Imagine being in a newsroom and you have to label President-elect Donald Trump and his administration-in-waiting. Is it hard-line, controversial, right wing, far-right, Republican, anti-establishment, insurgent, or perhaps ultra-nationalist, isolationist, anti-immigrant, extremist, or even racist, sexist, fascist and neo-Nazi?
Love or loathe the Donald, attaching a suitable moniker to him is not as easy as one might first think. The media adores simple reductive tags and labels for senior politicians – right wing, liberal, left wing. They need to be put in their appropriate boxes but can this be done in a way that is fair, accurate and not partisan but also widely understood? What should be used when one label does not neatly fit all?
In traditional politics, this has not been an issue. Politicians are Democrat or Republican; Conservative or Labour. But traditional labels are eroding. Across Europe, far right parties (as they are almost uniformly described) are also anti-EU, anti-immigrant but also borderline neo-Nazi. Some even openly endorse the Nazis.
The challenge is that aside from some mainstream policies, Trump champions what many view as deeply extremist and racist positions chief of which are the registry of Muslim immigrants in the US and banning Muslims from even entering the country.
Trump is fingertips Republican and on certain issues such as free trade, is on the left even echoing Bernie Sanders. Many of those he has brought in to his transition team are similarly tough to label. How should the media treat Trump’s crowd from the so-called alt-right?
Sugar coating reality
The risk is that the media will sugar coat the new Trump order scared now that he is on the cusp of power to describe the overt reality. Just describing him as right-wing risks legitimising his racist, sexist and Islamophobic positions. This has happened with so many other leaders.
Ariel Sharon shifted from being decried as a war criminal to being billed a man of peace, based on no evidence at all. NPR reported on the “strongman of Iraq being executed,” that is the mass murdering genocidal war criminal Saddam Hussein. This sugar coating has of course already started. On the BBC, Lt. General Michael Flynn, Trump’s new national security adviser, was touted for his skill as being “tough on Islamic extremism.” Really.
Most American politicians will willingly describe themselves as against extremism but Flynn is clearly and openly anti-Islam and Muslims. He has described Islam as a “malignant cancer”Chris Doyle
Most American politicians will willingly describe themselves as against extremism but Flynn is clearly and openly anti-Islam and Muslims. He has described Islam as a “malignant cancer.” That is being soft on Islamic extremism as it starts depicting al-Qaeda and ISIS types as somehow mainstream which is what they crave.
Lt. General James “Mad Dog” Mattis was just interviewed for Trump’s Secretary of State for Defense. Despite garnering lavish praise from the President-elect, he clearly got a black mark against his name for not endorsing waterboarding, better referred to as torture. Yet worryingly he may have scored high for his predilection for shooting people.
“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” Is he just hard-line or something much worse?
The chief strategist
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, was described on the BBC as just a “right-wing media chief”. Yet he is seen by many to be a white nationalist (Nancy Pelosi); a white supremacist, a Nazi (Howard Dean) sexist and racist. Is hardliner adequate? Neo-Nazi movements claim him as their guy in the White House. Even Glenn Beck describes Bannon as a “terrifying” man.
Some papers referred to him as “controversial”, hardly illuminating in an administration whose raison d’etre is to be exactly that. The anti-Muslim brigade is trying lamely to defend Bannon from the charge of being an anti-Semite, merely on the basis that he is pro-Israel. (History is replete with examples of anti-Semites backing the Zionist movement).
Bannon was the head of Breitbart, a so-called news organisation that he described as the platform for the ‘alt-right’. Typically, Breitbart is just billed as right-wing. Yet the leader of this alt-right movement, Richard Spencer is clearly and undeniably a Nazi sympathiser as his “Hail Trump” speech on 19 November highlighted.
If he appears on CNN and the BBC, will he be so described? If not why not? Lindy West in The Guardian has argued that calling the movement alt-right is misleading. “If you see a Nazi, say Nazi.” This Nazi group, the so-called alt-right, disputes any of these terms. For example, its sexism is merely an application of “masculinist principles” that “opposes feminism.”
For years Trump and his retinue castigated President Obama for not talking about radical Islamic terrorism. So he can have no complaints if media outfits and commentators start using stronger terms even if negative. Maybe Nazi is a goosestep too far for the administration-in-waiting, but if Trump governs as he campaigned just what word would suffice?
Perhaps one word could be deployed, Trumpery. It was first used in 1456 to denote “deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery” – or something that is showy but worthless.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio and gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.