One of the great tragedies of mass media is the left’s ability to influence the right’s choice as to whom ought to be seen as a spokesperson. In the 2016 election cycle, the left focused on Donald Trump to the exclusion of other people on the right; the right, fixated laserlike on reacting to the left’s focus, embraced Trump; Trump became a spokesperson for the right, even though his policies are a bizarre admixture of Buchananism, Keynesianism, and reactionary knee-jerkism. By the same token, the left chooses figures it wishes to highlight as “conservative,” smearing the conservative movement with them – and conservatives react to the left’s visceral hatred of those same figures by embracing them.
This week, we saw the media drop blanket coverage on Richard Spencer, an alt-right white nationalist leader, who went to Virginia to protest the possible removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. He showed up with some of his friends, all of whom carried torches in the night, looking like something out of an old KKK photo shoot sans hoods. “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced,” Spencer stated. He then showed up at a second rally at which people chanted “Russia is our friend.” Here’s The Washington Post:
Once an obscure Internet figure promoting white identity, Spencer coined the term “alt-right” — referring to a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state — and rose to prominence during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Although Trump denounced the alt-right, Spencer’s followers counted his victory as a win for the movement as Trump espoused hard-right stances on undocumented immigrants, Muslims and political correctness.
What made Spencer a famous figure? Two things: the rise of Trump, who embraced members of the alt-right on Twitter, whose campaign spokesman, Steve Bannon, talked about using Breitbart News as a forum for the alt-right, and whose lead cheerleader, Milo Yiannopoulos, praised Spencer at Breitbart (he called his website “a gathering point for an eclectic mix of renegades who objected to the established political consensus in some form or another”); and the mainstream media, who decided to reward Spencer with coverage and more coverage. Spencer was a nobody until last year. Now, the media cheer him being punched on the street and cover him incessantly, despite the fact that Spencer has an incredibly small but active base.
Meanwhile, blanket coverage has accrued to other fringe figures of the right as well – some of whom have increased their visibility thanks to fellow-traveling with Trump, but all of whom represent conservatism poorly. That’s the common factor here: the left has an interest in continuing to promote even those anti-left figures the right has largely abandoned. The media glommed onto Yiannopoulos as a rising star thanks to his provocative appearances and love of Trump, even though he openly ripped the Constitution and conservatism; the right responded by embracing Yiannopoulos. But now, even after the right largely excised Yiannopoulos following emergence of tape of him praising pedophilia, the left’s still pushing him. NBC’s Today Show, for example, promoted Yiannopoulos with a full interview, based on Yiannopolous’ problems on campus:
Now, The Today Show could have featured Charles Murray, an actual conservative intellectual; Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative intellectual on feminism; Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Jason Riley; the list goes on and on. Instead, the Today Show pulled Yiannopoulos. Why? Because the left knows that if it can help choose for conservatives who their thoughtleaders should be, they’ll have an easier time pillorying them. It's easier to pretend that the left's hatred for the right is legitimate when the right stands behind an apparent pedophilia-endorser than when they're standing behind the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
The same holds true in talk radio and on the internet, where the left has decided to tout the rise of conspiracy theorist and kook extraordinaire Alex Jones. Yes, Jones’ bizarre association with Trump should raise eyebrows. And yes, Infowars is a highly-trafficked website. But to pretend that Jones is leader of a mass movement, when he remains a fringe player by the numbers, is to promote him actively. The left knows this. It’s why the left has been trying to push Jones since Piers Morgan had him on his show to talk about gun control after Sandy Hook.
Here’s the point: political partisans always have an incentive to promote the most outrageous examples from their enemies’ camp, and promote them as indicative of the mainstream of that camp. The left has its Keith Olbermanns; the right has its Alex Joneses. But it’s up to actual conservatives to pick their leaders. Being trolled into fandom for silly, pathetic and ridiculous provocateurs simply because the left shines a spotlight on them will end up rewarding the left and corrupting conservatism.