No room for bigots

Why there are some subjects that are so polarising I'm coming to the conclusion it's almost impossib

It's tempting, as the editor of a website, to commission subjects that will get as many comments as possible. The theory goes that a lively comments section drives hits and given websites like ours are businesses that's quite a consideration.

But there's a serious downside to this. The web's provided all manner of characters with a brand new opportunity to access a mass audience and quite frankly an awful lot of commenters don't deserve that.

Previously the chance to feed back into public debates were limited to democratic expressions like voting, petitioning, demonstrating or writing stiff letters to the editor or your MP.

Of course there were exceptions of a few talk radio stations, which I generally like, and the reliably awful Any Answers - the BBC programme which follows Saturday's edition of the often excellent Any Questions which fields a panel of public figures.

From where I sit you get to see all the comments made on newstatesman.com and you have the responsibility to ensure what the boundaries are. I've blogged about this before.

Inevitably - however much one tries not to - there's a chance of getting dragged into debates because, I suppose, my own views inform some of the decisions I make.

One of the things that annoys me most though is the failure to see - or to admit to seeing - the weakness in one's own argument. You can always tell when a leader is past his or her sell by date because they start to believe their own bull - Tony Blair was a classic example of this. One could almost see him convincing himself as he fired off an explanation for some decision.

Equally we have commenters who relentlessly push the same world view at any opportunity. Believe me it's begun to get a little tedious in some cases especially if they constantly accuse you of being part of an SIS plot or, in another case, unwittily insult fellow contributors - over and over and over again.

But all of this is part of the territory and comments can also be extremely intelligent, interesting and funny too.

What isn't funny, intelligent or interesting is the vileness that appears in our comments section when we run anything to do with subjects like Israel/Palestine, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the division of Cyprus - I could go on.

So having published an article to mark the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht and wasted far too much of our time on trying to moderate the comments I've switched off your right of reply. I'm not interested in providing an outlet for revisionist views of what happened in the Holocaust - especially when they blame Jewish people for the climate from which National Socialism sprang.

Equally I'm not interested in being a platform for extremist Zionists who scarcely conceal their racism towards their Arab neighbours and who belittle other victims of Hitler's vile regime.

The question is, can we now allow debates about these touchpaper issues? I'd like to but some of you are, frankly, changing my mind.

And if this turns me into the role of censor so be it. That is a responsibility that comes with the job.

Now moving on. Sarah Palin plans to allow god to guide her on her decision to run in 2012. Let's hope it's a different god to the bigoted, warmongering, morally deficient one that apparently guided Dubbya.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war