The process by which the media continue to normalize President-elect Donald Trump and the extreme elements that now define his pending administration is achieved story-by-story, headline-by-headline, and even adjective-by-adjective.
Language, and the way journalists deploy words during the Trump transition, are a central avenue for downplaying and whitewashing what’s now taking place.
Just look at some of the recent in-depth, page-one newspaper profiles of Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart.com executive who Trump has tapped to be his chief strategist and senior counselor. I’m sure much to Bannon’s delight he’s been awarded the “populist” label. But that description is wildly misguided, completely inadequate, and continues a long-running problem of the press mislabeling extreme right-wing movements and politicians as populist. (See: The Tea Party.)
Populism is supposed to represent a running struggle on behalf of regular people against powerful and elite economic forces. Bannon and Trump’s pro-corporate, anti-worker politics pretty much represent the opposite of that.
How best to accurately describe Bannon? Vox did a pretty good job of it: “He’s a leading light of America’s white nationalist movement accused of using misogynistic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and barely hidden racist language throughout his professional life.”
How far is that from feel-good “populism”? Very, very far. “Far from populism, this is Revolutionary-era elitism drawn along racist lines,” noted Laurel Raymond at Think Progress.
Yet the problem persists.
New York Times headline, November 27: “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump.”
Washington Post headline, November 19: “For Trump Adviser Stephen Bannon, Fiery Populism Followed Life In Elite Circles.”
It’s true that both the Times and Post articles did explore in detail Bannon’s controversial past and the fringe nature of his unseemly politics. The Times even detailed how Bannon once discussed “genetic superiority” with a business colleague and suggested that maybe only property owners be allowed to vote.
But “populist”? No. Reactionary white nationalist? Yes.
Note that Bannon himself this summer called Breitbart “the platform of the alt-right.” And what is “alt-right” synonymous with? White nationalism. “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist,” wrote John Daniszewski, the Associated Press’s Vice President for Standards, as he outlined to writers how to employ “alt-right” in AP coverage.
The weird part is that this week the Times published an article looking at how news organizations, including the Times, are using the phrase “alt-right” to describe the radical movement Trump and Bannon have become the face of, and whether the relatively new moniker sufficiently captures the movement’s rough and often offensive edges. “The term has attracted widespread criticism among those, particularly on the left, who say it euphemizes and legitimizes the ideologies of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy,” the newspaper reported.
So, “alt-right” might not properly convey the outlier politics of people like Bannon, but the Times itself this week published a headline labeling Bannon a “populist.”
Meanwhile, when you thumb through Bannon’s resume it’s nearly impossible to see any threads of “populism” running through it. He is a Harvard Business School graduate who became a Goldman Sachs banker before opening up a boutique investment bank in Beverly Hills, CA, Bannon & Co., which he eventually sold to the French bank, Société Générale. Last decade, Bannon also operated some dubious penny stock ventures, which attracted a number of lawsuits. He has also been a Hollywood movie producer.
After he exited the world of finance, Bannon became the chairman of Breitbart. Under his leadership, the white nationalist echo chamber called for the hoisting of the Confederate flag (“high and proud”), weeks after shootings at a black Charleston, South Carolina, church. It claimed that political correctness “protects Muslim rape culture.” It has referred to conservative writer Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.” It ran a piece last year encouraging male readers to tell women that “this isn’t going to suck itself.”
None of that garbage remotely fits under a breezy umbrella of “populism.”
Of course, the Bannon “populist” coverage flows from the media’s long-running Trump “populist” campaign coverage, which has been ill-advised for more than year. And it continues to this day.
Here are highlights of the likely Trump and Republican Party agenda for next year. Good luck finding lots of “populist” proposals aimed at boosting quality of life for regular Americans:
*Repeal healthcare for 20 million Americans who are insured through Obamacare.
*Pass massive new tax cuts for the wealthy.
*Drastically cut Medicare.
*Defund Planned Parenthood.
*Defund public broadcasting.
*Vastly expand the Pentagon’s budget.
*Block overtime pay for workers making less than $47,000 a year.
*Deport millions of undocumented workers.
This is all part of the larger Beltway media failure of playing nice with radical right-wing politics under the auspices of populism.
Especially during President Obama’s first term, reporters and pundits spent way too much time portraying the Obama-hating Tea Party movement has a "populist" one, when it most certainly was not. Most “populist” movements, as a rule, don’t passionately defend oil companies, insurance conglomerates, and AIG banking executives. And most “populist” movements don’t compare the president to Adolf Hitler and parade around with swastika posters. They don’t claim the president’s a “racist” who wants to put a spike in the heads of babies. And they usually don’t call for a military coup to overthrow the White House.
But the Tea Party did, and the media rewarded them with the honorary titles of populism.
And now they’re doing it again with Trump and his white nationalist appointments.