Sep 17, 2015

By Chip Berlet

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.