This article first appeared on LobeLog (4/24/17).
There are no major ideological differences between White House strategist Steve Bannon and French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Yet it seems that the Washington Post considers them to be very different. According to the Post, Bannon and his backers are “conservatives.” Le Pen and her National Front, meanwhile, are “far right.”
Of course, the whole notion that Bannon is “conservative” is ludicrous on its face. A typical “conservative” would not boast of being a “Leninist” who “want[s] to destroy the state [and] … bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Imagine a conservative who provides a media “platform for the alt-right,” which includes white supremacists, xenophobes, and neo-Nazis. Conservatives generally don’t find compelling the writings of the notorious French antisemite and Nazi collaborator Charles Maurras, or the fascist Italian writer Julius Evola, who believed that Mussolini was too soft and should have ruled more like Adolf Hitler.
It’s an odd conservative indeed who thinks that the United States would be better off if a number of multilateral institutions that formed the core of the post–World War II international order ceased to exist, beginning with the present-day European Union and perhaps NATO, too.
True, you could legitimately claim this last point was “conservative” when Robert Taft lost to Dwight Eisenhower for the Republican presidential nomination, but that was 65 years ago. As for Bannon’s fondness for fascist thinkers or his hospitality to the alt-right or his goal of “deconstruct[ing] the administrative state,” one would have to go back further than that, at least to the 1930s or perhaps to the Social Darwinism of the late 1800s, to even make an argument that this is “conservatism.”
Yet the Post uses the word “conservative” to describe Bannon and his supporters (although sometimes employing the word “populist” or the phrase “conservative populist”). Consider the April 10 feature article—an otherwise really good piece of investigative journalism—in which the word “conservative” appears no less than 18 times.
According to writers Shawn Boburg and Robert O’Harrow, Jr., Bannon has a “conservative populist agenda,” he produced “more than a dozen conservative documentaries,” he met a “rising star of conservative media named Andrew Breitbart,” Citizens United is a “conservative tax-exempt group,” Bannon’s films “spread a conservative message,” the connections he made “would help him rise in the conservative ranks,” his video paean to Sarah Palin “spotlights the rise of conservative women,” Young America’s Foundation is a “conservative tax-exempt charity,” his film The Conservatives was “meant to inspire conservative student leaders on college campuses,” Ronald Robinson is a “conservative activist,” and Bannon “was becoming a tribune of the conservative vanguard,” and on and on.
At one point in the story, the Post even refers to the Tea Party opposition to Barack Obama as “radical conservatives”—an oxymoron, unless it means “reactionary” or worse—that helped propel Bannon to power. Remarkably, in an article that ran almost 4,000 words, the word “right” appears only once, a reference to the Citizens United decision that was “seized upon by mega-donors on the right opposed to the Obama administration.” The phrases “far right,” “extreme right” and even “right wing” do not appear in the article.
Enter Le Pen
Contrast that with recent Post reporting of Marine Le Pen and her National Front party. Again, I don’t see much difference in the worldviews of Bannon and Le Pen, and it’s no secret that Bannon (and Trump) are very much attracted to her ideas and favor her candidacy. Take, as an example, Ishan Tharoor’s recent article, “Marine Le Pen Wants to be France’s Future. But Can She Escape the Past?” Rather than “conservative,” Le Pen is the leader of the “far-right” National Front. Her agenda is “aggressively nationalist.” Her promises are “radical.” Her inner circle includes “far-right rabble rousers.” Tharoor writes, “At its core, the National Front remains a faction rooted in xenophobia and ultranationalist bigotry.” And this is part of a Post series of articles entitled “Specter of Fascism.” Other Post articles repeatedly describe Le Pen as the “far-right candidate” in the presidential election, or as “far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen” or the “far-right Marine Le Pen.” The word “conservative” just doesn’t apply to Le Pen, according to the Post.
Perhaps the Post considers European politics to be more susceptible to right/left taxonomies, despite its multi-party system, while the US has a more nuanced and sophisticated politics that defy that kind of dichotomization, despite the fact that we have only two parties. How do you, for example, place a Republican free-trader and a Republican protectionist in the same “conservative” category, unless the mainstream media simply treats “conservative” as a synonym for “Republican?” (Put another way, see the New York Times chart “The Shifting Alliances and Rival Factions Inside Trump’s West Wing,” which defines the “Republican Establishment” forces as led by Reince Priebus, the “Anti-Establishment” forces as led by Bannon.)
Obviously, there are competing ideological currents within the Republican Party—social conservatives vs. fiscal conservatives and libertarians; “neoconservatives” vs. “America Firsters,” etc. But even though they all define themselves as Republicans, are they all “conservatives?” Does a “conservative” who opposed the New Deal in the 1930s hold the same worldview as a “conservative” who opposed the progressive reforms of Theodore Roosevelt 30 years earlier? Would segregationists, who were considered “conservative” in the civil rights era, be considered “conservative” today, or something else? What exactly does “conservative” mean anymore? Can it be that “conservative” is defined by people who consider themselves “Republican” without any reference to how far to the right the party base has moved over the last 30 or 40 years?
Consider this sentence from the Post about Jeff Sessions, whom Bannon considers his mentor:
On the first day of his two-day confirmation hearing, Sessions came under tough questioning from Democrats about his conservative, often controversial views on immigration, hate crimes legislation and national security matters.
Yes, his views are “often controversial,” not because he’s “conservative,” but because he’s a far-right reactionary who would be perfectly comfortable living in the 1920s, when anti-immigration sentiment reached an all-time high and the Ku Klux Klan’s membership numbered in the millions.
Normalizing the Far Right
My concern is that the use of the word “conservative” to describe radical right-wing individuals like Bannon and Sessions gives them and their views a respectable gloss that they don’t deserve, and is very clearly misleading. It effectively legitimizes their ideas. “Conservative” has a reassuring connotation. “Far right,” “reactionary,” “extreme right” “radical”—even just “right-wing”—on the other hand, are all words that have a far less comforting emotional effect on most people, to say the least. But if Bannon’s ideas are virtually identical to Marine Le Pen’s, why is he described as “conservative,” while she is “far right”?
To some extent, all US media indulge in this kind of double standard. But the Post, of course, is a special case given its ubiquity in the nation’s capital and its status, along with the New York Times and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the Wall Street Journal, as a critical player in “framing” the national debate on public issues and personalities. So it’s important to ask why it chooses the descriptors it does and, moreover, why it can’t be more consistent and precise when it deploys those descriptors.
Part of the reason is that, precisely because of its proximity to power, the Post, a court newspaper par excellence, is careful not to alienate key or potential sources who may be offended by their use of descriptors that have negative connotations. This is not to say that the Post is alone in its imprecise and sloppy use of the word “conservative.” The issue pervades the media, especially on cable and network television, but I couldn’t help noticing how frequently the Post has used it in relation to Bannon and his associates, as opposed to Le Pen and hers. Perhaps this is an example of American “exceptionalism.” Right-wing reactionaries or fascists don’t exist as an important political force in the United States; you can only find them overseas. I think that’s a dangerous delusion.
At the same time, the Post and its sloppy use of “conservative” and “conservatism” is pretty remarkable, at least in my own relatively casual, rather than academically or statistically rigorous, reading. Consider a recent article about Bill O’Reilly’s ouster at Fox News. Here, again, the newspaper eschews any reference to “right” or “right-wing” or anything along those lines. There are, in fact, only two political adjectives attached to O’Reilly or Fox News. Here they are:
The conservative-leaning host’s downfall was swift and steep….
The O’Reilly Factor has been the network’s flagship show for nearly 20 years and, in many ways, has embodied its conservative-oriented spirit.
“Conservative-leaning?” “Conservative-oriented?” Sounds kind of tame to me, given the kind of vanguard role O’Reilly and Fox News have played in moving the Republican Party ever rightward, and eventually into Bannon and Breitbartland.
Or take a look at a Post article (4/21/17) about the controversy and conflict over far-right speakers at UC Berkeley. Its deployment of “far right,” “conservative,” “right-wing,” and even “Republican” is so confusing that, taken together, it appears that they become virtually interchangeable. For example, it more than suggests that the confrontations that have taken place are part of a strategy by “the far right” to get far-right speakers, like former Breitbart senior editor, Bannon protégé and “right-wing provocateur” Milo Yiannopolous, and “conservative commentator” Ann Coulter, invited to the campus in order to provoke the “far left” and “anarchists.”
Those extending the invitations, according to the report, are “Republican students [who] fear the university will cancel the event because of possible violence”—an assertion that at least partially contradicts the central thesis that the “far right” is organizing the invitations in order to provoke the confrontations. I recommend the use of a highlighter whenever a political adjective appears in order to get the full impact of the confusion in labeling.
In the Trump era, the Post has commendably placed on its masthead the phrase “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” May I suggest that democracy is also at risk when euphemisms are used in place of precision? Bannon may have been considered a “conservative” in 1952, and perhaps even mainstream in the 1920s, but he, Breitbart, and their backers are something else in 2017.
Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington, DC, bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of US foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.