The home page of Breitbart.com, the quasi-official voice of Steve Bannon’s White House, is a virtual stew of menace, a pit of monsters, an unending onslaught of apocalyptic horsemen rearing up at full gallop, coming straight at you, drawing closer. . . . But what the Breitbart reader is not being warned against is poisoned water, eviction, a melting glacier, a rising sea, a pauper’s grave, a burning cross, a bank swindle or a loss of medical care. Those are the kind of fears that afflict liberal wimps brainwashed by “the enemy of the people.”
A Breitbart reader quivers, all right, hunkered down in the safe spaces of Fortress America while enemies gather outside the gates. But what he or she needs protection from is, to take a recent dozen, (1) a “mass-murdering bureaucrat”; (2) an armed home invader in Louisiana who demanded money and wouldn’t accept food stamps; (3) naked, mushroom-crazed brothers running amok through an apartment complex in Indianapolis; (4) machete and axe attacks in Germany; (5) a woman in Belgium suspected of plotting a terror attack; (6) man-hating Swedish feminists; and, speaking of Sweden, (7) a growing number of fatal shootings there, and also there, (8) a suspected car bomb; and back at home, (9) a Trump-defying Paul Ryan who “targets his own Republicans, not Democrats, on Health Care”; (10) Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) warning that the CIA is spearheading “authoritarian government”; (11) to our north, “Women Kicked Out of Women’s Shelter to Make Room for a ‘Transgender’ Man,” and, if you like your fright more graphic, (12) “Mexican Cartel Spreads ISIS-Like Beheading Video to Gain Border Turf near Texas.”
And the next thing you know, when you’ve barely recovered from reading about the machete mayhem in Germany, here comes a report of tear gas released into the Hamburg metro. How dangerous is that? It depends where you look. If you read all the way to the bottom of the post, you earn this correction: “Due to a translation error, the original version of this article said 50 people were injured. In fact 50 people on the train were affected and at least six people are known to have been injured so far.”
In tune with Steve Bannon’s watered-down remake of Apocalypse Now, the world is going to hell. There are vultures, vultures everywhere. There is not only “American carnage” but European carnage, carnage just over the border, the French covering up for the sinister Mexicans, carnage sloshing throughout the entire Judeo-Christian world—though the agitated reader will occasionally find consolation in the bull market and in the knowledge that US Marines are “inching closer” to the ISIS-held Syrian city of Raqqa.
This reader will not learn from Breitbart that those Marines constitute a single artillery unit that, according to Reuters, has not yet opened fire. Odds are that this reader takes Breitbart’s word about Scandinavian carnage and will fail to dive deeper into the official Swedish murder statistics, so as to discover, for example, that between 2001–05 and 2011–15, deadly violence declined, although guns were more frequently used during the latter period, a fact officially attributed to the growth of gangs. By the way, in 1997, the rate of murder and manslaughter, with and without guns, was 1.77 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with almost four times that rate, 6.80, for the United States—assuming that one feels like cherry-picking dates to prove points.
You, unsuspecting reader, you taxpaying innocent, you American babe in the woods, you, peacefully going on about your business in your apartment complex, you, pathetically offering up your unacceptable food stamps—They have it in for you. They are everywhere. As the man in the White House said about Obama body language he didn’t approve of: “There’s something going on.”
Breitbart dispenses a veritable potpourri of danger. Its front page is a sort of demonic Believe-It-Or-Not where the headlines signal violence lurking and hovering just over the heads of the virtuous. This is not Ripley’s brand of weird news—“Food Carvings by Japanese Artist Gaku: The artist eats them when he’s done”; “Rhea the Featherless Bird—AKA Naked Birdie,” “Secret Nazi Base Treasure Hunter Found in Arctic,” that sort of thing—Breitbart’s pattern is a guided tour. For instance: Might Breitbart’s fascination with violence in Sweden and Germany have something to do with their social-democratic propensities and immigrant populations, although nothing in the reports I’ve linked to above bears on the question of whether immigrants are the murderers (or victims, for that matter)?
Trump has channeled Breitbart since the days when Breitbartiana fueled his birtherist fantasy about Barack Obama. Lately, Breitbart, for one reason or another, has let go of birtherism, leaving it to another lunatic-right entry, Gateway Pundit, to keep the fires burning with the claim that a Trump-supporting Kenyan half-brother of Barack Obama has tweeted what purports to be a copy of the former president’s birth certificate showing that he was born at Coast Providence General Hospital, Mombasa, British Protectorate of Kenya (which Gateway Pundit, just above the “certificate,” spells “Mombassa”).
As Breitbart and Gateway Pundit seize the dark side, Fox News adopts a lighter touch, aiming to distinguish itself from outright hysteria. In fact, in the White House briefing room on Friday, Fox News Radio reporter Jon Decker, noting that Gateway Pundit’s Lucian Windrich was present, audibly declared that the site “hate[s] blacks, Jews, Hispanics,“ and earned handshakes from other reporters. (Windrich is the author of this tweet: “Women’s suffrage was one of the country’s largest disasters.”) Online, Rupert Murdoch’s feel-good operation is mainly content to gloat, sneer and compile names for an enemies list. Rejoice: Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III “asks remaining 46 attorneys from Obama administration to resign.” Gloat: “Hillary Clinton campaign among worst, study finds.” Sneer at the French, always good for an enemies list: “French official rebukes world’s largest cement maker for being willing to help build Trump’s wall.” (Breitbart runs this item, too.) The universe that Fox News heralds these days is strangely benign. It radiates confidence. It offers solace to Breitbart’s bruised readers.
Who would have thought that Rupert Murdoch might be an also-ran at the great game of apocalypse? That it would prove, at least for a while, the Xanax of right-wing media, the kinder, gentler cop of Trumpland? Readers, shudder. Fox News’ next slogan might be: We’re Normal.
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com
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.