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Highland Park, Buffalo, and Fascism Denial in US Media Culture

GUEST COMMENTARY - To deepen our sense of just how far the dominant United States media and political culture is prepared to go to deny and bury the fascistization process that is well underway in the world’s most powerful state,

we have examined media coverage of two recent horrific mass shootings conducted by young white male fascists: Peyton Gedron’s murder of ten Black people in Buffalo, New York on May 14th and Robert Crimo’s murder of seven people, five of whom were Jewish, in the Chicago area suburb Highland Park on the 4th of July.

It’s not a pretty story.

The F-Word Taboo

First, some background. “To speak of ‘fascism,’ in U.S. political discourse,” Carl Boggs noted four years ago, “has long been one of the great taboos of political life – the wise opinion-leaders ritually insisting that this nefarious reference, like dictatorship, tyranny, and totalitarianism, is relevant exclusively to other countries” (as in “It Can’t Happen Here”). The “American Exceptionalist” taboo has remained remarkably intact even as one of the United States’ two major political parties, the Trump era Republicans, and much of that party’s base, have crossed into unmistakably fascistic territory. The party and its base now check off numerous boxes in embracing this vile political pathology, including: vengeful palingenetic and racialized ultra-nationalism; “them and us” Othering; the promotion of traditional social hierarchy; authoritarian contempt for previously normative bourgeois democracy and rule of law; encouragement of extra-legal political violence; an anti-intellectual war on truth and independent thought; a cult of maximal male personality; obsessive anti-liberalism merged with obsessive hatred of the Left; fake populism combined with service to the capitalist rich and harm to the poor and working- class; open cruelty linked to all of the above and to Social Darwinian notions of natural and social superiority and inferiority.

Consistent with Boggs’ observation, the mainstream media, Democrats, pundits, progressive activists, and academics have displayed remarkable reluctance to acknowledge the 21st Century fascism that was staring the nation and the world in the face during the political ascendancy and presidency of Donald Trump. One of the many false charges that a considerable number of older, white, and male self-described leftists made against liberal and radical analysts and activists who have properly seen the Trump presidency and Trumpism as fascistic claims that such identification affiliates one with a deceptive narrative that had long been trumpeted by the Democrats, liberal intellectuals, and the “liberal media” for partisan purposes and to distract the populace from their own captivity to the dominant social and imperial order. Contrary to this charge, the dominant “liberal” media and the Democrats have resisted such identification for the most part even as an obvious clear aspiring fascist sat in the world’s most powerful office for four years. As DiMaggio shows in his 2021 book Rising Fascism in America, U.S. corporate media were reluctant to see Trump and Trumpism as authoritarian or fascistic, preferring instead the generic and misleading terms “populism” and “populist”:

“The New York Times’ editors’ apprehension about recognizing an authoritarian or fascistic threat in the U.S. is representative of a larger trend of denialism in American news media. Assessing various “liberal” media venues that are commonly framed as antagonistic toward Republicans and the right, I looked at news stories, op-eds, editorials, and other content in major newspapers, cable news, online, and newswire stories throughout the entirety of Trump’s presidency, from election day 2016 (November 8) through election day 2020 (November 3), that referenced President Trump, in relation to discussions of populism, authoritarianism, and fascism. …references to fascism were far and away the most infrequent descriptor appearing in relation to Trump in news stories. More common were references to Trump and authoritarianism, which appeared in all outlets between 2.5 to more than 4 times as often as references to fascism. References to populism in relation to Trump were even more common, appearing between 4 and 5 times as often as references to fascism. Finally, references to populism in relation to Trump were also much more common than references to authoritarianism, appearing about twice as often in each media venue, with the single exception of MSNBC, which covered authoritarianism slightly more often than populism…The news media catered to power by softening their language when referring to the Trump administration. The populist frame was preferred to other more critical frameworks, stressing authoritarianism and fascism. This is what we would expect if journalists were going out of their way to avoid the sharpest, and most specific criticisms of this administration, for fear of backlash from the Trump administration, Republican officials, rightwing media pundits, and Americans on the conservative to far-right part of the political spectrum. Populism is the least offensive or controversial of all the labels that could be applied to Trump, since it generically refers to the alleged wisdom and passions of the “average” American, against the “corruption” of elites, and with regard to the importance of promoting political, social, and economic transformation of society away from the status quo.”[1]

Those relatively rare media commentators and journalists who were willing to go beyond the deceptive and comfortable terms “populist” and “populism” preferred “authoritarianism” to fascism since the latter “carries with it more severe implications in terms of our understanding the threat of Trumpism to democratic-republican governance.”

Street’s book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America, shows how doggedly and even at times laughably pervasive fascism denialism about Trump was in the liberal and liberal-left intelligentsia – including a remarkable number of supposed academic “fascism experts” – and among Democratic Party elites.

In the summer of 2020, as Trump responded to the George Floyd rebellion with calls for the deployment of the U.S. military to dominate the streets and shoot protesters on sight, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg asked an interesting question: “Can We Call it Fascism Yet?” With some notable exceptions like MSNBC’s Medhi Hasan and Chris Hayes, the answer from most of the media, intellectual and political class was a resounding no!

The denialism has continued with a vengeance even in the wake of the brazenly fascistic coup attempt of January 6, 2021, and has stayed in place even as the Republican Party has expanded its pathological commitments to authoritarian politics, white nationalism, militant patriarchy, magical thinking, and political violence on the path to taking over all three branches of the federal government in 2024-25.

Denialism also extends to the coverage of mass shootings that amount to fascist mass terror attacks, as we explain below.

Peyton Gendron: “Would it Help if I Self-Identified as a Fascist”? 

Last May’s horrific mass shooting in Buffalo, New York provides us with an especially graphic case study of the media’s remarkable reluctance, indeed refusal, to forthrightly report and name the far-right menace that haunts the land. The killer, Gendron, was a, self-identified fascist who posted a manifesto on “replacement theory” – the neo-Nazi notion that the “Jewish” global elite is trying to replace (supposedly superior) whites with immigrants, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and other “inferior” races. “Jews are the biggest problem the Western world has ever had,” he wrote. Gendron tried to livestream his murder of 10 people in a grocery store located in a Buffalo zip code he chose because of its heavily black composition. He drew inspiration from other young white male U.S. racist mass-killers like Dylann Roof (the neo-Nazi who murdered 9 Black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015) and Patrick Crusius (the fascist who slaughtered 23 people in an El Paso, Texas Walmart he targeted because of its Hispanic customer base in August of 2019), but above all from the New Zealand fascist Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 Muslims in two mosques in New Zealand in March of 2019. Gendron’s rambling treatise was largely plagiarized from Tarrant’s fascist-white supremacist manifesto.

And yet the reporting and commentary on the crime was marred by the standard “It Can’t Happen Here” reluctance of media and political authorities to say or write the dreaded F word. Following the usual script in big mass-shootings and racist terror attacks, Joe Biden shuffled off to Buffalo to console survivors and make the usual statements against racist hatred and for gun control. Mr. “reach across aisle looking for common ground” Biden left out the fascism problem and the critical role of the fascistic Donald Trump and his party and television network Fox News in spreading the fascist “great replacement theory” that informed Gedron’s hideous act. Notable for its forthright identification of the Republican-affiliated fascistic menace facing the United States in the Trump-Biden years, the  World Social Web Site (WSWS) reported:

“Biden’s speech in Buffalo three days after a fascist gunman murdered 10 people in a predominantly African-American section of the city was a cowardly cover-up of the role of the Republican Party in promoting the anti-Semitic and racist conceptions that inspired the killer. Over the previous two days, scores of articles appeared in the establishment press documenting statements by Republican officials and pro-Trump media commentators promoting the Replacement Theory ravings of the Buffalo gunman …In the aftermath of Trump’s January 6 attempted coup, which the Republican National Committee has declared ‘a legitimate form of political discourse,’ the support of Republican officials for these conceptions demonstrates that the GOP, one of the two major parties of the American ruling class, is being transformed into a fascistic organization…Yet …Biden managed to omit the words ‘Trump’ and ‘Republican.’ He did not name a single Republican official (Reps. Scott Perry, Matt Gaetz, Elise Stefanik, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar and others), media outlet (Fox News) or commentator (Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham) who have and continue to promote the racist and anti-Semitic themes of the ‘Great Replacement.’ Instead, he dissolved the reality of the fascist threat into the disembodied abstractions of ‘hate’ and ‘evil,’ which explain nothing and serve to cover up the actual social and political forces at work.”

The dominant US media were all too willing to play along with this political whitewash. Our review of the Nexis-Uni database on the Gendron massacre during the two weeks following the Buffalo massacre was startling:

+ Of 52 New York Times articles mentioning Gendron, not a single one referenced either “fascism” or “fascist.”

+ Of 9 FOX News reports mentioning Gendron, just one mentioned that he was a self-described fascist.

+ Of 4 MSNBC transcripts mentioning Gendron, none referred to him as a fascist or referenced fascism more broadly.

+ Of 26 CNN transcripts mentioning Gendron, 9 characterized him as a fascist or within the context of fascism.

That’s 9 for 91 media hits, a fascism-identifying batting average less than 0.100 regarding a lethal racist terror attack carried out by an open fascist.

Our findings are quite contrary to the claim among Trump-defending leftists that liberal corporate reporters and pundits are predisposed to see fascism around every corner to demonize Trump Republicanism and validate the Democrats. The media kept the F-word at a distance even in a case where a white terrorist killed ten people of color in the explicit name of manifest[o]ed fascism.

Robert Crimo: A Well-Known Neo-Nazi Trumpist Who Murdered Jewish People

What about Crimo’s crime? It didn’t take long for a profile to emerge of the mass shooter, Robert Crimo, the 21-year-old who faces seven charges of first-degree murder for his reported role in the domestic terrorism incident in the north Chicago suburb Highland Park this July 4th. The profile is standard by now: a young, white male who was known as an awkward recluse, who had few friends outside the people he engaged with online, and who had embraced far-right politics that are compatible with those of other Trumpian extremists embracing vigilante violence – and that are the reflection of powerful political institutions advancing extremism and terrorist violence. Contrary to Biden’s immediate and reflexive description of Crimo’s crime as nothing more than “senseless violence,” Crimo has been linked to fascistic politics in numerous ways. He was spotted at a Trump rally prior to the 2020 election, as well as attending other Trump-related events. Crimo fused his support for Trump with his embrace of the “alt-right” as well, with a photo showing him wearing shirts including the “Pepe the Frog” fascist mascot. One of us (Street) is in contact with suburban Chicago area anti-fascists who report that Crimo, the son of a right-wing activist, has long been a right-wing bully, a notorious Trump-supporting racist and woman-hater.

The Highland Park killer may not have called himself a fascist, but no such explicit statement was required for investigators attuned to core neofascist politics to identify him as part of the tribe. His online person includes anti-Semitic iconography and Christian “alt-right” media. He used his YouTube channel to flash the three-fingered white supremacist “OK” hand signal with a lightning bolt tattooed on his right hand (the “cracker bolt” – a neo-Nazi symbol derived from the SS of Nazi Germany and used by fascist thugs like the Proud Boys. As WSWS aptly reports:

“Crimo’s propagation of these fascist symbols is significant considering that the majority of his victims were Jewish, the city is home to a sizable Jewish community, and he had apparently targeted Highland Park synagogues in the past. As Forward report[s], five of the seven victims were Jewish or members of Jewish families…At least two sources have also reported that Crimo visited a local synagogue in an attempt to ‘scope it out’ prior to the shooting. Resident Martin Blumenthal reported seeing the 21-year-old dressed in all black with a backpack entering the synagogue and then leaving after 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Schanowitz reported to the Times of Israel that Crimo had entered his Chabad synagogue of mostly Hasidic worshippers during a Passover service before being promptly asked to leave. The synagogue is located just two blocks away from where the shooting took place and directly on the route of the Highland Park July 4th parade…According to Highland Park residents, Crimo was also a noteworthy figure in many of the suburb’s anti-lockdown and ‘stop the steal’ rallies, supporting Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was ’stolen.’ One selfie shows Crimo dressed as the popular character of “Where’s Waldo?” while standing among throngs of other Trump supporters. Another picture shows him draped in a Trump flag while laughing. A Highland Park resident posted on Facebook alleging that Crimo and a band of far-right associates had ‘doxxed’ her, creating flyers calling her a Communist with her name, picture, and address along with a call to action that she must be stopped. This was all done after she had participated in a ‘Stop the Steal’ counter-protest.”

It’s hardly a stretch all to affix “the F-word” label to the Highland Park shooter.

Still, a Nexis-Uni search conducted for the week following the Highland Park massacre finds not a single reference to “fascism” or “fascist” in 15 NYT articles, 67 CNN transcripts, 12 Fox News transcripts, and 10 MSNBC reports on Crimo and his terrible crime. Other critical classifications were also in short supply. References to Crimo as a terrorist or having engaged in an act of terror or terrorizing people appeared just once in the New York Times, not at all on MSNBC, 3 times on Fox (out of 12 programs), and 9 times on CNN (out of 67). References to him as an extremist or to rightwing extremism were even more infrequent, appearing not at all in the Times, CNN, or Fox News, and just once on MSNBC.

Instead, reporters preferred extremely generic and uncontroversial classifications, referring overwhelmingly to Crimo as a “shooter” and to his “shooting.” These terms were used in 14 of the 15 Times articles, in all 10 MSNBC programs, in 66 of 67 CNN programs, and all 12 Fox News programs. Reporters are well-known for practicing this sort of “episodic” bias, focusing on specific events (a shooting), rather than on thematic framing of news stories – for example focusing on the problem of rising extremism, fascism, white supremacy, or authoritarianism. Still, the reluctance to address larger themes in terms of threats to the U.S. republic means that the news media have been part of the problem when it comes to sensitizing the public to rising extremism.

Furthermore, when reporters did try to get at the deeper context of who Crimo was, the coverage was highly superficial and embarrassing. Most prominently, the Timeson July 7th, three days after the shooting, simply reported that “the motive for the shooting is unknown,” while failing to provide any information about Crimo’s problematic background or his extremist ties. CNN quoted Highland Park’s mayor, who asked in an interview, “it’s one of those things where you step back and you say, ‘what happened?’ How did somebody become this angry and hateful, while Crimo’s uncle explained that there “were no signs that I saw that would make him do this. Everything was normal.” CNN might have provided some basic information about Crimo’s background that would help its audience connect the dots between his actions and his extremist socio-political beliefs, and avoided quoting self-serving sources like Crimo’s relative, who had an incentive to obscure reports of his nephew’s extremism to avoid further family embarrassment. Perhaps most egregious in it reporting was Rolling Stone, which depicted Crimo as “politically completely indifferent” and as “more apolitical troll than extreme ideologue” – a characterization that is simply wrong considering Crimo’s record of embracing Trumpism and alt-right neofascist political ideology.

Numerous friends and associates monitoring the cable news and major network coverage of the Highland Park terror attack reported to one of us (Street) that a recurrent theme was confusion and cluelessness about Crimo’s motives to the standard mass media mass shooter fallbacks of mentally disturbed “lone wolf” shooters randomly menacing everyday citizens with their ability to access widely available military-style weaponry and ammunition – a story line with politics and fascism kicked to the curb.

This too is quite contrary to the narrative among many self-described leftists that the media are chomping at the bit to see and denounce fascism.

Like previous fascistic slaughters in Charleston, South Carolina, El Paso, Texas, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the full and largely underreported story behind the terror attacks in Buffalo and Highland Park militates against the apolitical “lone wolf” characterization that the dominant media-politics order affixes to so many of these shootings. How many mass gun slaughters have to occur with the same profile before the political culture acknowledges that it is part of a larger trend, and not an isolated incident? In the U.S., a significant majority of mass shooting domestic terrorist incidents in recent years have come from the reactionary right, with more attacks being committed by rightwing extremists than Islamist fundamentalists, and two-thirds of attacks in the early 2020 being committed by white supremacists and other rightwing fanatics. As one of us (DiMaggio) documents in previous research, support for extremism is centrally stoked by powerful institutional actors, with support for the alt-right disproportionately emanating from consumption of and trust in rightwing media outlets such as Fox News, talk radio, and Breitbart News, and with insurrectionist violence now being encouraged by the Republican Party and Trump ala January 6th.

We know very well that that there is a clear and disturbing trend here: rightwing extremists are responsible for the large majority of these shootings. That has been covered up with consistent references to these people as “lone wolf” shooters. Yes, they acted alone, but that’s not quite accurate. They are all drawing on the same rightwing extremist ideology that I argue is being clearly fueled by rightwing media outlets like talk radio and Fox News, and by President Trump and other rightwing Republicans. A good example is Crimo, who was reportedly a fierce Trump supporter, attending multiple rallies.

A central problem with treating these people as isolated cases is that they are part of a larger whole of rising rightwing extremism, captured by a rising neofascistic political movement in America that is largely being coordinated from the top down by GOP officials, most of all Trump, and rightwing media. Among the risks here are that these shooters can exact incredible social and political damage on the country in at least two key ways:

+ People become afraid to go out in public and to attend protests in the future for fear of being blown away by one of these mass shootings understood as a regular form of domestic terrorism.

+ Mass shooters implode the society and political system by acting act in concert with the Republican Party and rightwing media and various parts of the government seek to execute another political coup similar to 2020, but this time potentially more effective. Trump cultivating support among Republican officials for nullifying Democratic majority wins in swing states in 2024, coupled with Trump calling on rightwing vigilantes to take to the streets to protect the country against fictitious mass voter fraud (which could terrorize people and keep many from the polls). If Trump or his potential successors Ron DeSantis or Tucker Carlson are successful in executing a coup next time, one of them could well call on these not-so “lone wolf” vigilantes to act to shut down mass protests. No doubt hundreds if not thousands of these lurking potential mass shooters – part of a giant online “community” of deranged and mostly young white male potential terrorists – are waiting at the ready while Donald “Take Down the Metal Detectors” Trump and his political enemies are stoking mass outrage and sparking a constitutional crisis with real potential to bring mass bloodshed in the streets.

As we said, it’s not a pretty story and it’s not at all over.

Endnote

1. As this essay was being completed last Tuesday, Street watched the entire seventh hearing of the US House select committee investigating the January 6thattack on the US Capitol. Keeping track of the words used by committee members, witnesses, and MSNBC talking heads to describe the fascist forces and personalities who tried to overturn the 2020 election and overthrow US bourgeois democracy and rule of law with classically fascist violence, Street was impressed by the complete failure of any of these people to use the dreaded F-word. Here were the terms employed: “extremist,” “racist,” “white nationalist,” “racist,” “domestic terrorist,” “mob,” “tyranny,” “dangerous extremists,” “street-fighters,” “paramilitaries,” “militia,” “armed revolution,” “holocaust[-deniers],” and [enemies of] “the rule of law.” The outer boundary of acceptable discourse was reached when committee presenter and questioner Jamie Raskin (D-MD) went out on the limb with the word “authoritarian,” which is accurate but historically unspecific (consistent with fellow committee presenter Stephanie Murphy [D-FL] sadly likening the unmentionably fascist January 6 coup plotters and paramilitaries to the government of Vietnam.) Raskin of course knows very well that the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys (key subjects in last Tuesday’s hearing) are fascists. He has on a prior occasion referred to the Capitol riotersas “fascist traitors.” Clearly the memo has gone out: don’t describe US-American fascism as fascism (the peak of liberal media’s willingness to do this seems to have come in the summer of 2020 as Trump tried to crush the long George Floyd Rebellion) because doing so sounds too leftist and provocative and does not fit the American Exceptionalist belief that “it can’t happen here.”

 

(Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books and is a writer for Counter Punch. 

(Paul Street is an independent progressive policy researcher, award-winning journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of seven books to date.)