Today
Wed 16 October 2019
Subscribe

Jonathan Lis argues that the inability to call out Donald Trump’s white supremacism is not impartiality and caution – it’s a dereliction of duty.


One of the starkest problems currently facing global liberal democracy is that a racist, hate-fuelled, far-right white supremacist is currently the leader of the free world, and our political and media establishment has absolutely no idea what to do about it.

Let us be quite plain here. Donald Trump is a fascist. He is a white nationalist. He espouses Nazi rhetoric.

How do we know all this?

Journalism cannot operate in a climate of either fear or deference. If something must be named, we must name it.

Because he has described immigrants as “invading” and “infesting” the United States. He repeatedly denounces the free press as “enemies of the people”. He has branded Mexican immigrants “rapists”. He promised to ban all Muslim people from entering the US. He equated Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville with anti-fascist counter-protestors and dubbed them “very fine people”. He demanded that four non-white congresswomen “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came”.

On no occasion has he apologised. Each time he has doubled down.

How much more evidence do we need? What more must the man do?

Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters. Perhaps he could have added that he could be filmed doing so and the press would still decline to directly accuse him.


A Problem of Language?

This is not an abstract problem.

Trump’s rhetoric has demonstrable real-world consequences.

Last weekend, 22 people were murdered in El Paso by a far-right gunman. Since 9/11, right-wing terrorists have killed more people in the US than jihadist ones. In the past three years, more have cited Trump as an inspiration for such attacks than anyone else.

If you like this article…


Digital edition from £29. Print edition from £36.
Join News Club for events and interviews in London.


… to help us commission more great journalism every day.

Partly this is a question of language.

‘Terrorist’ is something of an equivalent to words such as ‘fascist’, in that it carries overt political weight and is frequently contested as a neutral term. During the Palestinian Intifada, the UK media frequently attributed attacks on Israeli civilian targets to “militants” or “radicals”. And yet, in other fields of reference, we can agree a definition of terrorism and know it when we see it.

The media was not squeamish about using the word after the attacks on Manchester, London Bridge or Finsbury Park mosque. “Racism” is also a loaded term – obviously – but it too has a definition. A comment which discriminates between individuals on racial grounds is a racist comment. An elected person with far-right policies is a far-right politician.

It calls into question the news culture which demands we must not call something what it is, hiding behind the false comforts of pious impartiality.

Language is the only tool we have. We debase it when we inflate our rhetoric or flatten its targets. If everyone is a fascist, we rob the term of any meaning. But, we also debase language when we ignore it.

For words to maintain their definition, they must be applied. What is their purpose if not to name things? If we cannot call someone a fascist when they are one, the term is put beyond use. Both instances serve to neuter language at the time we most need it and are, as such, equally dangerous.


Media Rules No Longer Apply

Is it, then, less a problem of language than one of an over-cautious media?

Across the so-called ‘advanced’ democracies, leaders are no longer playing by the old rules. Our media still is.

At what point does the spurious requirement for ‘balance’ or restraint in reporting actively inhibit understanding? If the press calls something racist when anybody else does it, why must it be so coy when the most powerful person in the world does?

A case in point was the BBC’s Naga Munchetty on 17 July, following Trump’s racist tirades against the four congresswomen of colour.

In a conversation on BBC Breakfast, Munchetty spoke movingly about her own experiences of being told to “go back”, and explained how this was always rooted in racism. But, she quickly clarified that she was not accusing anyone of anything in this particular instance. Why? Trump had been explicitly racist and she was well within her rights to explicitly call him out.

This is not an attack on Munchetty who, in the moment, clearly felt a painful collision of personal feeling and the need to remain ‘professional’ and neutral. Rather, it calls into question a news culture which demands we must not call something what it is, hiding behind the false comforts of pious impartiality as though the world has not changed and does not urgently need the media to respond.


The Anglo-American Dimension

Perhaps the first thing we must do is shake off our ingrained awe and terror of the United States.

We still occupy a Cold War headspace in which the US is on the side of good. The world oppresses; America liberates.

The mainstream British media has no compunction in labelling Marine Le Pen in France or Matteo Salvini in Italy as far-right – because they are. These figures are safe targets for objective reporting.

But there is not a cigarette paper between those leaders and Trump. Indeed, Trump’s rhetoric frequently exceeds theirs in obscenity. If we label them as far-right, why not also him?

Journalism cannot operate in a climate of either fear or deference. If something must be named, we must name it.

The purpose of balance, like language itself, is not to obfuscate through politeness but to illuminate clearly and cogently. It exists to allow viewers, listeners and readers to distinguish between opinions to reach meaningful conclusions, but not to hide the truth.

Trump’s white supremacism is not an opinion. It is a verifiable fact. The media might think that by staying out of the fray it is not taking sides. In fact, by helping to conceal the reality, it risks doing precisely the opposite.

Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence and a political writer and commentator.

More stories filed under Argument