Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Does anyone actually believe that Sean Spicer, Donald Trump’s press spokesman, is a Holocaust denier? Sure, he expressed himself with unbelievable gaucheness. His declaration that “you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” broke pretty much every rule of media management, starting with the most basic rule of all: don’t press Hitler into contemporary arguments.
Still, it’s pretty clear what the poor fellow was trying to say. Even a regime as murderous as the Third Reich, he was arguing, shrank from doing what Assad is accused of doing – that is, using poison gas as a weapon of war. The Nazis enslaved whole populations, machine-gunned civilians and, ultimately, set up death camps. But they drew the line at using poison gas in bombs. The gas masks with which Britons were issued in 1939 remained unused, even as Hitler’s dying regime hurled V2s across the Channel.
We can all agree that it was a tasteless comparison. But that is not enough for his detractors. They have to go straight to Volume 10. Here, for example, is Steven Goldstein of the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect: “On Passover, no less, Sean Spicer has engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death… President Trump must fire him at once.”
Needless to say, broadcasters went with the “Holocaust Denial Row” line, and social media exploded with rage, the original quotation quickly forgotten as people competed to be visibly angrier than each other. Spicer was basically a Nazi! Trump himself was little more than a Nazi! In fact, Trump was worse than a Nazi! And so on, and so on.
When a public figure expresses himself awkwardly, the reaction follows four stages. First, strip the quotation of any context. Second, forget the speaker’s record and credentials. (If Sean Spicer really were a Nazi sympathiser, I think we’d have had some intimations before now.) Third, put the worst possible construction on his motives. Fourth, demand his dismissal.
Everything is at full blast. No one ever says, “OK, that was badly phrased, but his apology sounded genuine”, or “Yeah, she expressed that clumsily, but I know what she was getting at”. Nothing short of a resignation will do. Indeed, hectoring demands for resignation are a form of conspicuous consumption. Lukewarm condemnation simply won’t do the trick.
No one likes to step into the path of a lynch mob. Think of the way Sir Tim Hunt was treated when he made an ungainly joke about falling in love with women in laboratories. Again, no one was prepared to consider the context. Indeed no one would have guessed, from the coverage, that it was a joke at all, a light-hearted opening to a speech that was followed by a “but seriously”, and then his main point about women playing an increasingly significant role in science. Although there were plenty of journalists in his audience, no one felt brave enough to correct the virtue-signallers and, before long, UCL had dismissed the Nobel Laureate from his post.
We can all think of examples of Twitter storms that pass as quickly as they form, leaving blue skies – and often, also, shattered individuals. Don’t think it’s an exclusively Leftist phenomenon either: Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and even, on occasion, Ken Livingstone, have been mobbed for things they didn’t quite say. Indeed, angry reactions to misreported phrases are older than social media. Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet. Jim Callaghan never said “Crisis? What crisis?” Marie Antoinette never (as far as we know) said “Let them eat cake”.
Still, there is something uniquely ugly about the way social media aggregate and exaggerate our most brutish instincts. Mobs are, as Shakespeare understood, nasty and fickle. We have a reminder of their inconstancy every year at this season. Four days ago, we recalled the way a jubilant crowd placed palm leaves before Jesus as he rode a donkey into Jerusalem; tomorrow, we remember the same crowd baying for his crucifixion.
One of the virtues of representative democracy is that you no longer have to infer the mood of a crowd from its loudest members. People can express their opinions in a measured way. Mob gives way to majority. Rabbles are dissolved into a wider and wiser electorate.
But Facebook and Twitter return us, in some ways, to a pre-democratic age. Emotion is elevated over fact, and details trampled underfoot. Donald Trump is a beneficiary of that change, as his opponents are quick to point out – before, in many cases, indulging in precisely the loutish behaviour that they condemn in his followers.
So let me end by saluting one of the few who stepped into the path of the mob, namely Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Here is what he had to say as the outrage reached its peak on Tuesday: “Spicer is stupid, but he didn’t ‘Deny Hitler gassed Jews’ and suggesting he did belittles the gravity of the charge”. Quite. Odd, in a way, that that should have needed saying, but in our current age, in which information is so easily available and so rarely accessed, it evidently did.