Special Report: Extremism

How Right-Wing Radicals are Gaslighting Liberal Democracy

We have the power to save ourselves, but only if we wake up and notice that the house is on fire before we are consumed by it.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 31, 2018

We need to talk about the fact that complicit conservatives are allowing white supremacists and other right-wing radicals to gaslight the country. Here's how it works.

Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, 1944
Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, 1944

The right-wing media ecosystem functions as an ideology-laundering operation for white supremacist ideas, incrementally funneling them from the margins into the mainstream.

Right-wing media personalities give airtime and legitimacy to crazy conspiracy theories, absurd spins on hot-button issues and blatant lies, exposing them to a wider audience and desensitizing people to the implications of white supremacist ideas.

Opportunistic politicians pick up on the themes, pandering to the far right with dog-whistles - slogans and policy positions that seem innocuous to bystanders but speak directly to white supremacists in language they understand.

So they say things like "freedom of speech" when they mean licence to engage in hate speech that threatens violence and terrorism against vulnerable communities; or "securing our borders" when they mean keeping out people who are non-white.

Under this cover of legitimacy, the white supremacists start coming out into the open, testing the waters, making increasingly public, inflammatory statements that build on the legitimacy granted to them by pandering politicians and media personalities.

Increasingly Brazen

The conservative establishment mostly turns a blind eye to this, recognizing that a nontrivial portion of their political base are racists, bigots and chauvinists. They may occasionally denounce a statement that goes too far but they mostly stay silent.

Conservative politicians pander to racists in increasingly brazen ways, winking to the base while continuing to insist publicly that they are not racist and denounce racism.

So you have, for example, Ontario PC leader Doug Ford personally appointing an anti-Semitic, Islamophobic misogynist to represent the PC Party in London West, a man who argued students should be allowed to debate whether the Holocaust happened.

The Holocaust may be a perfect case study in how hate-laundering works, because the lie - a canonical white supremacist tenet - already has incremental iterations ranging from full denial through downplaying the scale, questioning the details, and creating uncertainty.

Defending having students debate whether the Holocaust happened based on "free speech" grounds is a huge propaganda victory for white supremacism. It's the thin edge of a gruesome wedge that allows Nazi ideology to seep into the mainstream.

The white supremacists are traveling down that "free speech" wedge (and the "border security" wedge, and the "political correctness" wedge, and others) and incrementally getting their ideas into the mainstream. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere.

And it can happen very quickly. If someone had warned in October 2016 that a Trump administration would forcibly remove 13,000 children of asylum seekers from their parents and put them in cages, no one would take them seriously. That was just two years ago.

Hiding in Plain Sight

The white supremacists have already succeeded in getting their ideas into the mainstream and are coming right out into the open. Here's where things get interesting: they insulate themselves from singling-out by wrapping themselves in the broader conservative movement.

White supremacist ideas have so permeated the mainstream of conservative thought that white supremacists just point to the proliferation of racist ideas as proof that they're not really racist, or else everyone must be racist.

The white supremacists are openly gaslighting the mainstream: Look at these libtard snowflakes: whenever they see someone saying something they disagree with, they get triggered and accuse the person of being racist.

When I realized that the neo-Nazi who ran for mayor of Hamilton had a Twitter profile, I trolled through his feed to try and get a sense of what he was putting out. I was shocked - not because it was particularly outrageous but because it was so samey.

The neo-Nazi's twitter feed looked pretty much indistinguishable from the feeds of just about every single right-wing identity politics troll I've already encountered. It was actually rather on the banal side compared to some I've seen.

Mainstreaming of White Supremacism

During the recent municipal election campaign, lots of right-wing trolls came at me about my support for Hamilton's light rail transit (LRT) project. I couldn't help but notice the strong correlation between their vitriolic opposition and their support for the white supremacist who ran a high-profile mayoral campaign in Toronto.

When I pointed out that they were endorsing and retweeting a white supremacist, they invariably denied it, insisting that the accusation was a hit-job from a lamestream media that was afraid of free speech.

When I pointed out that she had literally gone on a neo-Nazi podcast to praise her hosts and the organizers of the hate march in Charlottesville, they fell back on the claim that her words were taken out of context.

If I continued to push back, they ended up ignoring or blocking me. Their feeds, you should understand, were filled with hatred toward liberals and refugees and full of paranoid conspiracy theories. There was no getting through to them in just 280 characters.

Earlier I mentioned Premier Doug Ford personally nominating a bigot as his party's candidate in London West. This summer, he posed for a photo with the white supremacist Toronto mayoral candidate at his annual "Ford Fest" campaign event.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford photographed with white supremacist mayoral candidate Faith Goldy at 2018 Ford Fest

There is no way on earth that he did not know who she was, this prominent conservative who has been to six Ford Fests and was a high-profile correspondent on "The Rebel", a right-wing conspiracy laundering website. Yet it took him several days to issue a mild denunciation that finally mentioned her name, albeit in passing. He knows her supporters are a nontrivial share of his own base.

The white supremacist mayoral candidate ended up finishing in third place with 25,667 votes or 3.4 percent of the total votes cast. Think about that: more than twenty-five thousand people in Toronto voted for a white supremacist who has warned about "white genocide" and proudly recited the "Fourteen Words" white supremacist slogan.

The neo-Nazi mayoral candidate in Hamilton didn't do as well, coming in seventh place (out of 15), pulling in just 706 votes or 0.51 percent of the total. But we shouldn't be too comforted, as he basically ran no campaign. A charismatic, media-savvy white supremacist may do better.

Gaslighting the Libs

So we have a media ecosystem incrementally laundering white supremacist ideas into the mainstream and radicalizing angry men, abetted by conservative politicians who either fail to speak out or actively dog-whistle and pander to white supremacists.

This allows the white supremacists to gaslight liberals and progressives by claiming that when we name them as white supremacists, we are just attacking people whose ideas about "free speech" and "secure borders" we don't like.

If you point out that a racist dog-whistle is racist, the gaslighting response is to accuse you of being the racist for seeing racism in the message.

Federally, we may be tempted to feel relief that the anti-immigrant MP who denounced multiculturalism decided to leave his home in the Conservative Party of Canada and form his own party, but we should not confuse his ambition with his erstwhile party's principles.

In the wake of a terrible week in which American right-wing terrorists sent mailbombs to politicians and reporters, murdered two people for being black in Kentucky and murdered eleven people for being Jewish in Pittsburgh, our CPC leader decided it was a good time to attack the media.

His MPs have long been accusing mainstream journalists of being "Liberal reporters" and "spin tools" and even "fake news" (ugh), and now he has come out swinging in a party fundraising appeal taken right from the Trump playbook.

And Andrew Scheer was supposed to be the nice one.

We've Seen this Movie Before

We don't have to guess what happens when right-wing parties keep winking to bigots, chauvinists, misogynists and white supremacists who are being radicalized by a parallel universe of right-wing propaganda. When you feed the beast, the beast gets bigger.

And if the party that has been feeding the beast happens to gain power, the beast has a nasty habit of breaking its chains and taking over. At the risk of Godwining this essay, I'm sure von Hindenberg thought he could control Hitler.

Or if you prefer a (slightly) less hot analogy, I'm sure Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell thought they could control Trump.

When white supremacists take over a party and the party takes over a country, we end up with fascism. We've seen this movie before, and in fact it is currently playing in various theatres around the world. We know how the story ends.

I'm not being hyperbolic when I say we need to stamp out white supremacism if we want to save the body and soul of our country.

Right-Wing Terrorism

Right-wing terrorism has been increasing steadily in the USA and Europe over the past several years. We are by no means immune to this trend in Canada.

Hate crime researcher Dr. Barbara Perry reports that there are 130 active hate groups in Canada right now, up 30% in just the past three years. Right-wing terrorists aren't just "crazy people" - they are radicalized in a media swamp of right-wing propaganda that is reaching into the mainstream.

Right wing terrorists are not isolated loners, or at least they're not just isolated loners. They are also active members of radicalizing communities that are part of the larger continuum of incremental hatred-laundering.

When politicians blow racist dogwhistles, right-wing terrorists get the message. As Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum famously said of his GOP challenger, "I'm not calling Mr. Desantis a racist. I'm simply saying the racists believe he's a racist."

Likewise, Doug Ford had the full support of Canada's white supremacists, who heard his racist dog-whistles loud and clear.

Across the border, it's no coincidence that the right-wing terrorist who sent bombs to George Soros, Hillary Clinton and CNN had a van festooned with Trump logos. Trump has been relentlessly, shamelessly fomenting hatred against these targets for years.

Van of the right-wing terrorist who sent pipe bombs to liberal politicians and news agencies

A social media photo from mid-2015 showed the same van with no stickers affixed yet. The bomber was radicalized to violence by the Republican presidential candidate's hate-fueled presidential campaign.

Amazingly, before the man charged with sending the bombs was arrested and reported, right-wing pundits were falling over themselves to accuse Democrats of a "false flag operation" - of sending bombs to themselves in order to make conservatives look bad. That is an extremely crazy conspiracy theory but some extremely high-profile conservatives helped circulate and amplify it before the truth came out.

The anti-Semitic terrorist who committed mass murder against the Tree of Life Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh was radicalized in part by paranoid conspiracy theories about the caravan of refugees fleeing from violence who are slowly making their way through Mexico.

His attack targeted the Synagogue for being Jewish, and also for the connection to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is the oldest and one of the largest refugee settlement organizations in the world.

Twofold Threat

So the threat from right-wing radicalization is twofold: there is the risk of increased terrorist attacks against vulnerable groups, and also the risk that the far right will take over the conservative party and win election, turning the country toward fascism.

Again, conservative politicians who believe they can activate the base with dog-whistles while remaining in control are deluded. Sooner or later, a charismatic figure emerges from the base and takes over the party. Most voters don't even notice until it's too late.

And conservative politicians who believe they can't afford to disavow and cut off the base are really just admitting that their own policy ideas, designed to pander to the far right, are too extreme for genuine mainstream acceptance.

Most worrying are the conservative politicians who are just as terrified of the right-wing base as I am, but who have convinced themselves that the best thing they can do to protect the centre is to mollify and contain the radicals by throwing them some red meat from time to time to keep them happy. As if feeding the beast somehow won't make it bigger and stronger.

This is Not Normal

Everything seems More Or Less Normal™ right now, but our liberal democracy - here and across the industrialized world - has never been more at risk. It's the 1930s, and I'm not sure whether it's the early '30s or the late '30s but things are moving more quickly today. (Again, recall that it took less than two years for the Trump administration to normalize putting children in cages for some 40 percent of the public.)

If there was ever a time for the broad public to really wake up and notice what is going on while there is still time to do something about it, that time is now. (I haven't even touched on right-wing negligence in addressing global warming, which is a whole separate essay!)

Liberal democracy is not a law of nature or even a fundamental principle of psychology or sociology or political science. It is nothing more than an agreement among a large group of people about a set of principles by which we are willing to be bound.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not a magical scroll; it cannot save our liberal democracy from our own indifference. In Ontario we have a Premier who brags about his willingness to invoke S.33 of the Charter, which grants him the power to violate our rights.

We have the power to save ourselves, but only if we wake up and notice that the house is on fire before we are consumed by it.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By ghmusician (registered) | Posted November 01, 2018 at 10:27:56

Helpful article. I can think of lots of examples of extreme responses to liberal viewpoints (gaslighting is the term you use) on Twitter and in the media these days. I've even seen a Republican campaign attack ad on a US TV station that painted a certain Democrat candidate as an "extreme liberal" and "dangerous socialist"
I am not expecting to be labeled as a bleeding heart, wasteful liberal idiot, liberal f**tard or any number of other weak and despised things just because I publicly air an opinion and disagree with something I see as hateful or unjust. As you are helping us understand is that this is an attempt to shut people up or shout them down. The whole idea of this "gaslighting" process is to move people away from reasonable discourse and discussion and understanding and to replace it with divisions, name-calling, and polarization of people into disparate groups.

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By Blotto (registered) | Posted November 01, 2018 at 11:27:46

'They' are ALL lying to us at the top of the pyramid . We are decaying mentally, physically and spiritually on a rapid pace. . 'Heads they win, tails we lose' . What is good, beautiful, spiritual, love - is being flipped on its head and promoted as bad. And what is bad, ugly, perverted, ungodly - is being promoted as good. . As above, so below. . Detoxify your pineal gland and see through the illusions. . Sacred geometry, numerology and the stars shine their way. . Knowledge is power.

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By ENBertussi (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2018 at 22:24:51

Life is genuinely harder for too many people, much harder than it was 40 years ago, how it got so much harder for so many people is the question.

there are answers, this cbc ideas postcast has some https://podcast-a.akamaihd.net/mp3/podca...

umair haque has ideas too https://eand.co/ https://umairhaque.com/ and nancy mclean has ideas too... https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books...

the truth is: there isn't any conspiracy, it's just business as usual...


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By AlanB (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2018 at 23:10:11

The Bolsonaro victory has caused many people to start to pay attention to the manipulation of the collective psyche that the fascist right has been perfecting since the time of Dr. Goebbels. It is time to do an asset mapping of the right wing. They are fortunate to have Evangelicals in their camp. This group is the most effect cadre for causing the undermining / main weakness of the progressive forces: The religious right believes that they are all one big family in Christ - and this attitude enables their ranks to act in an egalitarian/comradery kind of social system. The opposite of the way progressives are hamstrung by status hierarchy, and choosing to find fault with any aspect of someone's ideological purity. This judgementalism does not happen on the Nazi right. They are willing to tolerate any flaw - so long as their ultimate goal of power and control of the instruments of governance remains their undivided focus. Many of them have read about Schopenhauer's concept of the collective will as examined in MEIN KAMPF. It is likely this has been Trump's bedside reading.

After decades of being a political junkie, I see only one way to mobilize a critical mass of activism to put the public interest in control of this problem. Only by a willingness on the part of grassroots, authentic citizens' group agencies and networks, to become active in the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, can we advance the policies that will enable our economy and political system to be taken forcefully from the toxic hands of neoliberalism, and restored to enable the purpose of democratic processes to resume. We will have to understand that social psychology demonstrates that if 3.5% of a population is able to learn a technology of problem-solving, that this group can infuse through the rest of society. In the case of the 17 SDGs, this will enable those who are aware and trained to help the rest of society overcome ideological incoherence. For further details on this, watch the videos from Prof Jeffrey Sachs on Youtube from the Sustainable Devt Academy, and if you want to become part of the group implementing the SDGs, take a look at the course that Prof Sachs teaches on EdX.

Comment edited by AlanB on 2018-11-01 23:13:07

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By Missy2013 (registered) - website | Posted November 06, 2018 at 14:04:28

After watching the recent Munk Debate with David Frum & Steve Bannon, one could have come away from that event with a tolerable view of both. However,within days Bannon was spouting off his strategy . The video, directed by him, Trump @ War, is 100% propaganda intended to enflame discord, fear and anger. In sum, this polished media manipulator has a ‘long-term’ agenda that he foresees lasting, at minimum, 30 years ... What’s needed are stronger voices then Frum’s to ‘pound back’ at his destructive and power hungry ideology. Words are powerful. Bannon knows that only too well ... > https://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2018/11...

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