The poet Maya Angelou wisely observed, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” In keeping with his fascist and authoritarian beliefs, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump threatened to sue members of the news media he did not like, offered conspiracy theories that “the media” were somehow unfairly maligning his campaign, called reporters “scum” and “disgraceful” and made reporters the objects of mockery and violence at his rallies. Trump’s white nationalist supporters and other deplorables responded in kind, yelling the Nazi chant “Lügenpresse” and “Jew-S-A” in roaring approval during his campaign events. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his war on the free press with enemies lists, a proposed expansion of slander and libel laws and threats to ban critics in the news media access to his administration. This should not be a surprise. In the United States, the Fourth Estate is supposed to serve as a guardian for democracy, a type of watchdog that helps members of the public make informed decisions and sounds the alarm on unchecked power and threats to the Constitution and the values it embodies. In this moment of crisis, the American corporate news media has been presented with a critical choice: It can normalize Trump’s radical and dangerous anti-democratic behavior or it can stand up against it. Already, too many members the media seem to be doing the former.
Many decades ago, George Orwell foreshadowed the abuse of language and truth that we have seen this year. Donald Trump was able to defeat Hillary Clinton because he combined white racism with narratives of “economic insecurity.” While the impact of “economic insecurity” on the election outcome is very much in dispute, Trump was transparent in his efforts to use white rage and bigotry as a way to win the White House. There were many moments when members of the mainstream corporate American news media could have recoiled in disgust at Trump’s antics and tried to hold him accountable, but instead they chose to wait for a great “pivot” in his behavior that never came. The American corporate news media also helped to legitimize the white nationalists and white supremacists at the core of Trump’s base — and now his key advisers — by allowing them to rebrand themselves as the alt-right. The media has been complicit in this new marketing technique. Language is power. Members of the American corporate news media played along and instead of speaking specifically about the actual beliefs, norms and values of the so-called alt-right, they treated it as just a difference of opinion, one located within a wide range of acceptable attitudes and beliefs in American politics. This is Orwell’s warning and wisdom about political language come true:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Stephen Bannon sits at the center of the “alt right” cabal of white supremacists and white nationalists. He is the former editor of the right-wing news propaganda site Breitbart.com. Under his direction, Breitbart became a clearing house for white supremacist and white nationalist views. Bannon is also one of president-elect Trump’s most important advisers and reportedly will serve as his “chief strategist.” With few exceptions, the American corporate news media has willingly participated in the repackaging and normalizing of Bannon’s, and by extension, Trump’s abominable politics. Instead of calling attention to Bannon’s white supremacist and white nationalist beliefs and affiliations, many of the most influential news outlets have deflected and chosen to describe him in far more agreeable terms. Slate’s Jeremy Stahl has compiled the following examples:
The New York Times: “Trump’s Choice of Stephen Bannon Is Nod to Anti-Washington Base” The New York Times: “New Strategist in White House a Provocateur From the Fringe” BBC: “The combative site serves up an anti-establishment agenda that critics accuse of xenophobia and misogyny.” The New York Times: “A fierce chorus of critics denounced President-elect Donald J. Trump on Monday for appointing Stephen K. Bannon, a nationalist media mogul . . . ” ABC: “Steve Bannon: Donald Trump’s Controversial Senior Counselor and Alt-Right Hero” CBS: “Behind the scenes, Bannon is one of the most powerful people in the Trump’s inner circle, but he’s also one of the most controversial.”
This is what Orwell called “Newspeak” — obfuscating language used to disorient the public, thus preventing them from fully grappling with the reality of what is actually taking place. Orwell warned about the power of Newspeak in the classic novel “1984”:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
The novel continues:
The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”