Media

The Drum Smash and the Blaring Trumpet

Those are the instruments the VORTEX plays.

The Drum Smash and the Blaring Trumpet

Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly (Fox News)

The VOices of RT-Wing EXtremism — the amalgam of delusional and deceptive noise so visible and audible on radio, cable TV and on websites like Breitbart.com, the informal network that in the spirit of acronym I am calling VORTEX — is most recognizable by its buzz-saw pitch. As you pass the hours with Fox News, or tune up and down the radio dial pausing to keep company with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Hugh Hewitt, Alex Jones or any of their legion of wannabes, you recognize the roughneck tone even before you discern the words. It’s as if a fist is speaking. Rageful spite is the brand of the cruel, brawling, sadistic right, the take-no-prisoners insurgency that is about to set up shop in the White House.

Smugness and viciousness are the message. In the worldview of the VORTEX, resentment is eternally warranted because the VORTEX believes it is eternally under siege. It is the true and authoritative victim-in-chief, incessantly put upon by the “liberal media” that a top Trump official recently called “the opposition party” while explaining why the press corps might well be moved out of the White House altogether.

In the worldview of the VORTEX, resentment is eternally warranted because the VORTEX believes it is eternally under siege.

The shoulders in the lead chorus of the VORTEX are broad enough to carry a load of chips. Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Levin, Jones and company are all animus, though give diversity its due. Females may be admitted, especially when blonde — see Coulter, Ann; Conway, Kellyanne; Ingraham, Laura.

The voice is percussive and blaring. Loudness matters. The strong man revels in turning up the volume — relentlessly so, because losers, grumblers, whiners, wimps, failures, envious creeps and lowlifes are always lurking out there in the darkness, poised to pounce at any sign of weakness. So the chief of Breitbart News, on leave, having taken over Trump’s presidential campaign in August and guided it to glory, will as “chief strategist” counsel him in the West Wing. Other presidents have lied, spun, griped, manipulated and voiced displeasure with journalists, but never before has a president honored an informational and disinformational operation — a propaganda bureau — by installing its head down the hall.

This is the Stephen Bannon who cultivates a scruffy look and enjoys proclamations like this: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. Breitbart.com, which specializes in headlines like “Before and After Obama: 10 Signs of a Diminished America” and “Obama Tries to Calm Hysterical Left” is the sort of outrage amalgamation machine pleased to offer up video of 10,000 Trump supporters chanting “CNN Sucks.” At his Trump Tower “press conference,” a front-row seat was reserved for Breitbart by a Republican operative — the only “press” representative so honored out of 250 in attendance as Trump insulted a CNN reporter and refused to permit him a question.

The sadist does not seek to persuade; he aims to overpower. He does not know possibly or some may say; he knows only either-or. He insults. He sneers. He loathes grace notes. Civility is a fool’s game, a masquerade for weaklings, aka “low-energy” types.

This is the way of the bully who lives to strut his stuff. The sadist does not seek to persuade; he aims to overpower. He does not know possibly or some may say; he knows only either-or. He insults. He sneers. He loathes grace notes. Civility is a fool’s game, a masquerade for weaklings, aka “low-energy” types. Strong men (and occasional women) are high-energy. They do not doubt, they do not glide; they blast.

So the VORTEX does not rebut, it does not argue, it never concedes a point — it “calls out.” Ordinarily, it does not engage counterargument though it may, perfunctorily, take note of it in order to shield itself against charges of unfairness. So, for example, over the weekend, while Breitbart was weighing in with several blasts at Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who charged that Trump is not a “legitimate” president, they also spiced up their offerings with a report that North Carolina NAACP chief William Barber defended Lewis for standing in the prophetic tradition of Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr.

But make no mistake: The VORTEX’s main wish is to punish. Explainers, in this view, are losers. The facts that count are the facts, or apparent facts, or delusions, that suit the story; the story picks the facts, or the insinuations, that “make its point.” (Muslims in New Jersey cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center. There is no drought in California.) The VORTEX does not trouble to make arguments. It asserts. It winks and nods. It alludes. In this sense Trump is not exceptional. He wields the spike manufactured for him by decades of right-wing bluster. Fire hollow-point phrases, watch them expand when they strike their targets. Do you feel squeezed, diminished, dehumanized, forgotten Americans? You didn’t start this fight, so dehumanize 10 times harder. Make America win again.

This has been the modus operandi of the VORTEX for decades. With Fox News as its primary vehicle, it branded the Clintons with “Whitewater,” meaning that something nasty if obscure and never-quite-pin-downable, happened there. It was already branding “Crooked Hillary” before “emails” existed and Americans, if they thought of Benghazi at all, might have thought the word rhymed with “feminazi.” Way back when a mob-connected developer named Donald Trump was still preoccupied with scamming gullible investors and contractors in Atlantic City and trying to get hotels developed in Moscow, Hillary Clinton was already set up as a moving target.

Murdoch, Breitbart, Trump — these men share a worldview and a sense of entitlement. To the offense goes the advantage; only losers play defense. We are by now so familiar with delusion, deception and sadism as the weapons of the right that we barely notice.

It helps to play the game of verbal tarring and feathering if you are unscrupulous about making things up. Stir and repeat. In 2012, I was on a “Fox and Friends” panel to flog my book, Occupy Nation, and was flabbergasted to hear a former Young Republican chairman (sic), Dee Dee Benkie, insist that the Declaration of Independence sanctions “rugged individualism.” Afterwards, off camera, another guest begrudgingly admitted to me that Benkie didn’t know what she was talking about. But he wasn’t going to say so on air. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s deep pockets and his unmatched ambition to set agendas on one continent after another, Fox Newsers never have to say they’re sorry.

Murdoch, Breitbart, Trump — these men share a worldview and a sense of entitlement. To the offense goes the advantage; only losers play defense. We are by now so familiar with delusion, deception and sadism as the weapons of the right that we barely notice.

Consider some VORTEX celebrations of Donald Trump’s approach to the assembled reporters (and attendant cheering squad) in the spectacle that took place in Trump Tower on Jan. 11. On Fox News, Sean Hannity, who has been leading the Trump sing-along for some time, offered this description: “the single best beat-down of this abusively biased radical alt-left media in the history of the country. Trump put them on notice he’s not going to stand there and take this crap anymore.” Cut to the clip of Trump yelling at CNN’s Jim Acosta, “Don’t be rude.” So sayeth Trump, denouncer of “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “crooked Hillary,” the “nasty woman,” “beaut,” “sleaze” — but it would be tedious to go on. Hannity’s point is stark: the VORTEX is a place where tough guys hang out. They don’t take crap. They’re not pussies standing around to be grabbed. Real men thrive on enemies, on emergencies, on overthrows.

So even as Breitbart makes new hires suggesting a desire to cultivate protective respectability — “daring,” “unorthodox,” spouts new business editor John Carney, coming aboard from The Wall Street Journal — I think it’s safe to surmise that the site and its fellow travelers in the VORTEX will retain one or another primitive theory to the effect that deep corrosion and evil can only be resisted if the leader assumes unprecedented powers. How the in-house propaganda apparatus will operate is by no means clear yet. A bit of toning down may be expected, but the structure of crackpot thinking — a bogeyman theory of history — will endure. At the outer reaches of Trump’s movement, there re-emerges the old Nazi claim that the mailed fist is needed to punish “the lying press.”

This is not altogether brand new. The canard of “the liberal media” has been useful to Republican administrations going back to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. When they were savaging “the nattering nabobs of negativism,” they offered no steady, ever-present, 24/7 wide-circulation alternative.

Today, Nixon would be beside himself with envy. He was, for the most part, confined to playing defense. He griped. He took occasional swipes at The Washington Post’s highly profitable, licensed TV stations, but his Watergate blunders short-circuited his ambitions to neuter his opposition. And now? Nixon’s successor has a flourishing VORTEX at his disposal — Fox News, talk radio, legions of wannabes, tweets galore for the millions and Breitbart’s mighty megaphone soon to be installed in the West Wing.

P.S. Since I am not averse to entertainment, I owe my readers a reminder that in 2008, the great Monty Pythonist John Cleese issued this “Ode to Sean Hannity.” Please note that Cleese did it wittily, prettily and dittily:

Ode to Sean Hannity
 
Aping urbanity
Oozing with vanity
Plump as a manatee
Faking humanity
Journalistic calamity
Intellectual inanity
Fox Noise insanity
You’re a profanity
Hannity

Hannity’s fans will doubtless say that this is just what to expect from an effete Brit.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.