WASHINGTON – Being called a “nut cake” by Newt Gingrich is like being called “ugly” by the proverbial toad, but perhaps I should be flattered that the Donald Trump lieutenant singled out a column of mine condemning Trump’s enabling of the alt-right.
When John Dickerson asked the former House speaker Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” about what Trump should do about the racists and anti-Semites who rose with him, Gingrich dismissed the notion as “garbage” and “hysterical,” citing my column as “crazy.”
“I had never heard of the alt-right until the nut cakes started writing about it,” he said.
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It was a breathtaking denial, from a man representing the president-elect, of one of the most visible byproducts of Trump’s ascent. The denial of the obvious by Trumpworld suggests grim times ahead.
If Trump wants, as he claims he does, to unify the country, he’ll disavow these white supremacists in unmistakable terms. But so far he’s doing just the opposite, naming as his top White House strategist Stephen Bannon, a man who bragged that the publication he ran was the “platform for the alt-right.”
As The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported, there has been a celebration of the Bannon appointment on Stormfront, the neo-Nazi website, while the white-nationalist writer Richard Spencer exulted that Bannon will “chart Trump’s macro trajectory.”
Trump has been emboldening the hateful for some time. The FBI just reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims last year, part of a 7 percent overall rise in hate crimes. Since the election, the Anti-Defamation League has seen a proliferation of racist and anti-Semitic vandalism, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has received allegations of more than 400 instances of hate-based intimidation and harassment. The white supremacists have generally celebrated Trump’s triumph, with David Duke boasting that “our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump!” and the head of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer bragged that “we did this.”
This is a time of self-flagellation in the media, as we scold ourselves for being out of touch with the anger in the country and failing to hear the beleaguered white working class. But this is both misleading and potentially harmful.
Yes, most journalists expected a Hillary Clinton victory Tuesday, based on polls showing her with a three-point edge. (At current count, she’s about one point ahead in the popular vote.) There’s much to criticize in the failure of battleground-state polls, but it’s absurd to say the media was blind to the Trump phenomenon.
I don’t speak for the media, but I wrote on March 4: “Trump’s bigotry and xenophobia are a disgrace to the party. But Democrats would be foolish to think this guarantees victory for Clinton in November, because, for all his faults, Trump has an advantage: He connects with Americans feeling economic anxiety.” I said the weakness with disaffected white working-class voters could “doom” Clinton, and I suggested she put Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on the ticket and embrace her populist themes.
The “out-of-touch” criticism is dangerous because it suggests that the solution is to give more voice to Trump and show more respect for his supporters than we have. That’s fine if it means amplifying their grievances about economic reversals. But it would be tragic if the media, cowed by Trump and Gingrich, were to turn away from the crucial task of calling out the smaller number of Trump supporters (and advisers) who flirt with totalitarian ideas and racist sentiment.
No economic grievance justifies the “lock her up” mentality that political opponents are not just to be defeated but imprisoned. After Harry Reid made intemperate remarks about Trump, adviser Kellyanne Conway threatened the Senate minority leader, saying he should be “very careful … in a legal sense.” Trump, while claiming he was “very surprised” to learn of violence and racial threats being made in his name, made a helpful gesture when he told “60 Minutes” that “if it helps, I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: ‘Stop it.’”
Alas, that was contradicted when the Wall Street Journal asked if any of his campaign rhetoric had gone too far. “No,” he said. “I won.”
Latent racism has long been common in the United States and perhaps always will be. But for a small number of overt racists, Trump’s campaign made it safe to hate again. Now the president-elect can mitigate the damage. He can stop the denials, disavow the white supremacists and send them back to their dark corners. But will he?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.