November 29, 2016
Trump and the Overton window
The Overton window refers to the range of topics that is permitted to be discussed in polite society.
The article below is from Brian McNair, a professor of journalism at a minor Australian university. And, like all Leftist writing, what he leaves out makes a big difference. He is basically disrespectful of the Trump triumph, as are most Leftists. To spice up his argument, however, he rightly observes that Hitler came to power through regular democratic processes too. So he hints that Trump will be another Hitler.
Many Leftists just say Bush=Hitler, Trump=Hitler etc. without making any real argument for their assertions but Prof. McNair makes a lightly reasoned historical case for his comparison so I think that warrants a reply.
He rightly observes that Hitler too railed against the establishment and a remote elite that did not care about the people. But socialist politicians regularly rail against the establishment and a remote elite that does not care about the people. And Hitler was a socialist. The only oddity is that a semi-conservative like Trump did it. And the various socialist postwar governments worldwide have not become Hitler clones so why should Trump? Our bitter professor does not mention that. He ignores all the examples that contradict his argument.
And the differences between Hitler and Trump matter too. Hitler was undoubtedly one of the greatest warmongers the world has seen whereas Trump is a peacenik. He is on buddy terms with Mr Putin and wants to withdraw American troops abroad back home to America. In that regard he is a traditional American isolationist. It is Clinton who was rhetorically attacking Russia, not Trump. Hitler did talk peace at times but from his re-militarization of the Rhineland onwards he expanded the territorial reach of his armed forces -- unlike Trump's desire to pull back U.S. armed forces.
So it is just the usual Leftist cheap shot to compare Trump with Hitler. Just because two people have some similarities does not mean that they are the same. It is a foolish and empty argument.
The point of the article, however, is a recognition of something that has not much been discussed so far: Trump has shifted the Overton window rightwards. The success of Trump has made all his policy positions respectable. Before Trump, for instance, limiting Muslim immigration was "racist" to both the GOP and the Donks. The Leftists still say that but the Right no longer agree. They can now discuss the matter without being shut down. They can in fact not only discuss it but win elections by saying it. So both sides of the issue can now be discussed pretty freely, which was not previously the case
And our professor sees that shift in what journalists say and discuss. He sees that they now treat Trump's policy positions with more respect. They discuss them instead of simply abusing them. And THAT has got our professor riled. He calls the new normal "subjectivity" and yearns for the good old says when political correctness -- which he amusingly refers to as "objectivity" -- reigned supreme. He makes a plea for a return to it but is clearly despairing of that happening. He is right about that.
As the results of the 2016 election came in, the mainstream media in America and around the world demonstrated their inability to cope with the challenge of a president Trump within the conventional paradigms of journalistic objectivity, balance and fairness. Or, rather, to cope without normalising the most conspicuously overt racism, sexism, and proto-fascism ever seen in a serious candidate for president.
As street protests broke out in Portland, Oregon in the days after the election, for example, BBC World noted the police definition of the events as a “riot”, in response to what it coyly described as “some racist remarks” made by Donald Trump during his campaign.
A man whose comments were denounced even by his own party chief Paul Ryan as “textbook racism”, and whose references to “grabbing pussy”, “a nasty woman”, “Miss House Keeping” and other indicators of unabashed misogyny horrified millions in the US across the party spectrum, was now president.
For the BBC, henceforth, criticism of even the most outlandish and offensive remarks – when judged by the standards of recent decades – would be severely muted, if not excluded. Suddenly, rather can call a spade a spade in coverage of Trump’s hate-mongering campaign, his ascendancy to office had legitimised those views, and the process of normalisation had begun.
The mainstream media have largely followed suit in this approach to Trump’s victory, bestowing a new respectability on what before election day had been generally reported as absurdly offensive statements and policies. One can without too much imagination foresee Ku Klux Klan chief David Duke becoming an expert commentator on CNN or MSNBC (or at least on Fox News).
In News Corp outlets all over the world, from Sky News and The Australian here to Fox in the US, commentators and pundits were to the fore in constructing legitimacy around his policies, insofar as anyone really knows what they are.
This descent into normalisation of the hitherto unacceptable, occasioned by Trump’s democratically endowed seizure of political power as of November 8, is very similar to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in 1930s Germany.
Hitler’s ascent, and all that came from it, was a product of free choices made in ballot boxes, and of free media coverage which moved to the extreme right with the ruling party.
Then, as now, a demagogic populist exploited perceptions of victimhood and “anti-elitism”, targeting ethnic and religious minorities as “the enemy”. No-one forced national socialism on the German people, or on their media, nor on the many Western media such as the Daily Mail in England that spoke out in his favour.
Post-November 8, the mainstream media have shown their inability to engage with the enormity of what is happening in Western and global politics within conventional paradigms of objectivity. Left to them, the slide into fascism will simply become another news story, another “he said, she said” performance of balance, legitimised by the fact that this is what democracy has delivered. No matter that in the 1930s the same obeisance led to the Holocaust.
This tendency is not the fault of the mainstream media, nor of their journalists, who are simply applying the professional codes and practices with which they have been raised. But they will need to do better.
For those in the media who wish to stem a slide into democratically legitimised fascism in the next four years – and similar processes are now unfolding in Europe, Australia and elsewhere – it is time to rethink the appropriate response of “objective” journalism to the post-factual politics of extreme subjectivity.
Go to John Ray's Main academic menu
Go to Menu of longer writings
Go to John Ray's basic home page
Go to John Ray's pictorial Home Page
Go to Selected pictures from John Ray's blogs