No, We Can Never Just Ignore Them Away

No, We Can Never Just Ignore Them Away

[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]

We'll be hearing a lot, from Republican apologists primarily but also "mainstream" journalists looking to find "common ground" with the incoming Trump Administration, that we shouldn't be paying any attention to those racists behind the bright red "alt-right" curtain, such as those who let the curtain slip in Washington, D.C., the other day, because doing so just gives them attention and helps them spread their message. What we should be doing, they suggest, is ignoring them, denying them oxygen, and then they will just go away.

This line of argument gives Donald Trump a free ride from having to address the wave of hate crimes that has swept the nation since the election, since doing so might "give oxygen" to the young thugs waving Confederate flags and threatening minorities with chants of "Trump! Trump! Trump!"

Trump did, finally, address the alt-right gathering in D.C. today in his sit-down with the New York Times, but in doing so, he claimed that he had nothing to dowith the rise of the alt-right:

President-elect Donald Trump denied Tuesday that he did anything to energize the "alt-right" movement through his presidential campaign and sought to distance himself from it, even though many of the movement's leaders have sought to tether their political views to Trump's rise.

"I don't want to energize the group, and I disavow the group," Trump told a group of New York Times reporters and columnists during a meeting at the newspaper's headquarters in New York.

"It's not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized, I want to look into it and find out why," he added, according to one of the Times reporters in the room, Michael Grynbaum.

In case anyone has forgotten, here is Trump's tweet of Oct. 13, 2015, still live on his Twitter feed:

Indeed, as Sarah Posner and I explored in depth last month for Mother Jones, Trump has an extensive history of encouraging support from the alt-right and other extremist elements, including neo-Confederates and traditional white supremacists. Of course, it doesn't help that this reportage largely went ignored by the rest of the mainstream press -- Trump loves to operate in that vacuum of information that is at the heart of the modern media narrative.


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So the Trump apologists have been busily promoting the idea that we should all be like Trump and just ignore the problem, because if you just don't pay any attention to these people, they will shrivel up and go away.

We got a sample of this yesterday from Real Clear Politics' Rebecca Berg on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, while weighing in, alongside David Gergen, on the "alt-right" controversy -- and received an adroit rejoinder from Gergen:

BERG: ... But I would just make the point that you know, we are giving this outsized attention right now in the media. These few incidents with neo-Nazis, with white nationalist. But this is still a very small share of Trump supporters.
And I think that's an important point to make, because certainly we haven't expected Barack Obama to come out as president every time one of his supporters says something hateful and address that, and I'm not sure that we can expect that of President-elect Trump every time a room of a few dozen people says something hateful like this.

LEMON: David, is there a parity here between those two things?

GERGEN: Listen, I respect what Rebecca said, most of what she said. But the fact is, that Mr. Bannon represents and has sent out a lot of signals to people, as someone you should be scared of, as someone who supports policies that are going to represent this administration, that it's going to be harsh on Muslims, that's going to withdraw basically support for criminal -- social justice in a criminal system, it does not and it's going to downgrade that.

That is going to go after people in various ways. I have people crying in my classroom, I have people who were, you know grieving about what's happened, but mostly they're scared. They're scared for their families, they don't know what this means.

And I'm sorry, when the alt-right is taken as seriously as it is, and we begin to normalize this conversation, to say, it's all right to do neo-Nazi kind of rhetoric and we're just going to accept it, it's just part of who we are as Americans.

No, it is not all right to be neo-Nazi in this country. And we -- just as -- if we're going to raise those specters, let's remember when people didn't rise up against the Nazis, when they were in their midst.

And it is not right, and the president himself has to be the standard bearer of this, he has to be seen as a president of all the people, that's what we want. And I think we can support Mr. Trump in a lot of what he does.

BERG: I totally agree with that, David.

GERGEN: But he has to be embracive and inclusive.

BERG: But at the same time, you also don't want to give unnecessary oxygen to some of these hateful rhetoric. And there is the potential for that to happen.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Look, there is always a fine line when it comes to the work of monitoring hate groups, right-wing extremists, conspiracist, white nationalists, and the lot -- namely, there is a point of obscurity where this principle (denying them oxygen will make them wither) works very well. If a crackpot or a racist crank is just wheezing out copy in his basement that no one reads, then it's a bad idea to shine the spotlight onto their activities in the way we do established racists like the Klan, because it raises them out of obscurity and may actually attract readers.

It's unquestionable, moreover, that there is always the danger that you will help extremist ideologues recruit people by shining any kind of light on them at all. There will always be a percentage of people who may wind up being attracted to the groups as a result of the exposure given to them.

This danger, however, is really only acute when you do a poor job of reporting on them -- when you fail to make clear their underlying extremism, or the toxic nature of their ideologies, but instead report on them in a "he said/she said" style of reporting in which analysis from the SPLC is given the same credibility as racist spouting from Richard Spencer.

In general, shining a clear spotlight on racists and extremist activity has the main benefit of more broadly informing the public on these issues so that they are better equipped when confronting its inevitable manifestations in their real lives. A well-informed public is the best cure for this ailment.

Secondarily, it has the socially beneficial aspect of sending a message to the hatemongers and racist thugs and would-be hate criminals: This is not acceptable. Society condemns this behavior. You may believe you are standing up for "America" or white people or whatever notions you've worked up in your head, but you cannot do it with our assent.

As I explained in The Eliminationists:

I’ve had some personal experience with this. When I was the editor of the Daily Bee up in Sandpoint in the late 1970s, we were faced with the tough decision of how to handle the increasing visibility of Richard Butler’s neo-Nazi Church of Jesus Christ Christian, based at the Aryan Nations compound some 30 miles down the road in Hayden Lake. After much hand-wringing, we decided it was best not to give them any coverage, since publicity was what they craved, and it would only encourage their radicalism.

What we didn’t understand was that the silence was (as it always is with hyper-nationalistic hate groups) interpreted as consent. And so, over the next several years, the Idaho Panhandle was inundated with a spate of hate crimes – enough so that Idaho became one of the first states to pass a bias-crime law – as well as a flood of extraordinary violence, ranging from the multi-state rampage of murder and robbery by the neo-Nazi sect called The Order to the pipe-bombing campaigns planned by their successors. All of these acts emanated from the Aryan Nations.

By then I had moved on to other papers, but the Bee changed its policies vis a vis the Aryan Nations in fairly short order, as did most other newsrooms in the area that had taken similar approaches. I certainly never forgot the mistake.

Hate crimes are one of the ultimate manifestations of right-wing extremism's spread into the mainstream; only a small percentage of all bias-crime perpetrators are actually members of hate groups. The vast majority of bias crimes are committed by a certain profile of perpetrator: A young white male between the ages of 16 and 25, poorly or moderately educated, prone to other kinds of violence. He is typically motivated to "defend his community" from "outsiders" and most often commits the crime believing he is doing so with the silent support and consent of the community.

Repeat offenders are far more likely to engage in recidivist crimes if the first offense is treated only as a criminal matter and not as a hate crime; they frequently interpret the light sentence as a wink-and-nod kind of encouragement.

That's the key thing: All right-wing extremists, including the thugs out there committing hate crimes, see themselves as heroes. They believe they are engaging in the heroic defense of their homes and their communities from pollution by the incoming brown/gay/Muslim/whatever tide. And they love to tell themselves that the silence from their neighbors is actually a pat on the back.

Don't take my word for it. Here's Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi "alt-right" website The Daily Stormer:

Trump still hasn’t spoken out against his anti-Semitic supporters, who also threatened New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman, called for the death of conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro and his children, and told conservative writer Bethany Mandel she deserved “the oven.”

That silence has both Trump’s neo-Nazi fans and his Jewish supporters convinced the candidate is secretly on their side.

“We interpret that as an endorsement,” Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, named for the Hitler-era tabloid Der Stürmer, told The Huffington Post in an email.

That's why standing up to them in no uncertain terms and denouncing them clearly and irrevocably is so deeply necessary when it comes to our leading authority figures. The social condemnation is then unmistakable. And the silence is always, always, always interpreted as assent.

Will Donald Trump make that stand? Tragically, I think we would be foolish to hold our breaths waiting for it.

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