Friday, December 15, 2017

How Not to Normalize Nazis -- In Print, and In the Real World

The last days of the Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho, in January 2000.
[This is another op-ed I submitted recently to the New York Times and then to Columbia Journalism Review, both of whom declined it. Since the subject is now growing stale, I'm putting it up here so at least my readers can enjoy it. -- Dave]

All reporting is like a mirror: If it’s distorted or at an odd angle, it’s not a true picture, even if it tells us something. Reporting on the American extremist right, especially its darker and more toxic corners, is an especially difficult thing, as the New York Times recently discovered, because it’s so very hard to focus on a movement that deals in shadows.

There’s a lesson in this not just for the Times, but for us all. Because sometimes even a half-reflection can tell us more about ourselves than we want to know.

My first lesson in the intricacies of balancing reportage about neo-Nazis and crypto-fascists came in the late 1970s, when I was the then-21-year-old editor of a small-town daily in the Idaho Panhandle, about 20 miles north of the just-established rural compound of the Aryan Nations near Hayden Lake. After consultations with my reporters and the publisher, we came to the joint decision to avoid providing the new arrivals with anything other than cursory coverage: Attention, we reckoned, was what they wanted, and it seemed wise not to give it to them.

Yet within a few short years, the region found itself awash in a tide of hate crimes – Jewish businesses vandalized, mixed-race schoolchildren harassed by adults, and a host of other ugliness closely associated with the burning crosses and Klan outfits that were part of the scene outside Hayden. It all culminated in 1984 with the multistate crime-and-terror spree of the neo-Nazi gang The Order, which included the assassination of a radio talk show host in Denver.

By then, of course, the Sandpoint Daily Bee had long disposed of its previous policy regarding coverage of the Aryan Nations and the extremists it attracted to the region. And it remained an important and essential lesson that led me to always take seriously the need to shine a spotlight on their activities, because they always interpret silence as tacit approval.

Richard Faussett’s reportage for the Times (“A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” November 25) clearly was in this spirit, intended to shine a light on the thinking that led a seemingly ordinary American to adopt such a radical belief system as white nationalism. Yet it failed signally to provide as whole and truthful, and thus accurate, a portrait of its subject as reportage like this needs to, in large part because it only looked at the individuals and not the movement they represented.

Reporters experienced in dealing with radical racists know well this secondary pitfall: Giving them a soft-focus kind of exposure, the kind they are likely to hand you, only serves to enhance their toxic influence, both by “normalizing” them and by gliding over the nature of their ideology. If you’re going to report on them, you have to be not just precise but thorough.

The mistake is an easy one to make, an aspect of the spotlight-shining nature of the enterprise, because it is easy at first to dwell too long on the surface of the subject, readily exposed by the light, and too little on the shadows that define its real shape. Context is everything in journalism, and especially when reporting on a subject with potentially dire consequences if mishandled.

So the Times’ piece told us the many ways in which Tony Hovater was an ordinary guy, but it told us very little about the ways in which he was anything but. Just giving us a taste of Hovater’s extremist social-media posts, many of them laden with bizarre conspiracism and overt racism, would have been helpful.

Likewise, any historical context was missing. There was nothing explaining where Hovater’s ideas originated, what the history of the Traditionalist Workers Party was, or how these ideas dated back to the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Nor was there really even any more recent context that could have shed more light on the subject, including TWP’s involvement in the ugliness at Charlottesville, in which a neo-Nazi ran over and killed a counter-demonstrator.

Most of all, it missed the essential context a reporter experienced in dealing with the movement would know about radical racists: They operate in a kind of constructed alternative universe of their own, one fueled and ruled by an ever-growing web of conspiracy theories, a belief system in which rules of factuality and evidence are replaced with paranoid speculation, groundless smears, and endless innuendo. I call this epistemological bubble “Alt-America.”

In Alt-America, up is down, right is left, and reality has no visible basis other than the shifting sands of Alex Jones’ pronouncements. In this universe, President Obama is a white-hating racist and secret Muslim, part of a “globalist” (read: Jewish) conspiracy to enslave mankind under a New World Order. In the white-nationalist sector of this universe, “cultural Marxists” and feminists are conspiring to use “political correctness” to prevent white men from achieving their natural greatness.

So when Hovater made vague references to Holocaust-denial theories in his quotes, it was the reporter’s job to explain that to readers. Likewise Hovater’s many other coded references to racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that were woven into many of the things he was quoted as saying went largely unremarked.

However, for all of its flaws, the Times story got one important thing right: It showed the ease with which right-wing extremists fit into mainstream culture, and it showed their humanness, revealing them without horns or self-evident psychopathy. The latter is important, first because denying humanity in others is precisely the neo-Nazi enterprise, and it’s not one an ethical journalist should want to replicate; moreover, exploring this gives readers a complete picture that explains just how it is they can fit in alongside the rest of us. This is how they can number in the hundreds of thousands online and their presence next to us in person can barely register.

This is the reality which most shocks and frightens us, the reason so many of us want to reject the Times’ portrait of young white nationalists’ seeming normalcy: It is not so much that they can resemble so many ordinary white Americans, but rather, that so many ordinary white Americans resemble them. The mirror is looking back at us, too.

For how many years, we need to ask ourselves, have we allowed the longtime white-nationalist agenda – to foment a culture war between liberals and minorities and the rest of America, to incessantly demonize them and cast them as the embodiment of evil itself – to seep into our mainstream culture? How long have we permitted right-wing demagogues, from Rush Limbaugh to Michael Savage to Sean Hannity to Alex Jones, to spew their irrational, fact-free, paranoid conspiracy-mongering freely over our airwaves and into our homes, coaching one group of Americans on how and why they should virulently hate a whole class of their fellow citizens, without anyone capable of standing up to them and calling them out for it?

Why is there in fact no real accountability, no culpability for this toxic hatemongering? Why are we even remotely surprised that it has metastasized into this toxic army of proto-fascists? And why are we shocked that they look and sound like ordinary Americans who watch Fox and tune in to Infowars?

Because in the end, the only real agenda of white nationalism is to destroy this once-great nation, especially the democratic institutions they make no bones about their hostility towards – to bring those institutions to their knees, to drive them into oblivion.

That was missing from the Times’ report, too. But it is the reality that lurked behind every word. And as frightening and unpleasant as it is for Americans to face, it is well past time we did so.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Fake News and 'Glorious Leader' Trump: The Key to His Authoritarian Following

Trump's authoritarian followers remain voluntarily within his alternative universe with the help of his press-baiting "fake news" claims, which drive a wedge between his True Believers and the reality the rest of us inhabit.

[Note: I originally wrote this essay three weeks ago as an op-ed for potential use by newspapers. We approached several to see if we could raise interest in the issue. No one responded, so I am publishing it here.]

There’s a reason Donald Trump bandies the term “fake news” about so readily and gleefully. It’s more than just a tic or a theme. It’s actually a tool he uses to drive a wedge between his followers and reality.

This week he even seemed to lay ownership to the phrase. “The media is really, the word, one of the greatest of all terms I've come up with, is ‘fake’,” Trump told Mike Huckabee in an interview. “I guess other people have used it perhaps over the years but I've never noticed it. And it's a shame. And they really hurt the country. Because they take away the spirit of the country.”

Fact-checkers such as PolitiFact have observed that, beyond the extremely dubious notion he actually “came up with” the phrase, Trump’s use of it actually turns its original meaning on its head in a peculiarly self-serving way. Instead of describing fabricated content with no basis in fact, he uses it to mean any news that criticizes him – that is, any news he chooses not to believe because he does not like it.

Any person using normative rules of factuality, evidence, and reason would defer to the original meaning of “fake news.” However, Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, and many more similarly inclined, instead agree with him. Their version of reality, as such, becomes very different from the rest of us.

It works, too: Recent polling found that 46 percent of all voters believe the media make up stories about Trump. Even 20 percent of Democrats believed this.

This is what authoritarians throughout history have done: Set themselves up not only as the arbiters of right and wrong and other mainstream values, but of reality itself. They keep their followers close under their banner by creating a separate lived universe for them, an epistemological bubble that inevitably becomes a cult of personality and fanaticism. In the Trump era, I have dubbed this alternative universe “Alt-America.”

Most Americans have a healthy skepticism about American news outlets, as our mainstream media landscape becomes increasingly littered with charlatans and corporate interests out to make a buck. But some Americans have elevated that skepticism to another and frankly unhealthy level, leading them to view anything produced by the mainstream media or official government or academic sources with an extreme form of “selective skepticism” – that is, they refuse to believe any kind of “official” explanation for events, actions, or policies, but instead go seeking any kind of alternative explanation for these.

When this happens, their extreme skepticism is reversed into an extreme gullibility, so that they become vulnerable suckers for just about any kind of conspiracy theory or fantastic fabrication, so long as it confirms the narrative they want to believe. In this environment, conspiracists like Alex Jones of Infowars and a coalition of like minds calling themselves the alt-right have thrived, both politically and financially, peddling their own set of “alternative facts.”

This gullibility shapes – or rather, distorts – people’s relationship to authority. Any kind of authority that exists outside of that person’s universe -- in the current Trump era particularly, anything with the taint of liberalism -- is innately viewed as illegitimate and untrustworthy and is to be vehemently rejected and ardently opposed. In the meanwhile, any authority within the “Alt-America” universe, especially political figures, conspiracist pundits, and Patriot movement leaders, are revered as absolute, and become objects of abject devotion. There is a reason that some of Donald Trump’s followers refer to him as “Glorious Leader,” or “G.L.”

Translated from individual psychology to mass politics, these traits, and in particular the conspiracism, become the manifestation of right-wing authoritarianism. It becomes manifest in polls that reveal profoundly disturbing attitudes rampant among Trump’s supporters.

One poll found that half of Republican voters were OK with Trump postponing the 2020 election if he decided that “voter fraud” was too massive a problem. Another poll found that 61 percent of his current supporters say they can think of no circumstances under which they would ever stop approving of what he does, regardless.

When most people think of authoritarianism, they think of the strongman dictators who have led such rule in various nations around the world throughout history, and they commonly view it as a political phenomenon in which whole nations are subsumed by dictatorial rule imposed from above. The reality, however, is that authoritarians usually are swept to power and maintained in it by an army of followers, people who desire precisely that kind of governance, by a singular figure whose charisma and instincts can chart a nation’s course.

It’s also a phenomenon studied in depth by psychologists, whose focus is less on those figures atop the pack, and more on the hordes they control – the ordinary people who willingly sacrifice their personal freedoms in the name of an orderly society shaped that imposes their personal beliefs and prejudices.

How could supposedly freedom-loving Americans (or Germans, or anyone else, for that matter) subscribe to an authoritarian worldview? As psychologists have explored, most people have some level of authoritarian tendencies, but these are often leveled out by such factors as personal empathy and critical thinking skills. In some personalities, however, a combination of factors ranging from strict upbringing, personal traumas, harsh rearing environments, or any number of other similar issues, can produce people who are inclined to insist on a world in which strong authorities produce order and peace, often through iron imposition of “law and order.”

As a psychological phenomenon, authoritarianism arises around three clusters of behavior and attitudes:

n  Authoritarian submission: The eager submission to edicts, rulings, and opinions of the authorities and leaders who are deemed legitimate.
n  Authoritarian aggression: The physical, verbal, and social aggression displayed toward anyone or any trend that runs counter to those authorities, or in the case of leadership, is deemed illegitimate.
n  Conventionalism: The adamant embrace of what is perceived as the social norm and the “real” national identity, and the belief that oneself reflects that “real” identity.

Psychologist Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, one of the world’s leading experts in this research, describes how this authoritarianism is manifest in Donald Trump supporters. They are highly ethnocentric, inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. They are highly self-righteous. They are aggressive. They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic majorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general. Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They reason poorly. They are highly dogmatic. They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them.

Most of all, Altemeyer says, they are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain. And they are largely blind to themselves, and almost inevitably will blame others when their own gullibility as marks for con men is exposed.

Their demand for leadership by powerful authority figures also helps explain their vehement rejection of the presidencies of such liberal politicians as Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton in every jot and tittle. An authoritarian by nature wishes to follow the orders of the president, but can never do so when an illegitimate usurper holds the position. Proving the fundamental illegitimacy of these presidencies – as the regimes of a sexual pervert, a Muslim foreigner, and a lying crook, respectively – has thus formed the overwhelming preoccupations of their various campaigns to attack them politically.

Authoritarianism as a worldview always creates a certain kind of cognitive dissonance, a feeling of unreality, because it runs smack into the complex nature of the modern world and attempts to impose its simplified, black-and-white explanation of reality onto a factual reality that contradicts and undermines it every turn. People with authoritarian personalities willingly slip into the alternative universe of Alt-America because it helps soothe this dissonance, allowing its occupants to glide over inconvenient facts because they participate in a larger “truth.”

So conspiracism is especially appealing to people with these personality traits – the people who tell pollsters they “don’t recognize their country anymore” and are discomfited and bewildered by the brown faces and strange languages that have been filling up their cultural landscapes in places where they never used to be. One study found that conspiracy theories seem to be more compelling to “those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large.” They often long for a 1950s-style America with lawns and cul-de-sacs, and are angry that the world no longer works that way.

While the mainstream media simply present the world as it is, conspiracy theories offer narratives that explain to them why the country is no longer what they wish it to be, why it has that alien shape. And so in their minds it comes to represent a deeper truth about their world, while repeatedly reinforcing their long-held prejudices, and enables them to ignore the real, factual (and often uncomfortable) nature of the changes the nation is undergoing. Simply put, it provides a clear, self-reinforcing answer to the source of their personal disempowerment.

The deep irony in all this is that the larger psychological and even political effect of conspiracy theories is that they are profoundly disempowering in and of themselves. They create a toxic mindset, a worldview in which the world is actually being run by secretive, powerful schemers intent on suppressing them, against whose immense power an ordinary individual is almost entirely powerless.

People who are “red-pilled,” as the conspiracy-loving alt-righters have dubbed themselves, see themselves as utterly disattached from their communities, fighting a desperate battle with only the help of their fellow conspiracists against truly dark and evil forces. Alex Jones constantly refers to his targets as “demonic.” It’s not just a bleak world, it’s one in which people can become overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and anger.

That’s one of the primary reasons conspiracist beliefs are so often associated with horrific acts of terrorist violence. Think of Anders Breivik’s massacre of 69 schoolchildren in Norway in 2011, or Tim McVeigh’s destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that killed 168, or Jared Loughner’s horrifying rampage in Tucson in 2011, or Dylann Roof’s rampage at the Charleston church in 2015. All of these people, and their many other domestic-terrorist cohorts, acted out of a desperation fueled by anger over their sense of deep disempowerment – all of it a product of a belief in conspiracy theories.

Beyond individuals, however, authoritarianism is also toxic for any kind of democratic society – which is unsurprising, given the alt-right’s express hostility to democracy and its institutions. And it is rising as a political phenomenon not just in the United States, but around the world, especially in Europe.

This is why a number of political scientists have recently begun speaking up about the trend. “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast,” recently warned Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard.

They warn that democracies die all the time, and there is no reason the United States would be immune, despite its longevity and comparative stability – until recently, at least. And the reasons have to do with people – both the leaders and the citizenry – taking its institutions for granted and permitting them to fall into decay.

These include the values of community and generosity that have previously guided the American spirit at crucial junctures, as well as the basic value of empathy as a personal characteristic. Defending them vigorously, and reviving them to full life, will be the key to defeating the authoritarian spirit unleashed in recent years.