As the notion of a Donald Trump presidency has gradually begun to creep from lucid nightmare towards unavoidable reality, the conversation around what it will mean to live under such an administration has begun to crystallize around a number of important questions: how do we prepare; how can we effectively resist; how best can we ensure that this is the last such white supremacist aberration of our democracy. Prevalent throughout each of these discussions is the notion of normalization—less formally known as the ways in which American media culture will try to convince us this isn’t the massive national fuck-up that it actually is. Already we’ve seen disturbing examples of news organizations trying to treat Trump’s regularly disturbing remarks (such as falsely suggesting that he lost the popular vote as the result of a legion of fraudulent ballots or all but celebrating the death of a prominent world leader on Twitter) as though they were--at worst--gaffes and--at best--examples of the president-elect’s worldview, meant to be absorbed without scrutiny. In short, they have already put the lipstick on the pig. We are now in the process of convincing us that that pig is the belle of the ball.
Perhaps even more distressing than the way in which this attitude has manifested with regards to Trump is the way in which media has employed it as a way to soften his more radical supporters and appointments, such as newly minted chief-strategist and old school bigot Steve Bannon. Bannon—a prominent figure among white nationalists, and a man who looks as though he has no sheets clean enough to make a Klan robe colored anything remotely resembling white—has a storied history of racism and Anti-Semitism, not to mention domestic violence. If Donald Trump peddles white supremacy like a sleazy used car salesman, Bannon does so like a pornographer on the Silk Road, making zero effort to polish the rancid shit that he has chosen as his product. He’s unrepentant and gleeful.
But you wouldn’t know this from the way the largest of news organizations have chosen to discuss him. In most “mainstream” coverage, Bannon is simply unorthodox, a political newbie who just so happens to have some unconventional proclivities. He is nothing more to the likes of CNN than the latest of Trump’s maverick decisions, where “maverick” ultimately translates to fundamentally socially repellant. This treatment is not unique to Bannon, however. In fact, the entire ‘alt-right’ has received this makeover. A movement predicated at best on anti-democratic prejudice and at most realistic on openly violent white supremacy has been rebranded as the new kids on the block, with Mother Jones and the Los Angeles Times going so far as to try to play up the hipness of its adherents as those there was something glitzy and entrepreneurial about treating the ugliest currents of American history as if they were political oil wells. Apparently, racism can be dolled up with the same ease as a homely Rachael Leigh Cook: lose the overalls, glasses, and ponytail (or in this case, unapologetically violent rhetoric, penchant for merry online harassment and rape threats, and undisguised fascism kink) and you’ve got yourself a perfectly suitable lead.
It should go without saying that this is a trend Americans should condemn without hesitation, but, beyond that, what can we do to combat attempts to make the politically aberrant (if historically enabled) normal? Here’s an easy one: cut out the ‘alt-right’ bullshit.
Unless you’re discussing the history of the movement, there is absolutely no reason to call this latest incarnation of social rot anything other than what it is: racism, white nationalism, white supremacism, politically coalesced and organized hatred. Do you go around calling Hitler’s groupies the National Socialist German Worker’s Party? How often do you refer to members of the Klan as Loyal White Knights?
If you think addressing Bannon and his ilk as the ‘alt-right’ is a matter of accuracy, you should consider just how much the title does to erase what the movement actually stands for. You should also do a deep dive into American conservatism and try to find out what the social views of men like Bannon are actually an alternative to. Because ultimately, ‘alt-right’ is simply window dressing. It’s a linguistic grab for legitimacy, as if any of the anti-black, anti-queer, anti-woman, anti-immigration views these Americans espouse even border on legitimate. To refer to these men and women by their chosen moniker is simply a matter of conducting their PR for them, to fit them into a historical and political legacy while denying the legacy to which their actual views belong.
If this seems like a trivial concern to you, you should take a moment to think about the way in which any given group weighs and absorbs ideas. Because the purpose of calling a movement such as this by a title that does so little to address what that movement actually supports is nothing more than salesmanship. It’s the racist equivalent of formalizing previous job titles on a resume: a way to promote something other than what actually exists. Judging by its innocuous title, you might be forgiven for thinking that the ‘alt-right’ really is the movement that networks like CNN or publications like Politico refer to it as: an alternative to the conventional American right. It’s not, of course. It’s more an alternative to decades of social progress--an ideological framework centered around white supremacy so shamelessly that it’s nearly indistinguishable from the other similar organizations that our culture has already trained us to see as abhorrent.
But by calling themselves the ‘alt-right’ men like Bannon are able to dodge these associations. They are discussed not in terms of what they believe but in terms of how they identify. And while their essence may be composed of things that most Americans might identify as repugnant, their branding enables them to present themselves as something other than that essence, a coalition for whom those views by which they might otherwise be disqualified can be reframed as incidental, rather than a full-fledged raison d’etre.
Ultimately, normalization is the route to acceptance, and language is the material of normalization. The more lenient we are with how we identify a movement such as the one we call the ‘alt-right,’ the more willing we become to ignore what it is we talk about when we center our conversation around this movement. We center the discussion around political ascendants and rebellious Washington outsiders as opposed to avowed bigots, for whom violence is both in the rhetoric and in the cards. We distance ourselves from the impact of white supremacy and white white nationalism, allowing ourselves to continue to view such forces as historical relics and sociological phenomena as opposed to contemporary and visceral currents poised to directly impact people’s lives in tangible and horrible ways. Furthermore, we allow ourselves to remand the ugliest of these currents to the territory of a political other: a circumscribed collective of which we can say we are certainly not a part. When we do choose to discuss the ugly things men like Bannon believe, we give ourselves an out, labeling the purview of a club to which we do not claim membership. Political views can be disavowed and rebuked. Social forces can not be so simply disassociated from. If we say that Trump and his goons are members of the ‘alt-right,’ we can distance ourselves from them without much scrutiny. If we honestly acknowledge that they are products and agents of white supremacy, then our attempts to simply report we’re not on the roster is slightly less sustainable, and might ultimately give way to sincere reckoning with the ways in which the forces they have been so keen to ride to power might empower us (consciously or unconsciously) as well.
It’s simply absurd that we can make a fuss about rightly calling racism “white supremacy” and still try to excuse our refusal to identify white nationalism by its proper title, without gussying it up for the public forum. It’s deeply and culturally irresponsible to allow our journalistic media to try to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging the political, social, and historical chemistry of this moment in America for the sake of making the devil to which we have given to keys to our government slightly less disgusting. This is not a matter of semantics. This is matter of honest appraisal and the difficult but necessary assumption of responsibility for the social havoc we have directly enabled. If there was ever a real issue of “political correctness,” this is it: the cowardly willingness to rebrand the morally vile as civically acceptable.
Do away with the niceties. Do away with the bullshit. Call a spade a spade.
Call the ‘alt-right’ what it truly is, deep in its ugly, worthless core.