Beacons of Hope and Hate from the US Election: People Power's Capacity to 'Trump' Injustice

Image: Alexander Andrews

Sunday 27th November, 2016

Emma Briant

An extreme right fringe has influenced American politics for far longer than many care to admit. This ‘shock’ election victory had a very slow creep. Neoliberal hegemony dug in its heels despite the pain of the 2008 financial crisis, repeating that there is still ‘no alternative’. Even moderate reforms such as Obamacare (which was actually based on plans developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation) and deficit reduction have been fought bitterly with Republicans’ obstructionism and aggressive conservative media.

In 2015, US former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, ‘If you stray in the slightest from the far right… you get hit by the conservative media’. Meanwhile there being ‘no alternative’ to neoliberal economics is a mantra Democratic Party elites profited from. Their self-interested orientation led them to dismiss widespread concern and a substantial movement among their base as childish or unrealistic – led by ‘false promise’ Clinton said. Democrats did not heed their own supporters’ warnings about the country’s pain, its needs and concerns. Creeping trends of extreme right-wing groups exploiting alienation in Europe and globally, seemed distant problems– even as researchers and police stressed the growing threat of the extreme right.

One truly terrible impact of Trump’s election, is it represents a green light, a beacon for far-right and fascist groups everywhere seeking to advance their movements. We are seeing racist backlash already with Nazi graffiti, hate crimes and the KKK promising a ‘victory march’ in North Carolina.

The US mainstream media handled this election appallingly. TV helped Trump’s profile soar from the start, his celebrity and ‘shock factor’ drew audiences - Trump hardly spent a dime. The media, rightly, interrogated Clinton’s record but presented a false equivalency between candidates. Later coverage then became driven by real fear of Trump winning and paraded celebrity and political establishment figureheads denouncing ‘The Donald’ as dangerous. Meanwhile Clinton’s painstakingly ‘moderate’ neoliberal campaign did ‘all the right things’ - unprecedented media-savvy orchestration, high-tech algorithmic planning - yet lost to a known liar with an anarchic, blundering, divisive campaign.

The media only cared what political and Hollywood elites were saying. The people noticed. This ‘establishment’ supported Clinton’s polite ‘sensible’ neoliberal formula – the election was a 'done deal'. Coverage lulled many Democrats into a false sense of security - perhaps lowering turnout. The media conveyed an attitude that everyone thinks like them except of course impoverished ill-educated idiots who just don’t matter. But what this shows is if you pick the wrong candidate, mainstream media will be ignored. The media don’t trump people-power.

The US media are normalising ‘President Trump’ but there is a will not to let them succeed. On NBC, Seth Meyer’s statement equalised emotions he felt, ‘some sadness, some anger, some fear’ as the same emotions Trump supporters had felt so ‘it would be wrong of me to think that my emotions are more authentic than their emotions’. Americans awoke on 10th November to this being applauded on the popular ‘Morning Joe’ talk-show, saying ‘this is a guy who is a good Democrat… that’s what America needs’. But NO ...this election is not about different but equal emotions - or even differing opinions, this is about lies and truth, it’s about economic policies crushing most people’s lives for way too long, declining trust, false promises, aggravated racism, scapegoats, dismissing critics as too idealistic. Established rhetoric of post-election reconciliation must not whitewash what was a fear-fuelled, deceptive campaign to progress the interests of the wealthy against those of ordinary Americans.

Meanwhile, as Twitter, Google and Facebook acknowledge some responsibility for spreading far-right propaganda, resulting censorship is prompting these groups to 'build a wall' around themselves with more reliable echo-chambers - moving to their own social network.

Yet Trump unwittingly also exposes flaws in the popular myths that have shackled those seeking progressive policymaking and real solutions to economic inequality and social injustice. Mainstream media attacks on Trump - but also perhaps on Sanders - mattered less than we thought. Getting articulate, impassioned and mobilising voices over through popular organising and clever use of online media matters more. More effective strategies might include flooding emerging networks (open to all) with targeted, disruptive, alternative voices and factual information.

American streets now are filled with people rejecting Trump’s America AND Clinton’s America. Organisations like ACLU are also gearing up to provide formidable opposition. Recent Democratic campaigns show improved potential for building popular movements that can be astoundingly successful with the right candidate. While Republicans have a monolithic propaganda infrastructure, Democrats have stronger infrastructure than ever before - what’s lacking is a consistent, unifying message embodied in a truly transformative candidate. With Robert M Entman, I am exploring this problem for our new book, tentatively titled, 'What's wrong with the Democrats? Inequality, Media Bias and the Rise of Donald Trump'. To communicate neoliberal failures and policy alternatives convincingly, the left needs to believe in itself and its ability to rise again. What was dismissed for decades as idealism must be acknowledged as new realism. And the crowds on America’s streets are beacons for a new movement for change.

Emma L Briant is Lecturer in Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield. She tweets at @EmmaLBriant.

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