The media and Trump: What the Nazis can teach us

Sean Spicer

White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

We’re in a “post-factual” world, a phenomenon embraced by the Trump administration from Day One when White House spokespeople blatantly lied to the press and defended their lies by saying they were presenting “alternative facts.”

The good news is that Trump & Company are knowingly evading the truth because they think they can manipulate belief. They do not have the power to change facts, but they can try to author alternative realities for the people. That it is a conscious strategy means it can be identified, called out and resisted.

A second piece of good news: This is an old and known tactic in American politics, especially populism and its black-sheep relative, fascism. There are ways the media can push back.

To this last point, here is how the phenomena was described by a political scientist, Victor C. Ferkiss, in a 1957 paper titled “Populist Influences on American Fascism.” He described how the Populist movement of the 1890s morphed, in part, into domestic fascist movements of the 1930s. Creating an alternative reality was key.

First, they rejected the “elites” and academics. “Cut off from the mainstream of American life, Populists developed not merely their own economics but their own history, and, through intellectual inbreeding, refined and strengthened ancient hatreds. The most significant developments in this process were the break with urban liberalism and the development of intransigent nationalism.”

The national game plan of Trump, presidential aide Steve Bannon and others of the so-called alt-right is pretty clear. Debating how many people were at the Inauguration, denying the validity of unemployment figures; clamping down on the Department of Agriculture, EPA and other agencies from communicating with the outside world or releasing scientific data; propagating a false claim of voter fraud; creating cognitive dissonance between statements and policies — it’s part of a blueprint. It’s not a barrier to governing, it’s a way of governing.  Bannon wants the media to “keep its mouth shut” because he wants to tell his story, unhindered.

One difference between now and the 1930s is that the alt-right of that era was a minority with little hold on the levers of power. Now they run the government and include the “leader of the free world.” In the ’30s, domestic populist and fascist threats abounded, but the leaders who were of the greatest threat were on the other side of the oceans.

So the media’s task now is complicated. It has to be able to punch up — challenging and reporting and telling truth to power. And it has to punch down — not literally punching Nazis as in this video — but taking fringe, extremist threats seriously.

Trump’s populist Inauguration speech citing America First was more than a dog-whistle to right-wing extremists. They remember well the rhetoric of the first pre-World War II American First movement, a coalition of economic populists, domestic fascists, Nazi sympathizers, anti-war pacifists, anti-Semites, isolationists, anti-immigration advocates, Depression-weary unemployed, and middle-class white nationalists. The term is being revived for a reason. Populism tends to be a complex, impatient constituency, notoriously difficult to organize and hold together. Creating a new identity and political mythology helps to bind things, for while.

A subset of the domestic movement in the ’30s and ’40s were militant paramilitary groups modeled on Nazi Brown Shirts and Storm Troopers, Mussolini’s Black Shirts, and the Ku Klux Klan. Influential were the German-American Bund, the Silver Shirts and the Klan-like Black Legion. In Hitler’s Germany, the Nazis organized such groups to commit extreme acts — riots, murders, pogroms — the government could deny having anything to do with, catching much of the media in a “he said, she said” dilemma. In the book “Beyond Belief: The American Press & the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945,” Deborah Lipstadt documents how the media was flummoxed by Nazi denials, manipulated by German PR and the Nazi insistence on alternative facts. American press coverage too often painted Hitler as a moderating influence in Germany, a buffer against Brown Shirt extremism, a leader trying to protect the Jews for their own good, a man incapable of ordering the outrageous acts reported. Reality, of course, caught up with everyone.

A tricky question for the media: How much attention to give to extreme elements?

When neo-Nazis harassed members of the Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana, this winter, threatening an armed march through the streets in retaliation for local demonstrations outside a building owned by white nationalist Richard Spencer’s mother, the press covered the controversy (an excellent feature about Whitefish by The Stranger’s Eli Sanders is here). Leading the coverage there was ABC Fox Montana. Reporter/anchor David Winter says the station has gotten pushback from viewers, local officials and Whitefish residents who thought the station should have ignored the controversy. Winter says the news organization has thought very carefully about its coverage and has even consulted the Poynter Institute about it. Winter says that after his coverage of Whitefish he received death threats and was trolled by Spencer sympathizers.

The January neo-Nazi march was delayed, though Winter says the city has approved a permit for the march, which might take place in February. In the meantime, Winter’s station has aired a lengthy Skype interview with the march’s neo-Nazi organizer, Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer website. Winter says there has been tremendous negative feedback and that people are upset that they’ve given “voice to someone with so much vitriol.” Winter says, “I don’t feel like we’re a mouthpiece for him, but giving people a better understanding of what’s going on in this man’s mind. People don’t understand how these people have such vile thoughts.”

Looking away won’t make fascism go away.

The case of Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at the University of Washington on Inauguration night was an example of both the importance of and limits of mainstream media coverage. That a demonstrator was shot by another outside the venue understandably took over much of the news coverage. The actual talk by Yiannopoulos seemed to get lost in the shuffle. But social media helped fill the gaps. Reporters who were inside Kane Hall, like Erica C. Barnett, gamely tweeted outrageous, misogynistic nuggets from the speech and later wrote her impressions of Yiannopoulos. She describes him as an “insecure narcissist” whose “flippant misogyny and racism come across as opportunistic and insincere.” Crosscut’s Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz also produced a compelling account.

Yiannopoulos’ talk — or “show” as he called it — was live-streamed on YouTube so those of us who did not attend could watch it and note the audience reactions (lots of laughter and applause). Judge for yourself whether the presentation was worthy of a public university campus, protests and a shooting. Despite Yiannopoulos’ claims at the time that his backers were the victims, the shooter was a gun-toting supporter of his, not a Seattle liberal, and the victim an anti-fascist activist.

I found a local example from 1937 that shows the differences in media coverage of right-wing extremism. That year, the head of the West Coast’s pro-Nazi German-American Bund, Hermann Schwinn, came to speak at the German House on First Hill, a center for German cultural activities. The Seattle Times ran a short notice of the talk as an “anti-communism” lecture. And it was. But it was also a Hitler pep-rally, with Nazi flags, people sieg-heiling and singing Nazi songs in German. Afterward, when two members of the Seattle city council threatened legislation to take away the club’s license to operate, leaders of the German community denied that anything pro-Nazi had taken place. In response to the German Club controversy, the Times ran an uncritical story, “Seattle Germans, Angry, Deny Charges of Pro-Nazi Meeting,” in which club leaders dismissed and ridiculed the idea that the event was pro-Nazi.

But their denials were a lie. While the Times didn’t cover the event, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Jewish Transcript did, which is why we know some of what was said and heard inside the club. When confronted with this evidence, the German Club organizers agreed to no longer hold such events there, and the city council dropped its threat to yank their license. It was later revealed that many club members were well aware of the nature of the event and had debated, even fought, among themselves about Nazified events there.

Extremists groups are difficult to cover, and the media might not take them seriously or might not want to hold a magnifying glass to hate. There’s a fear of  “normalizing” extreme views. Scholars still debate whether the pre-war internal fascist threat or Nazi influence was overblown or under-reported.

If sunlight is a great sanitizer, mainstream media organizations shouldn’t shy away from extremist groups and speakers, and they need to find ways to accurately convey the tenor of what is said and done, and how it is being received. Many of the groups on the far right are now operating under a blanket of approval from the very top, where some of their views are embraced, some lightly condemned, and others have been recast into more acceptable language. Still, since fascist tendencies are flowing from the top of the political food chain, it’s more imperative that the empowered fringe be taken seriously.

Those who profess that facts still matter must double down in digging them out, and in cultivating and mobilizing a “constituency” for the truth. This will likely push the mainstream media into uncomfortable zones and circumstances. But they are being given a golden opportunity to prove their worth in a time when old media models and formulas no longer work. Given that a free press is essential to democracy, the challenge for the media is this: If you can’t confront fascism, what are you here for?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.