows white people who don’t officially belong to lurid racist clubs to see themselves as free of racism, by virtue of the fact that they don’t wear hoods or burn crosses. These stories pretend that white supremacy isn’t woven into the daily going-abouts of most of this country, as if racial inequality exists only at Klan rallies, not perpetuated by every institution. Liberal whites, like those who fight to keep their kids out of black schools in New York City’s hypersegregated system, get to feel the warm and fuzzy denial of their complicity in white supremacy while still benefiting from it. It’s like the movie, The Blind Side, only inside out and upside down.
So, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, instead of a slow creep of overt white racist normalization, it’s been lightning fast and almost admirably efficient. People went overboard gushing about Trevor Noah’s genteel disagreements with Tomi Lahren on the Daily Show, but what did her appearance really achieve other than growing her audience? Lahren lied about black crime statistics to justify police brutality, compared BLM to the KKK, and said of black, unarmed, police-shooting victims, “in a number of cases, if the victim ended up being unarmed, it was certainly not for lack of trying.” She spews toxic racist venom and stokes hatred, appealing to white grievances against communities they have always scapegoated for convenience. Obviously, people with different points of view can't converse and disagree. But Tomi Lahren, like Donald Trump, has dedicated her career to maligning and dehumanizing vulnerable people. Why give her another forum 10 times the size of her own to spout her racist babble? Why legitimize her in any way by pretending she is a rational thinking with a valid point of view?
Try opening a magazine or reading the internet lately without seeing mention of Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who thinks there should be legal, forced sterilization of people of color and a white ethno-state without Jews. Mother Jones called him “dapper” in a headline (the word has since been removed) and described him as “an articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a ‘fashy’ (as in fascism) haircut.” The Los Angeles Times tweeted a photo of Spencer with the message, “Meet the new think tank in town,” as if racism is some emerging disruptive trend that just got VC funding. The guy who invented the term “alt-right” (a twist on the term “altreich,” referring to pre-1938 Nazi Germany) to rebrand racism is getting treated like a pinup. A few days ago, Spencer announced he’s considering running for Congress, to determine if “America is a safe space for white people.” "I'm trying to normalize 'racism,' as you call it,” he said in a recent interview. “Absolutely I'm trying to normalize my ideas, our ideas, of the alt-right."
There is no bad press for these people. White nationalists celebrated when Hillary Clinton mentioned them, to discuss how awful they are, during the campaign. Republicans, always a craven group, are reportedly too afraid of Sean Hannity and Breitbart to contradict Donald Trump in public—a story Breitbart was all too happy to re-report. Bill O’Reilly has always been a pretty up-front racist, but now he’s complaining about people of color seeking equality in the face of the "white establishment.” Certainly, the media has always been down with racism, overreporting black crime and arrests, putting black victims of white crimes on public trial, and generally reflecting the implicit bias of its overwhelmingly white producers. But Trump proved white supremacy, which has always dominated the market, adds a lot more to the bottom line when you turn it up to 11.
"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Les Moonves, the CEO and executive chairman of CBS, said during campaign season. “The money's rolling in and this is fun...this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going!”
Unfortunately, they’re trying their damndest.