Column: Dear Media: Please stop normalizing the alt-right
Why does the March for Life, a rally that attracts tens of thousands of anti-abortion Americans to Washington, D.C., every year get less prominent media coverage than a fringe neo-Nazi gathering? Because institutional media and white nationalists have formed a politically convenient symbiotic relationship.
For Jew-hating racists, the attention means they can playact as a viable and popular movement with pull in Washington. In return, many in the media get to confirm their own biases and treat white supremacy as if it were the secret ingredient to Republican success.
Meanwhile, this obsessive coverage of the alt-right not only helps mainstream a small movement but it’s also exactly what the bigots need and want to grow.
Check out the coverage of this weekend’s National Policy Institute conference in Washington. As far as I can tell, these pseudointellectual xenophobic bull sessions have been going on for years, featuring many of the same names. These people have generally been given the attention they deserve, which is to say exceptionally little. If you read this week’s headlines, though, you would have thought the German American Bund had packed 22,000 cheering fascists into the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center.
A New York Times headline read, “Alt-Right Exults in Donald Trump’s Election With a Salute: ‘Heil Victory.’”
Politico’s headline read, “Alt-right celebrates Trump’s election at D.C. meeting.”
NPR’s read, “Energized By Trump’s Win, White Nationalists Gather To ‘Change The World.’”
Every major cable news network had a discussion about the importance of the Institute. But here’s a little nugget from the NPR piece that asserts the election has given this “once fringe movement a jolt”:
“About 300 people – split nearly evenly between conference attendees and protesters of the conference outside – were on hand at the downtown D.C. event.”
About 300 people? Some jolt. To put that into context, there were well over 300 people at thousands of churches and temples across the Washington area this weekend praying for peace on Earth. In this country, you could pull together 300 people for a meeting about anything, actually. Thousands of UFO enthusiasts got together in the Arizona desert last year in hopes of not being mass abducted by space aliens.
A few years ago, I attended the Socialist convention in Chicago, where at least a thousand activists gathered to discuss how to end economic freedom. Since then, 43 percent of Democrat primary goers have given this extreme movement a jolt, I guess.
Then again, it’s possible not every self-styled American “socialist” is an ideological purist about handing production of iPhones to the state. We’d be wise to view many on the alt-right with similar skepticism.
Still, it is indisputable that many of these people are odious — and not odious in the way liberals think of Republicans who worry about refugees from Syria, or in the way immigration laws are odious. We have a responsibility to use morally precise language when referring to this group (which, in this case, is the neo-Nazi group); contextualize their influence (which is little but more than it should be); and unequivocally call them out. We should never, ever glamorize them for political purposes.
Why do media obsessively cover the alt-right? I suppose it’s the same reason every major publication gave former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke – who polled at 3 to 4 percent in the Louisiana Senate race all year – their undivided attention. (What am I talking about? We’re still hearing about Duke on a daily basis.) It’s to create the impression that they matter.
None of this is to say Trump shouldn’t be called out for his vulgar rhetoric or ideas, some of which gave these people the space they needed. Nor does it absolve Republicans who look the other way when genuine bigotry appears. Yes, GOPers shouldn’t normalize the alt-right, and neither should the media imbue the movement with an outsized importance to feed its preferred narrative regarding the election.
For some reporters, I imagine it’s a matter of perception. Conservative critics of Trump were relentlessly attacked by astroturfing neo-Nazi types on social media during the primaries. After the primaries, when liberal journalists finally focused on Trump, they, too, became the target of harassment. The hate became a huge story because of these personal experiences.
But that’s a generous reading of events. Another reading is that coverage is driven with the cynical purpose of exaggerating the importance of neo-Nazis to tie them to Republicans.
The media will now demand the administration to denounce white supremacists every time they have a meeting – which itself intimates that there is a connection. Conflating these scary things can create the impression that conservatism is Donald Trump, which is Steve Bannon, which is David Duke, which is Richard Spencer.
I’m afraid it’s not that simple. And attempting to make it that simple only weakens legitimate criticism of the president-elect – of which there is plenty.