Today NPR aired an episode of The Diane Rehm Show, titled The Rise Of Far Right Political Movements In The West, that focused on the increasing threat of “fascism” in Europe and at home in the United States–the term “fascism” was to be defined in the segment. Of particular importance was the campaign of Donald Trump and what this means for the political climate in the country.
The episode was astounding for the almost self-parody of the media’s unwillingness to challenge the far right in America, showcasing the academic, “mere-disinterested-observer” approach to political coverage. The four panelists were NPR’s usual crew: out-of-touch academics, think tank pundits, and journalists for corporate media outlets that are sure to bring the corporate model into public radio from which it is allegedly separate. Imagine your own reaction when you hear the first caller into the program, “Jeff” from Pennsylvania:
I was just listening to the show and it seems like the panelists, the gentleman, seem to really have it out for Mr. Trump. But I guess in his defense, I can see why he wants to keep out Latinos and Mexicans and certain, you know, the bad ones, and the Muslims. I think he’s trying to do good for this country. I don’t believe that they’re all bad, but there is a lot of bad people, you know, in like Mexico. I mean, I listened to the BBC show back on March 7th. They actually kidnap people and kill them and dismember them if they don’t get ransom money. And I just think that people think that everyone coming over here is like Jennifer Lopez and I don’t believe that’s the case.
To which Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, responds:
You know, just to pick up on that point, I think that many of the anxieties and threats that people feel in their own societies and to their own communities in Europe, and the United States, are very real. In fact, you know, we don’t see a big connection between immigration and support for far right parties in Europe. So there’s not a clear connection there. You know, high immigration rates do not necessarily lead, uh, for people to flock to the polls and support the far right. So it’s really about the perception of that threat and the perception of other threats like terrorism, you know, the change, rapid change in people’s societies, and it may not be manifested in reality. And so I think politicians like Donald Trump, like Marine Le Penn, like other far right nationalist populists, are responding to these very really and generally felt threats that Americans and also Europeans currently feel, because of rapid change in their societies. And I think it is the role of political leaders, and particularly those in the center, the elites, that have failed to pick up on some of these anxieties to take those and channel them into productive policy solutions.
What? Listening to this “exchange” live was tantamount to torture. How could this possibly be a valid response to the caller? It was so dry, so academic. It treated the caller as if he were a child, too delicate for reasoned exchange. This is *exactly* the kind of thing that so many like-minded Trump supporters hate in the first place! Instead of talking to him like a human being, with reasoned debate and facts, she decided to put her training as a sterile, corporate voice to use by merely pointing out where the caller stands in some grand horse race.
For God’s sake, physically talk to the caller and give him and the audience something else to believe. For example, she could have pointed out that there are criminal elements in every population and that assault rates in the U.S. are similar to those in Mexico, and that rape rates are much higher in the U.S. She could have pointed out that American’s high drug use and drug criminalization policies are a major source of the crime he hears about in Mexico. She could have pointed out that evidence shows that crime rates are actually lower for undocumented immigrants than for the general population. She could have cited the deeply discredited study used to justify Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the U.S., a study by the Center for Security Policy that purported to show that 25% of American Muslims support global Jihad and that 50% support the establishment of Sharia Law in the U.S. The study was an “opt-in” survey with a low sample size that hasn’t been reproduced and that didn’t even know who was actually physically filling out the survey. It was conducted by an organization with a history of misleading claims about Islam and headed by the notorious Islamophobe, Frank Gaffney.
She could–and should–have said just about anything at all that refutes the caller’s racism and bigotry. She said nothing, and didn’t even address the caller.
I nearly lost my mind when the next panelist, Holger Stark of Der Spiegel, gave a response similar to the first:
Yeah, and I think that Donald Trump is filling a vacuum that you see. And from a European prospective, let me add that I think it’s stunning how the American political class over the last 10 to 20 years tried to demolish the old political system. If you walk around in Washington, almost it appears that no one is a “Washitonian,” no one is part of that system. Everybody is rigging the system. Look at Ted Cruz, he came in to say he wants to destroy the system. If you have a political class which is on one hand ignoring the anxiety of the people and on the other hand trying to really destroy the political system then you see the fruits, you bear the fruits of the decade or the two decades. And I think this is what Donald Trump is playing the card that he’s being the anti-establishment guy and that makes him so strong.
I could only imagine the very real frustration of the caller to “get through” to these people; they were literally out-of-touch elites.
Two more questions went by, and I thoroughly thought that this was something that had happened–that once again NPR merely served as as megaphone for toxic information–when suddenly David Rothkopf, CEO and Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, stepped up to the mic. Finally, somebody on NPR that said what I would say:
…I have to go back, by the way, to the earlier comment where somebody said, you know, there are “bad” Mexicans and there are “bad” people from the Islamic world, and say: this, you know, we giving an academic response to that kind of comment exacerbates the problem. That’s *racism*. There are a billion people in the Islamic world. There are people who are making a gigantic contribution to the well-being of the planet in the Islamic world. There are a tiny, tiny fraction of those people who are extremists just like there are a tiny fraction of people in our society who are criminals or who are operating outside of the law. And for us to suggest that we should shut out systematically pieces of humanity from the American mosaic simply because somebody has chosen to stir up our fears in that regard is really a repudiation of two hundred and forty years of American history, and I really caution everybody on the panel and listening to this thing against coming up with academic analyses of these things that legitimize them when they don’t deserve that legitimization.
What an amazing response! Instantly Rothkopf had become my hero. He directly attacked his fellow panelists and their academic, “we’re above things and don’t even have to answer basic accusations” mindset that’s so common on NPR, and that turns people towards racist descriptions of the world.
Later in the program we would be informed that “a number of listeners” wanted to correct the record: Jennifer Lopez was born in New York and is of Puerto Rican heritage… For a second there they actually had my hopes up.
Towards the end of the hour-long segment, a final caller–“Jason” from New Braunfels–tested the panelists. Would they take Rothkopf’s advice?
Listen, so many of the things that you all have said–I know you like to think of yourselves as thoughtful and intelligent academics, but the more you talk the more you make the point about why Donald Trump is being successful… It is not diversity that made this country great; it was the fact that people from diverse backgrounds could come here, embrace that free market capitalism of the United States despite their last name and make their way the best they could. The Muslims don’t want to do that. They want to come here and bring their Sharia Law. They want to come here and bring their weird practices, the way they treat women. And Americans have no reason to stand for that! And this notion! This misguided notion that you liberals have that the element of Islam that is bad is a small percentage is absolutely false. It is absolutely false!
The response by Robert Paxton clearly demonstrated that he did not learn the lesson:
Yes, I think the most regrettable aspect of this electoral campaign is Mr. Trump’s success in arousing stereotypes in people. It is extremely harmful to the political life of a country, and not just at election time, to come up with stereotypes about black people, about Jews, about Texans, or anyone else whereby, instead of judging them as individuals, as they should be judged, we take one look at their skin color or their accent or whatever, we say, “that’s a bad person. That was certainly not what made this country great.” And it’s very very painful to watch this use of stereotypes spread so widely.
Another outrageously dry, academic response that treated the caller like a child and didn’t directly respond to his many misleading claims. The response was enough to make you wonder: do the panelists even know why racist “facts” are wrong? Does Paxton really think it’s an accent that leads racists to be racist? Or is it the boundless quantity of dubious “facts” that endlessly round the society of which Paxton was sure to not stand in their way.
To my joy, David Rothkopf got the final reply:
That call was Exhibit ‘A’, right? It was founded on distortions and lies and fear. It presented them as facts, just as Trump does. It was full of emotion. We’re sitting here having a nuanced debate about the semantics of fascism while people are out there throwing aside nuance, throwing aside facts, throwing aside morality, and doing whatever feels good in their gut. The only way to respond to this is to call it out for what it is. This guy, who just called in, crawled out from some rock. Five years ago in a political debate he wouldn’t have been allowed into the discussion. He would not have manifested himself in that debate, but he now feels he has the cover of the Trump campaign to go out and express his racism as though it were legitimate.
Was it enough?