How the media sugarcoats Trump's dangerous support for white supremacy
Rushing to the defense of dangerous, extremist voices that were banned from Facebook and Instagram last week, Donald Trump made his boldest declaration yet that his presidency is permanently tied to America's white nationalist, anti-Muslim movement. Nearly two years after Trump refused to categorically denounce neo-Nazis who rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia, he's making his proud allegiance known to everyone. It's a stunning move for any American politician to make, let alone the person sitting in the Oval Office.
In doing so, Trump once again is daring the press to tell the truth about his hateful, radical ways. Once again, Trump is ripping up all the norms of decent behavior and betting that the press won't be completely honest with news consumers about what's unfolding in plain view: The president of the United States is embracing dangerous, fringe players who push violent rhetoric that's getting people killed.
There should be no ambiguity in the coverage of Trump's radical outreach to those who may be inspiring domestic terrorists. Journalists need to ditch passive, timid headline language about how he's endorsing "far-right activists" and "far-right voices," nebulous phrases that in this specific case do almost nothing to capture the deeply repugnant and dangerous behavior of Trump's online allies and help normalize the worst elements of American society.
Question: If a Democratic president had ever spent a morning tweeting out support for 9/11 truthers and hateful online players who warned of a creeping and violent Jewish conspiracy in America, do you think the news headlines would have described those voices merely as "far-left activists"? I certainly don't.
Speaking with Jared Holt, a reporter and researcher at Right Wing Watch who documents the right-wing underworld, he told me a more accurate and useful type of headline over the weekend would have been: "Trump goes to bat for dangerous conspiracy theorists."
I'd suggest a couple of other options, including:
"Trump goes to bat for dangerous white nationalists," and "Trump goes to bat for radical fringe voices who promote violence."
Holt stresses that while InfoWars' buffoonish founder Alex Jones is often the subject of ridicule, it's imperative that news coverage of him, including his recent social media banning, provide news consumers with details of why he's being de-platformed and why he's the subject of so many lawsuits. "It's fun to laugh at Alex Jones, but his audience is being fed anti-Muslim and sometimes anti-Semitic, white nationalist content," says Holt. "It's an incredibly dangerous mix that together with Alex Jones saying everyone needs to get guns and get ready for the civil war, creates a dangerous stew."
Trump's championing of the voices of hate and bigotry comes in the wake of the latest deadly attack from a white, domestic, right-wing terrorist in the U.S. Last month, a white supremacist shooter opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California. The arrested killer's statement, which he posted online, "included the hallmarks common among radicalized white supremacists, such as adulation of suspected or convicted mass murderers and propagation of the false claims of a global plan to replace white people," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which notes that "ideas behind the “white genocide” conspiracy theory are promoted by pundits" such as Lauren Southern. She was among the white nationalists Trump recently amplified on Twitter.
It was against that stark backdrop that Facebook on Thursday, in a long overdue and helpful move, announced that it would no longer permit conspiratorial madness content from InfoWars to be shared on Facebook, or Instagram, which Facebook also owns. Additionally, Facebook announced it was banning accounts run by Jones, and by racist Paul Joseph Watson, InfoWars’ former editor at large. (The companies also banned neo-Nazi sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos, and anti-Muslim bigot Laura Loomer.)
Why did the move matter? "The newly banned figures owed their influence to the massive reach they were allowed to cultivate through Facebook and Instagram, using their accounts to post content that dehumanized entire communities, promoted hateful conspiracy theories, and radicalized audiences," as Media Matters noted. "All while they profited from directing people to their own websites." Jones actually used an affiliated Instagram account recently to push disgusting conspiracy theories about the death of Jeremy Richman, whose daughter Avielle was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. (Jones insists that no one was actually hurt at Sandy Hook because the victims were all actors.)
After the bans were announced last week, Trump's campaign manager, Brad Pascale, got hammered online by right-wing extremists who accused Trump of not standing up for them in their battle with Facebook and Instagram. Trump's Twitter account soon began cranking out loud declarations of sympathy and allegiance. The tweets also played up the beloved conservative narrative about being the victims of the "liberal media." On Saturday Trump retweeted an overt Qanon conspiracy account highlighting a claim between Islam and “the elites.” He also tweeted a prominent white nationalist, an InfoWars video, and two tweets from an InfoWars reporter.
These are repugnant players so far out of the mainstream in terms of depravity that most wouldn't even be welcomed onto Fox News (although Fox host Tucker Carlson does his best to mainstream their white nationalist, talking points). Yet Trump's now touting them. He clearly seems to be focused on his 2020 re-election campaign, and wants desperately to have radical-right players from the white nationalist movement play key roles in his propaganda push that will take place largely online. And he wants to frighten social media companies into not enforcing their policies against hate content. Trump’s tweet storm appears to be the latest broadside in the GOP's relentless effort to bully nervous tech companies. By falsely screaming "conservative censorship," they hope social media giants will look away as the Trump team swamps the internet with a tsunami of lies.
In the meantime, Trump is rounding up his army of online deplorables in the form of neo-Nazi sympathizers and white nationalist hate merchants. Now is not the time for the media to sugar coat this.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.