Political historian Kathleen Frydl: “The real story, never to be buried or forgotten, is Trump’s racial and religious demagoguery, and the dangers his politics pose to the democratic system in the United States.”
Many have noted the outsized role played by the mainstream media in the rise of Donald Trump. Now, as Trump nears the Republican nomination, there has been a shift in the narrative surrounding the controversial candidate—a shift that seems to normalize and by doing so, legitimize his candidacy and policy proposals. In a new, must read piece at Medium, political historian Kathleen Frydl examines the striking parallels between the media’s coverage of Donald Trump today, and the U.S. and European media coverage of the rise of the Hitler regime. By exploring the coverage of Hitler’s rise to power in the 1920s and 30s, Frydl brings into stark relief just how dangerous Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the widespread normalization of his extreme policy proposals, truly are.
The full piece, “The Media Covers Fascism: A Cautionary Tale” is available online here and is excerpted below:
The occasional fiery back-page editorial denouncing Hitler in the nation’s leading newspapers did nothing keep those same outlets from carrying the messages that served the Nazi agenda above the fold and on a regular basis in their reporting.
In the name of competitive business pressures and the desire to retain access to Hitler’s regime for as long as possible, otherwise well-intentioned journalists committed grievous errors. The first was to repeat and unwittingly platform arrantly offensive Nazi talking points. Goebbels proved adept at giving bigotry the superficial veneer of news by positioning it within an official state visit or speech, for example, obligating some manner of news coverage. In 1942, Sidney Freifeld could barely contain his frustration as he enumerated various instances of Nazi manipulation of the American press to readers of Public Opinion Quarterly. The “great” and “cumulative effect” of the pre-war American press reprinting the dangerous assertions of Adolf Hitler had no justification, he insisted, when in reality “the cessation of well-known Nazi propaganda themes would be more newsworthy than their repetition.”
Freifeld also criticized journalists for extending too much credibility to the misleading comments that Hitler and his colleagues gave to the press, all of which, like the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” foreign policy statements of the early 1930s, were designed to sow confusion and delay a coalescing of opinion that could thwart Nazi power.
In an election cycle that features Donald Trump, these reminders of press treatment of the Nazis take on a haunting, if only suggestive character. Many have shied away from drawing this comparison, mainly because the magnitude of Nazi Germany’s crimes are so singular that it is appropriate to show reverence for its victims by refusing to invoke the term in a cavalier or irresponsible fashion. Yet we have self-professed fascists gaining traction in Europe (some of whom openly endorse Trump), and no one casts doubt on their political credentials just because they have yet to confess to genocidal ambitions. Those things that truly separate Donald Trump from 20th century European fascism — their morbid cult of death; their relentless devotion to party building — are rarely mentioned. Meanwhile, commentators who evince a stunning ignorance of history routinely point to Donald Trump’s appeal to the working class, and his feint towards isolationism, as factors that spare him from such damning associations.
If anything, these attributes, and the news media’s handling of them, make distressing comparisons more viable, not less. Donald Trump’s machismo-loaded language of national humiliation, his dehumanization of others — especially when done along the lines of ethnicity and religion — and his authoritarian impulse together make a convincing case for invoking a fascist comparison.
Regardless of this election’s outcome, journalists should regret their failure to sort the organizing principles of Trump’s campaign from the noise, let alone their inability to confront the “big lie,” the preposterous notion that building a “wall” serves an effective deterrent to stem the flow of undocumented workers, when available evidence suggests the opposite, and that pursuing this absurd notion, or penalizing immigrants in any way, would help to restore economic prosperity to this country. Allegra Kirkland of Talking Points Memopoints out that the “white nationalist movement sees coverage of Trump’s anti-immigration policies as key to spreading their ideals.” As in the past, newspaper editors run opinion pieces decrying Trump’s candidacy, while their front page often carries his message without the necessary context or critique. This is not without damning precedent; nor is it without damage even absent a Trump victory in November.
Sadly, too many journalists, busy parsing Trump’s latest dissembling deflection as if it were a traffic ticket issued to Charles Manson, have already chosen sides, abetting the rise of an authoritarian and racist demagogue. Donald Trump undoubtedly warrants coverage from the press, but his candidacy demands deliberation from them as well.