Belligerence is the message in right-wing rage storms
Media | by Mitch Diamantopoulos
Marshall McLuhan famously argued ‘the medium is the message’.
The real message of Donald Trump, and the right-wing shock jocks that helped get him elected, is belligerence.
Stand up. Speak up. Stop apologizing. Get angry. Strike back.
This leitmotif defines the echo chamber of right-wing populism and their alt-media in America today.
That’s why so many frustrated working-class voters could be so strangely cajoled into voting for the alternately vague and implausible platitudes of a billionaire turned reality TV personality whose signature phrase is “you’re fired”.
Anger rules the heartland. Many displaced by off-shoring, trade agreements and the Wall Street crash and recession crave a strong man to avenge their suffering and humiliation. With Democratic and Republican establishments alike writing them off as the unfortunate but necessary collateral damage of progress, Trump was the perfect candidate to turn Washington upside down.
Of course, turning working class discontent with corporate power to the political right rather than left requires some ideological jujitsu. That’s the reason Trump chose Stephen Bannon, editor of the race-baiting Breitbart News, to be his campaign’s chief strategist, then his Counselor to the President — a new position created for him.
Hate storms toward ‘feminazis’, ‘reverse racists’, ‘union bosses’, ‘loser liberals’, or the ‘politically correct’ do not spontaneously combust out of the ether. Flames of anger need to be kindled, sparked and fanned. They require institutions and actors to propagate them.
Trumpism built on the efforts of many before the new president.
Eager to roll back communism, secular humanism and liberalism, a generation of leading movement conservatives have made a lifework of building their alt-media Tower of Babel.
Amongst them is the homophobic televangelist Pat Robertson. He notoriously declared the Orlando shootings were God’s retribution for legalizing same sex marriage. Similarly, he — along with the late, not lamented Jerry Falwell — claimed 9/11 was God’s wrath for the sins of America’s gays, feminists and civil libertarians. Launched in 1960, his Christian Broadcasting Network now broadcasts in 71 languages and reaches 180 countries.
The right’s alt-media has also grown stealthily since Richard Viguerie, the New Right’s ‘founding funder’, pioneered direct mail and Rush Limbaugh first took to the air-waves in the ’80s.
Viguerie’s specialty was dividing union leadership from the rank and file. He used social issues like abortion, appeals to patriotism and characterized ‘union bosses’ as out-of-touch, self-serving bureaucrats to enlist blue collar Democrats in the New Right.
For his part, Limbaugh built such a large, faithful audience that he was credited with the ability to instantly shift public opinion polls. He inspired a whole right-wing talk radio industry — from Glenn Beck to Michael Savage to Howard Stern — which now reaches tens of millions daily.
Led by Republican strategist Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News brought the right-wing noise machine into the secular television fray in 1996. A booster, and often host, of Tea Party rallies, Fox was Ailes’ propaganda vehicle. Daily talking points were carefully scripted for maximum political effect.
For decades, this ever-widening right-wing consciousness industry has watered down democracy’s wine of information-rich news with their brand of angry, anti-liberal populism. In America’s polarized new media environment, newsroom respect for evidence, reason and viewpoint diversity are ‘out’. Programs calculated to exploit the fears and resentments of a largely white, Christian, male audience are ‘in’.
Campaign For Fact Freedom
Agnostic on the facts, the right’s alt-media whipped up a toxic stew of outsider irrationalism and ultra-conservatism. Its ingredients include the energetic spiritual hucksterism of the televangelists, the magical thinking of online conspiracy theorists, the cathode ray daze of the Tea Party-loving Fox News and the angry catharsis of talk radio. A potent anti-liberal backlash was their product.
The right’s alternative media was a romper room for its multi-media ideologues in tantrum-training — the Robertsons, the Limbaughs, the Savages, the Becks, the Hannitys and the Coulters. It was a springboard for the authority of corporate front groups and free market think tanks’ pet pundits — routinely paraded through their studios.
This electronic hot house of outrage baked in the commitments of the frustrated and confused. They were nudged daily to join organizations of the conservative movement like Focus on the Family, the Tea Party or the National Rifle Association. By election time, these conviction conservatives were ready to work for the ultra-right candidates their movement endorsed. For example, the NRA and Tea Party worked together in the swing states like Ohio to turn out ‘their’ vote for Trump.
Turbo-charging the emotional matrix of America’s political culture with a righteous new wrath, movement conservatives moved the national mood toward anger and the centre of political gravity ever-rightward. Trump is only this anger machine’s most recent industrial by-product.
Certainly, personality and opinion-driven formats have also come to over-shadow news in the commercial mainstream.
But the hard right’s alternative is a post-journalistic hyper-reality. Emotion, opinion and partisanship have replaced fact checking, careful interpretation and independence. Increasingly jingoism eclipses journalism.
This new combativeness and contempt for the enemy frequently crosses the line into hate speech.
This is the toxic consequence of America’s corporate media monopoly and its under-investment in public broadcasting and real media diversity. The result is an unfettered, market-driven quest for ratings and an epidemic addiction to ever-higher doses of incendiary speech and adrenaline hits—all unchecked by the countervail of a well-funded press corps committed to journalistic principle.
Standing Up To Right-Wing Media
In the cross-border path of this gale force new belligerence, Canadian progressives have two options.
They can hope for belligerence fatigue to magically part the clouds of reaction before the hate storms blow across the 49th parallel. That’s unlikely. Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has already scrambled to channel Trumpism, in a Canadian dialect. Similarly, right-wing media activist Ezra Levant has been emboldened by his fellow-travellers to the South. More likely, Trump’s triumph will spawn a new generation of Rob Ford-style blowhards on the right.
Alternately, progressives can launch counter-campaigns to bust the myths of the belligerent right, reassert the rule of logic and evidence in the public square, lowering the temperature and restoring civility in our public life. Protecting our democratic cultural environment from anti-democratic propaganda that tries to do an end run around our reason by appealing to our basest gut instincts will require making progressive media reform, media activism and alternative media investment a top priority.
There is no third option.
Mitch Diamantopoulos is an associate professor at the University of Regina School of Journalism and co-founder of Plant S.