In the list of things to blame for Donald Trump’s victory, the media features near the top.
There has already been terrible regret among mainstream liberal media pundits in the US over not taking his candidacy seriously – you saw the clip with Democrat Keith Ellison on ABC’s political news programme This Week, in July last year, right? Ellison says Trump could win the Republican ticket and his co-panellists burst out laughing.
Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, noted how the US media first ridiculed, then dismissed and then lobbied against Trump – all of which served to swell support for him.
Meanwhile, the realisation has dawned that even unsupportive media outlets gave Trump’s misogyny and xenophobia endless airtime, because a wealthy white man spouting hateful and divisive insults was good for ratings. Political journalists have also lamented the paucity of basic reporting, which meant they missed the economic despair fuelling rage against a political establishment across chunks of the population.
Trump’s “Brexit plus plus plus” and the singular UK Brexit have exposed media formats, with their “he said, she said” premises and commitment to balance as creating a false equivalence – so that, in the US, just like in the Brexit debate, insults and deflections carry the same weight as fact-based arguments.
And with the far-right now a political force, our media seems ill-equipped to deal with it. One frightening example is in the coverage of Trump’s new chief of strategy, Steve Bannon, who runs the most widely read conservative site in the US, Breitbart News. The site has repeatedly been accused of publishing misogynistic, racist, white nationalist and anti-Semitic content; some of their past headlines include “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage”, “There’s no hiring bias against women in tech, they just suck at interviews”, “Does feminism make women ugly?”, “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”, “Trannies whine about hilarious Bruce Jenner billboard”, and “The West vs Islam is the new Cold War – here’s how we win”.
The site trades in conspiracy theories and racism, but Steve Bannon has been described as simply a “firebrand” or “outsider”. And race-baiting populist politicians are given endless airtime without being rigorously challenged on their views – which has the effect of normalising, making such views seem a reasonable part of our political conversation.
So what is the progressive left to do? Should we just accept that the far right has “won” the media and slink off?
Of course not. But we could get better at using the formats we have – and who better to learn from than the right-wing populists who have so effectively gamed the system?
When you watch Trump surrogates or key Brexiteers on TV – and I have, painfully, for hours – some common tactics immediately emerge. One is dedication. The populist right has no qualms over hogging airtime, talking continuously and batting off attempted interruptions and just relentlessly, repeatedly hammering the case on and on until their political opponent is exhausted and overwhelmed and gives up trying. To nice progressives, this approach seems rude – it feels aggressive. This will be 10 times truer for women, who are already battling all kinds of biases and who, however little they speak, will often be viewed as monopolising airtime.
But there is something to be said for taking up more space – politely, while making clear that your point deserves and commands attention.
Watch populist right advocates on TV and see how optimistic it all is – assuming, that is, that you are OK with the ethno-nationalism driving all the cheeriness. There is confidence and belief in (a defined group of) people – something that the left, with its gloomy facts, can fail to convey. Not for nothing, this is what the far-right excels at: presenting odious views as “common sense” and what everyone is already thinking, with a simple and available solution.
Progressive commentators urgently need more heart and fewer stats. This isn’t about abandoning facts in favour of distortions. But we have ceded too much ground already, somehow allowing as self-evident the idea that the populist right knows what people really want. That’s partly how the community-crushing, welfare-state-dismantling, corporate-tax-slashing, fear- and division-spreading populist right has managed to signal that it is for the people.
Now, left and liberal commentators alike need to proactively and vigorously contest this ground, take pride in and repeatedly bring our common values back onto the table. These are, after all, supposed to be values that appeal to a different set of emotions than fear and hate.
The left, being for migration, tolerance, diversity, solidarity, the welfare state, human rights, equal rights, workers’ rights and fairer, better economics, is now engaged in countering an apparent new normal that has rejected all of those things. Heartfelt optimism for the future isn’t something we should allow to be taken from us by disingenuous xenophobes like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. Piece by piece, conversation by conversation, is how we win this fight.
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