Far-right Virginia attacks: Why Trump did not single out the alt-right

In the wake of the racially-motivated violence in Virginia as well as Trump’s condemnation of the attacks from ‘many sides’, new questions and criticism have arisen about the President’s relationship with the so-called alt-right. Thought to have emerged in the wake of Pat Buchanan’s failed bid for Republican Presidential nomination in 1992, the alt-right is comprised of individuals who are frustrated by political correctness, feminism, immigration and the ‘suppression’ of the white identity. The final characteristic frequently linked with the alt-right relates the movement to groups seeking white supremacy such as the Ku Klux Klan, thus making Trump’s willingness to be associated with and unwillingness to criticise the alt-right questionable. Therefore, one must seriously wonder why Trump was not able to solely criticise the alt-right for the blatant racially motivated violence that occurred in Virginia.

Indeed, it seemed obviously out of place for President Trump to refrain from using his vicious rhetoric that we have seen so frequently through his attacks of Hilary Clinton, John McCain, mainstream journalism and fellow Republican politicians. Instead, his response to the violence in Virginia appeared vague and unwilling to give his true opinion out of fear of receiving widespread criticism or losing support. After all, Trump’s campaign as an insurgency outsider nomination was often tied and supported by various alt-right groups which most commonly were linked with white supremacy. Support from these groups as well as Trump’s tailor-made policies and rhetoric to target white Americans enabled the President to gain 63% of the white male vote and 52% of the white female vote in the 2016 Presidential election according to the Independent. In this sense, it would be unsurprising that Trump would be unwilling to singularly condemn white supremacists and risk losing their votes and support, thus framing the President as a man willing to put his career aspirations over the lives of the electorate.

830783084A second explanative factor to consider could be the President’s wish to not create further confusion and divides within his administrative staff. Although, Trump’s presidency has been marked by constant resignations or sackings of high level administrative staff, the dismissal of the disruptive Anthony Scaramucci from communications director after eleven days seemed to signify the end of the period of confusion. Therefore, when one considers the number of individuals tied to the alt-right within the Trump administration, most notably White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, it should be expected that Trump would resist outright criticising the movement. However, this argument again highlights the President’s intention to place unity within his administration over the recognition of the victims of the attacks in Virginia.

Reflecting upon these arguments, the violence in Virginia and the President’s response, one must truly question whether Trump is fulfilling the role of President. After all, as stated in the constitution the role of the President includes being the chief of state and chief citizen of all citizens of the United States. In this sense, the President is obligated to place the requirement to represent the electorate over his career aspirations and desires for re-election. Considering his comments in the aftermath of the alt-right violence in Virginia, one can conclude that Trump has failed to achieve this requirement.

Is there no such thing as bad publicity?

In an age where the language of politicians is seemingly becoming more colloquial, eye-catching and deliberately provocative, one must seriously question is there such a thing as bad publicity? After all, the Trump campaign for both the Republican Presidential nomination and the Presidential campaign was arguably based around the deliberate use of controversial rhetoric and proposed policies for the purposes of gaining media attention and exposure at the expense of his political rivals. Obviously this approach proved to be successful in both elections which therefore begs the question if political controversy is the best means of attracting media coverage. Furthermore, one must also consider whether Trump’s approach is undertaken with social media in mind rather than traditional mainstream outlets. With services such as Facebook and Twitter offering the user the ability to share stories meaning articles that both support and condemn the politician in question can go viral and reach far more people that traditional mainstream media outlets can.

Focusing prominently on the question posed, multiple studies have conducted research on the supposed relationship between media bias, candidate popularity and the political attitudes of the reader. Unsurprisingly, one candidate regularly focused on is now US President Donald Trump, who despite regularly attracting harmful press won the Republican nomination and the US Presidential election. In this sense, the continuous negative media campaign against Trump from mainstream American and global media outlets may ironically have boosted his quest for candidacy. After all, through sound bites and ill-thought supposed policies, Trump was able to capture the attention of both the electorate and the media, thus giving him his far more coverage than his more qualified and experienced political opponents. Furthermore, multiple studies consider that negative press generates far more interest than positive press. Primarily, these conclusions are drawn due to the fact that the number one priority of media outlets is to publish stores that will drive traffic and attract readers. Frequently, the stories which generate the most interest and are often the most talked about are based around the controversial viewpoint of a politician. The method of using controversial rhetoric and policies to gain media exposure was regularly utilised by the Trump campaign, which along with his already established pre-existing fame lead to sole focus being placed on him and a sense of selective exposure from media which was particularly evident in the race for Republican nomination.

Moreover, if one assumes that exposure is the primary aim of any politician running for office then negative press may be the most efficient means of attaining it. After all, as previously noted political controversy often leads to a higher number of articles being produced on the subject as well as encourages debates on the true meaning and legitimacy of the claims made. The second consequence noted is particularly significant when one considers the popularity of social media platforms. In this sense, controversial comments which attract interest can frequently go viral and reach millions without the influence or input of professional journalists. This conclusion can be considered particularly significant when one considers that a study conducted by Ipos Mori found that 34% of 18 to 24-year olds admitted that their political ideals and allegiance could be altered by something they read online. Additionally, a separate study conducted on the same topic supported Ipos Mori’s results by noting that 41% of young people aged between 15 and 25 had at some point engaged in a political debate online. The data provided by the two studies seemingly supports the claim that there is a positive relationship between media coverage and electoral success.

Finally, one can consider negative publicity and the media’s relationship with it to be a cycle of exposure which may or may not benefit the candidate. This cycle has three distinct sections which motivate one another. These are: controversial comments or policies by the political candidate, negative publicity and increased coverage in mainstream media and reaction on social media platforms. Furthermore, the cycle begins through the controversy generated by the politician, such as Trump’s pledge to build a wall along America’s southern border, consequently a multitude of analytical articles appear through traditional mainstream media outlets as well as online. The rise in online articles will invariably increase the likelihood of the story going viral and being read by millions of people. Moreover, as a consequence of a higher number of people being interested in the story and the fact that journalists have to publish stories which will generate traffic, the candidate’s coverage in mainstream media is rapidly enlarged and increases likelihood of success in the polls due to the candidate holding house-hold name recognition. In this sense, there is really no such thing as bad publicity as the primary aim of any modern day politician is media exposure and recognition.

By Jonathan Evans