A collective freakout is taking place over the appointment of Steve Bannon as senior strategy advisor to President-Elect Donald Trump. Liberal talking heads, certain members of the media, and legions of their loyal followers have leveled accusations against Bannon, repeated ad nauseum, that he’s a “white supremacist” and a leader of the “racist alt-right.”
There are two problems with this. First, even those who know and dislike Bannon are the first to admit he’s not a “white supremacist.” Ben Shapiro, who worked with Bannon for four years, and in that span developed a seething dislike of the man, has bashed him repeatedly over the past several days. But he also admits that the liberals are grasping at straws when it comes to charges of racism:
I have no evidence that Bannon’s a racist or that he’s an anti-Semite; the Huffington Post’s blaring headline “WHITE NATIONALIST IN THE WHITE HOUSE” is overstated, at the very least.
As Shapiro noted, the charge originated at the Huffington Post. That outlet, already reeling after foolishly challenging Nate Silver’s prediction that Trump had a 1-in-3 chance to win the White House, now has a credibility deficit that will take some time to recover from. Casually flinging rhetorical attacks, without the ability to back it up, is exactly the sort of thing Bannon thrives on.
And that’s how the left is playing into an alt-right trap.
The charge against Steve Bannon stems from the flawed linear logic that his media empire, Breitbart News, attracts and allegedly panders to members of the so-called “alt-right,” and that the alt-right in turn attracts and allegedly panders to white supremacists. It follows, the logic goes, that Bannon must also be a white supremacist.
It is certainly fair to say that some factions of the alt-right indeed harbor white supremacist views. But it is also fair to say that a number of whom the media would consider “alt-right” are actually post-racial youth who revel in the idea of thrashing political correctness through innovative, albeit controversial, means. Case in point: one of the more common concepts on the message board 4Chan, which harbors many “alt-rightists,” is the idea of using the basic economic concepts of scarcity and abundance to devalue politically correct languge. Just as one can lower the value of a stock by dumping large quantities of it onto the market at low prices, alt-righters argue, the same can be applied to political correctness. By taking taboo words and phrases and applying them to everyone, at every opportunity, some on 4Chan have posited that the shock value (or shame value) of the phrases will likewise decrease.
Your mileage may vary, and I don’t recommend trying it out at work, church, in the home, or anywhere else, really. That’s because there are obvious side effects, not the least of which are (1) actually offending people, and (2) attracting and encouraging actual racists and white supremacists.
But progressives have to be careful, too. The rhetorical charge of racism, discrimination, and bigotry is now so commonly flung about by the progressive movement and media that it is beginning to no longer have any meaning, and the alt-right is on the cutting edge of making sure it stays that way. This is the rhetorical “trap” that progressives are falling for. And there is a simpler explanation for it: crying “wolf.” Do it too often, and people stop paying attention.
Already, there is a rhetorical disconnect between previous generations and many that are just now in high school and college. Most of today’s American youth have only known the era of extreme political correctness, where “trigger warnings” and “privilege” are familiar concepts. For their entire lives, they have been told that certain words and phrases, indeed, certain behaviors, are off limits to them. From the time they learned to talk, they have been molded by parents and teachers to understand that discrimination and intolerance is unacceptable in a post-racial, post-discriminatory world.
The disconnect manifests itself in the differences between how Americans define racism in the first place. Slate Magazine, which firmly believes Donald Trump himself is a racist and sexist, admits that there are broad differences in how different groups define those terms:
We thought these labels, once applied, would stop him in his tracks—that if we could only “prove” that Trump was racist and sexist, we’d reach some common ground of moral decency, and all but the most extreme Trump supporters would have to back away from him. In the end, though, we misunderstood the vagueness of those terms. Labeling Trump didn’t work, because there is no common ground in America when it comes to what those labels mean.
Because of those cultural taboos and fear of those labels, coupled with our own upbringing and professional experience, many Americans strive to be color blind (succeeding at this is a different discussion for a different day). But when charges of racism are leveled, the immediate instinct for many is to take the charge with a grain of salt, sigh, and move on. Within the activist alt-right, however, the default instinct is much more confrontational. There is little regard for progressive “social justice warriors” whom they view as too eager and too quick to level charges of racism or sexism, when none, in the alt-right’s view, exists. They fight back, often using provocative, and uncouth tactics, which often cross lines that previous generations wouldn’t dare tread.
As we get closer to Inauguration Day, left-wing media and liberal activists will almost certainly ratchet up the rhetoric and charges of racism, and the alt-right will almost certainly answer in kind. But it will only serve to devalue what was once a powerful and important accusation against those who might actually deserve it. And that is exactly what the alt-right hoped to accomplish in the first place.