On Sunday, the people of Brazil elected their new president, Jair Bolsonaro, a bigoted fascist who has appealed for a return to dictatorship and said Brazilians descended from Africa “are not even good for procreation,” and as a congressman once went so far as to advocate for a civil war that killed tens of thousands of people.
“Let’s go straight to the dictatorship,” he said.
In the wake of Bolsonaro’s victory, the New York Times described him as “a strident populist” and “polarizing.” The American press keeps failing the test: Fascists and their bad-faith platforms, which are back doors to authoritarianism and bigoted, violent policies, should not be normalized or even tolerated. They remarkably still haven’t learned their lesson with Mussolini, Hitler, or Trump.
Here are the first Google News results for a search of “Bolsonaro.”
So yeah, I guess Balsonaro is technically “strident,” “divisive,” “far-right,” and “polarizing.” More to the point, Bolsonaro is a fascist and virulent racist, homophobe, and misogynist whose election puts the world’s fourth-largest democracy — and one of the most politically unstable developing countries — at serious risk of collapse into something approaching nazism. But Bill Cosby is technically an adulterer, Michelangelo is technically an Italian, and Cujo has four legs and a tail. Though those descriptions are accurate, they are also incomplete. And that is the common and treacherous failure of the press today: An accurate but incomplete reporting of people and events that doesn’t say just how bad things are, a habit born of a fear of being called “biased” by maniacs whose vote the press must respect.
But language isn’t democratic. You don’t vote on words. And you don’t vote on truth. Unlike the government, the press is not a republican democracy. They must stop acting like it.
I’ve made the point several times now that this mincing, milquetoast reporting helped give us Trump. It gives bad-faith supporters an aegis of legitimacy for that support, and it gives the public the notion that these arguments are in fact things to be given serious consideration as a viable way to run the government and, by extension, conduct our lives. It’s tacit endorsement of an appalling, anti-American set of ideas that have no grounding in any type of morality other than power and the exclusion and control of the Other.
So yes, this coverage has proven consequential here, but this mealy-mouthed both-sidesism can be particularly dangerous in a place like Brazil, which is inherently unstable and only 30 years into its somewhat peaceful constitutional democracy. That country can quickly slip back into a dictatorship, and given its new president has literally said he wants that, odds are it will.
Even more alarming, and dispiriting in terms of the press, Bolsonaro couched his campaign in Trump’s rhetoric. Like Trump, Bolsonaro wants to appoint military leaders to high government office. Like Trump he said he wouldn’t accept the election results if he lost. Like Trump he wants to jail his critics. As the NYT put it, “He won by tapping into a deep well of resentment at the status quo in Brazil — a country whiplashed by rising crime and two years of political and economic turmoil — and by presenting himself as the alternative.”
But also like Trump, his campaign rhetoric revealed this “well of resentment” is far, far deeper than crime, politics, and economics. It’s racist, misogynist, and homophobic. It’s hatred of the Other, and the willingness to silence and even eliminate them. But given that Brazil’s government has in recent years been riddled with a sprawling corruption scandal — which led to the impeachment of one workers’ party president and the jailing of another — and given its law enforcement culture has been similarly crippled by endemic corruption, it would be easy for a strongman to co-opt the military apparatus to enforce a dictatorship. But it’s a mistake to present this result as simply a repudiation of those stunningly corrupt liberal administrations: You don’t have to elect a fascist to do that.
And indeed, today Trump tweeted his congratulations to Bolsonaro, promising of all things a close military relationship. By way of contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement emphasized “common values” of the “promotion of democratic principles.”
Donald Trump aligned our military with that of a world leader who baldly laid out a fascist platform without fear of reprisal.
It’s unclear why the press still can’t step up and call not balls and strikes, but the extension of those things to right and wrong. This type of intellectual and moral validation opens the door to people who should have zero chance at public office.
So now: What to do about it? Here are some thoughts.
What to do
The problem is that the press’s obsession with balance and objectivity makes them reluctant to be as critical and, yes, negative as they should be. After all, no reporting is completely objective: reporters and editors must make significant choices in how to shape a story, what to emphasize, what to include, and what to leave out. And if we can agree it would be okay for a reporter to write “the systemic extermination of Jews during WWII was the most heinous political expression in human history,” then we can agree there is a line to right and wrong that is inherently balanced and objective. Now we must find where that line is.
But the holocaust was a failure of the press, too. Let’s look at how the press actually covered Hitler and Mussolini. The NYT’s first article about Hitler, in 1922, analyzed his virulently anti-semitic rhetoric as an empty appeal for the support of angry (apparently virulently anti-semitic) Germans:
So violent are Hitler’s fulminations against the Jews that a number of prominent Jewish citizens are reported to have sought safe asylums in the Bavarian highlands… but several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers.
And we can also see the domino effect of Trump to Bolsonaro in the American press of the 20s and 30s, whose coverage of Mussolini normalized Hitler. They called him “the German Mussolini.”
Look: Even if you argue that a man like Hitler, Mussolini, Bolsonaro, or Trump is only willing to say and do these awful things because he wants to command followers, you must also understand that this politician has calculated the best way to assume power is by harnessing the violent anger of those followers. There’s no reason to believe such a person wouldn’t do what his followers would like him to do when he’s in power. He’s telling them he wants to do what they want him to do. That’s why they support him, and if that support is the source of his power, as it is with Trump, such a leader wouldn’t squander this by betraying his base. He would lean on them and, if pressured by critics, he would unleash them.
The American press, therefore, can point to the objective strain of right-wing extremism in the United States and elsewhere as fact. They then should extrapolate that there’s little reason to believe this ideology wouldn’t at the very least drive Trump and others to do the things these people want them to do. In hindsight I’m clearly correct about this conclusion: Trump has clearly opened the door for his supporters to commit violence, and they will continue to do so.
In other words, the press is failing to recognize the story here isn’t Trump. The story is the story — the greater context.
How do you do this? Two quick examples. First, the easiest.
This Washington Post headline that the NYT’s Maggie Haberman called “solid.”
Okay, the headline: Trump says “we must unify” at North Carolina rally after bomb plot, then criticizes Democrats and media.
The better way to write it: After Trump supporter bombs media office, Trump criticizes media and says “we must unify” at North Carolina rally.
In other words the story is not what Trump says. The story is the terrifying rise of right-wing violence by people inspired by Trump and the policies and ideologies he vocalizes and associates himself with.
That’s also the problem with pointing out that the Nazi who just murdered 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue “hated Trump.” He hated Trump not because he supported progressive, tolerant policies; he hated Trump because he thought Trump didn’t go far enough. He also promoted the same conspiracies Trump did about the large group of migrants walking nearly 2000 miles to claim asylum at the U.S. border.
This is more about context than it is Trump specifically. Trump bought a bunch of kindling soaked in gasoline, and he’s lit it on fire. The solution is to emphasize the context in which Trump lies. This is the true the significance of the moment, it accurately shows Trump’s place within that context, and by putting him second it doesn’t confer unearned legitimacy.
The other way is ruthless research and databasing. Daniel Dale — a reporter for the Toronto Star — does a superhuman job of fact-checking Trump’s rallies in real time on Twitter. He archived for readers a list of Trump’s most common lies, so they can fact-check Trump in real time. He deserves a medal.
Let’s look at a specific story where the press failed to report Trump as a bad-faith bigot: The time he called MS-13 gang members “animals.”
The argument about this was petty: In the context of his remarks, it was — in purely semantic terms — unclear whether Trump was referring to MS-13 alone, or to immigrants at large. This made it difficult for the press: Well, we have to acknowledge the people Trump might have been talking about commit unspeakably violent crimes, and while “animal” is extreme, and while you could argue that no one should be dehumanized — which is a slippery slope — it’s simply hard to criticize Trump for this rhetoric.
Trump and the right wing have seized on this to troll liberals and the press, which has led to Trump claiming the left wants to let immigrant criminals out on the street to apparently maraud around killing people willy-nilly.
Well, surprise surprise, Trump does indeed speak of immigrants in subhuman terms. A few months before that remark, he read a poem called “The Snake” at the annual CPAC conference. He introduced it this way:
You have to think of this in terms of immigration. I want people to come into our country. And I want people that are going to help us…. And think of it in terms of immigration and you may love it or you may say isn’t that terrible? Okay. If you say isn’t that terrible, who cares. Because the way they treat me, that’s peanuts compared to the way they treat me. Okay. Immigration.
He then read the poem, which casts immigrants in the role of a poisonous snake that killed a “tender-hearted woman” who took him in. What’s more, in that ellipses up there, Trump didn’t talk about crime, and he didn’t even mention MS-13. He only spoke about jobs and wanting people to come into the country who could “contribute.” Read for yourself here.
So yes, Trump has said immigrants are subhuman people. And it’s not about crime or MS-13 at all. Shocker.
This is consequential. It adds up. Trump retweeted an anti-semitic image during the campaign, but the campaign spun the Star of David as “a sheriff’s badge.” The AP’s “ragged army” of migrants. Mollie Tibbets. The New York Times ran a human intetest story on the Proud Boys leader that had for its header: “How he went from Brooklyn hipster to far-right provocateur.” That person, in truth, is an unapologetic white supremacist who just a few days before the story dropped led the Proud Boys as they beat down random people on the sidewalks of New York City. In fact, that was the only reason the story existed.
I mean, it just goes on and on. The press offers these stories as objective things worthy of real consideration as American philosophy, values, or policy, as if their existence justifies their essence. They’re adopting the language or normalcy, and in some cases the language of the fascists themselves. And that’s exactly what the far-right Trump base wants: to remove the human context, to erase the names and faces behind the people they are terrorizing. To reduce a movement based on indefensible bigoted rage that advocates targeted violence to an abstraction: To a viable American ideology worthy of public consideration as a possible way to live.
Look, there is no legitimate way to support Donald Trump without denouncing probably 90% of what he does and stands for. That would be insane, and should be portrayed as such, because Trump, ever since he announced his campaign, has, in tandem with the veritable army he’s conducted, posed an existential threat to America.
Here, unlike AP a few days ago, we can say “army” because we know they’re armed. According to the 2016 American National Election Study, sixty-two percent of gun owners voted for Trump, four percent higher than Romney in 2012 and ten percent higher than McCain in 2008. In fact, according to the NYT, no other demographic metric had such a consistent geographic split. It should be clear that they’ve also attacked with the most heinous violence, repeatedly. Remember the Trump supporter who shot two Indian programmers in Kansas about a month after Trump’s inauguration? Remember Charlottesville? Remember the body-slamming of a reporter, which Trump has since praised? Remember how they treated Christine Blasey-Ford? The Trump lover who shot up a mosque in Quebec? This is sadly an incomplete list.
And yes, the press has reason to fear the right wing: After all, their Trump coverage even as it is has made them targets of violence. But they won’t win people over if they cave in, and the normalization of Trump, the neutral headlines, the obsession with the possible criminality of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal and refusal to apply the same obsession to Trump’s countless security compromises — none of that has done them any favors. These attacks are evidence that a portion of America is unreachable and won’t accept a victory by surrender. They will only accept a win. And it’s a war.
So no: The press doesn’t have to respect these people simply because Trump won. It doesn’t have to respect Bolsonaro, or Duterte, or Erdogan. It doesn’t, for instance, respect Putin. The American people need to know U.S. is closer to that brand of totalitarian rule than we might think. We got informed of that this weekend. But it wasn’t from the press.