By Kathleen Frydl
May 24, 2016
Recently Bob Garfield of WNYC radio took aim at the news media’s “normalization” of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, suggesting that performative inspections of the candidate’s policy “suggestions” were akin to reviewing the driving record of the infamous psychopathic killer Charles Manson. The real story, never to be buried or forgotten, is Trump’s racial and religious demagoguery, and the dangers his politics pose to the democratic system in the United States.
As Garfield noted, the news media’s complicity in the rise of Donald Trump extends well beyond the failure to assign his bigotry a central place in their reporting. In particular the reception of Trump’s recent “America First” foreign policy speech, samples of which were featured by Garfield in his story, bore the marks of “normalization”: a “brand new look,” one journalist remarked, while another agreed that Trump successfully “tempered his approach.”
Such obliging coverage has an unsettling precedent in how the professional press in the United States and Europe covered Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before punitive censorship and citizenship laws, let alone German tanks piercing Europe’s defenses, left little doubt as to his intentions — or, as Adam Gopnik put it in a recent issue of the New Yorker, the period before “Hitler was Hitler.”
Take the example of Alfred Rosenberg, the ideological leader of the Nazi Party, who gave an extended interview to an American wire service a few months after Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany in 1933. “Germany’s internal problems are too serious for her to adopt an aggressive foreign policy,” he told the reporter, in widely reprinted remarks. “Germany will attack no one.”
These reassurances were hardly singular. In the early 1930s, skeptical journalists both in the United Kingdom and the United States pressed the leaders of National Socialism on their foreign policy goals, aware of the Nazi’s elaborate celebration of the military and their denunciation of Germany’s international obligation to disarm under the Versailles Peace Treaty. Hitler waived this concerns off; the military’s importance resided in its ability to bridge class divisions, he told the London Daily Mail in October of 1933, taking care to underscore Germany’s desire to secure through negotiation those components of his party’s platform that so troubled his many critics.
More than just a devilish Cheshire grin from history’s most degenerate cast of characters, this particular set of messages was in fact a form of propaganda, designed to create confusion and deflect from the very aspects of Hitler’s rise that should have troubled the most. Inspired by Hitler, the job of propaganda fell to Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, National Socialism’s chief “publicist” and, as historian Robert Herzstein put it, architect of the only war — the information war — that the Nazis ever won. Sometimes Goebbels participated in the barrage of messaging himself. In the summer of 1934 he appeared in Poland, ultimately the target of the Nazis’ first internationally recognized invasion, to deny that National Socialism had any intention of spreading beyond Germany’s borders. Hitler’s foreign policy was “dictated by a will for peace,” as The New York Times recorded.
The occasional fiery back-page editorial denouncing Hitler in the nation’s leading newspapers did nothing keep those same outlets from carrying the messages that served the Nazi agenda above the fold and on a regular basis in their reporting.
In the name of competitive business pressures and the desire to retain access to Hitler’s regime for as long as possible, otherwise well-intentioned journalists committed grievous errors. The first was to repeat and unwittingly platform arrantly offensive Nazi talking points. Goebbels proved adept at giving bigotry the superficial veneer of news by positioning it within an official state visit or speech, for example, obligating some manner of news coverage. In 1942, Sidney Freifeld could barely contain his frustration as he enumerated various instances of Nazi manipulation of the American press to readers of Public Opinion Quarterly. The “great” and “cumulative effect” of the pre-war American press reprinting the dangerous assertions of Adolf Hitler had no justification, he insisted, when in reality “the cessation of well known Nazi propaganda themes would be more newsworthy than their repetition.”
Freifeld also criticized journalists for extending too much credibility to the misleading comments that Hitler and his colleagues gave to the press, all of which, like the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” foreign policy statements of the early 1930s, were designed to sow confusion and delay a coalescing of opinion that could thwart Nazi power.
In retrospect, it’s possible to give Freifeld’s objections even greater range and intellectual warrant. After all, he wrote them before the horrors of the Holocaust were known to the world. Hitler’s preemptive assurances on foreign policy, given two years before he codified second-class citizenship for Jews living Germany, struck a responsive chord among journalists who failed to identify National Socialism rabid bigotry as the salient and structuring component of their entire worldview. Yet the Nazi regard of entire races and religions as less than human should have rendered all other policy positions not just subordinate, but entirely irrelevant. Any “normalization” or deflection away from their racism was, in a word, propaganda.
In their obliviousness, the foreign press resembled thousands of Germans who claimed to disapprove of National Socialism’s racism, but decided to tolerate it anyway in order to revitalize a defunct political establishment. National Socialists fully exploited this desire to relegate their hatred to the periphery as they moved beyond their working class roots to the petit bourgeois they needed to build support — though they never disowned, or were held accountable for, their bigotry. Emil Lengyel of The New York Times drew exactly the sort of distinction the Nazis relied upon for legitimacy, both at home and abroad, when he told readers in 1933 that “even” in Hitler’s “most irresponsible days,” which were, presumably, well behind him, “the edge of Hitler’s speeches were not so much against the French as against the Jews of France,” who, he added without accompanying analysis, were in “Hitler’s eyes the cause of most of the trouble.”
In an election cycle that features Donald Trump, these reminders of press treatment of the Nazis take on a haunting, if only suggestive character. Many have shied away from drawing this comparison, mainly because the magnitude of Nazi Germany’s crimes are so singular that it is appropriate to show reverence for its victims by refusing to invoke the term in a cavalier or irresponsible fashion. Yet we have self-professed fascists gaining traction in Europe (some of whom openly endorse Trump), and no one casts doubt on their political credentials just because they have yet to confess to genocidal ambitions. Those things that truly separate Donald Trump from 20th century European fascism — their morbid cult of death; their relentless devotion to party building — are rarely mentioned. Meanwhile, commentators who evince a stunning ignorance of history routinely point to Donald Trump’s appeal to the working class, and his feint towards isolationism, as factors that spare him from such damning associations.
If anything, these attributes, and the news media’s handling of them, make distressing comparisons more viable, not less. Donald Trump’s machismo-loaded language of national humiliation, his dehumanization of others — especially when done along the lines of ethnicity and religion — and his authoritarian impulse together make a convincing case for invoking a fascist comparison.
In fact, all three tendencies appeared in his recent speech on foreign policy. “I’m the only one who knows how to fix [trade imbalances],” he stressed to audience at the Mayflower Hotel in DC — as he has elsewhere — while at the same time he urged America to recover from fictional military “weakness” and confront enemies depicted in absolutist and vastly exaggerated terms. But, rather than pick up on this recurrent and campaign-defining bellicose demagoguery, the press greeted Trump’s speech as neo-isolationism and a refreshing jolt to an out-of-touch foreign policy establishment. Indeed, according to the many in the press, Donald Trump’s most irresponsible days seem to be behind him.
Regardless of this election’s outcome, journalists should regret their failure to sort the organizing principles of Trump’s campaign from the noise, let alone their inability to confront the “big lie,” the preposterous notion that building a “wall” serves an effective deterrent to stem the flow of undocumented workers, when available evidence suggests the opposite, and that pursuing this absurd notion, or penalizing immigrants in any way, would help to restore economic prosperity to this country. Allegra Kirkland of Talking Points Memo points out that the “white nationalist movement sees coverage of Trump’s anti-immigration policies as key to spreading their ideals.” As in the past, newspaper editors run opinion pieces decrying Trump’s candidacy, while their front page often carries his message without the necessary context or critique. This is not without damning precedent; nor is it without damage even absent a Trump victory in November.
Of most concern is television, particularly cable news, which has furnished Trump extravagant amounts of airtime via “interviews” that are in reality nothing of the kind. Les Moonves, CBS Executive Chairman and CEO, admitted back in February that extending Trump such a prominent television platform “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” — meaning, it scored ratings. Such a statement, coupled with the absence of genuine journalism on the subject of Trump, should place the network’s FCC license in jeopardy. Instead, the only thing called into question in front of the cameras is the rare moment of candor. When director Rob Reiner characterized part of Trump’s appeal as racist on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, his hosts responded with shock and consternation.
The media situation has degenerated to the point where some journalists seem to resent the implication that they have facilitated Donald Trump’s candidacy and “normalized” his hate. The New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman — author of an article which presented Trump, an opponent of same-sex marriage, as “far more accepting” of gays than others in his party simply because he has transacted in business and maintains friendships with some people who are gay — announced on Twitter her displeasure over a Media Matters report chronicling a pattern of abuse of the press from the Trump campaign. This, she determined, was a call for journalists not just to “point out a lie” (which would be great, if it were happening) but to “punish it,” part of a “big effort to make reporters combatants.” Such a remark is true only if the “war” in question is over the professional standards of the press. Sadly, too many journalists, busy parsing Trump’s latest dissembling deflection as if it were a traffic ticket issued to Charles Manson, have already chosen sides, abetting the rise of an authoritarian and racist demagogue. Donald Trump undoubtedly warrants coverage from the press, but his candidacy demands deliberation from them as well.
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