Whatever happens to him at the polls 34 days from now, Donald Trump has already deeply changed public discourse in America. It’s not just what he says; it’s what a year’s worth of Trump’s performance has legitimized, encouraged, and inured us to. For example: in the pre-Trump era, I don’t recall being at big public events where mainly-male, mainly-white crowds would chant things like “String her up!” or “Trump that bitch!” But that was the background music at this year’s Republican convention in Cleveland.
This is the context for an astonishing segment from a Bill O’Reilly episode this week.
It is fair to treat Fox News as an extension of the Republican Party and the Trump campaign. It is essentially the only news outlet where Donald Trump will appear any more. Sean Hannity essentially functions as an adjunct campaign strategist, even appearing in a Trump ad; and when called on it has said “I am not a journalist.” Roger Ailes is of course the human glue connecting Trump world, the formal GOP, and the news organization he founded and ran until his recent ouster amid sexual-harassment complaints.
Thus it is also fair to think that the “Watters’ World” segment on Fox is a reflection of attitudes in greater Fox-Trump land, and again of the kinds of public discussion Trump has legitimized. Take a look before I say any more about it. It genuinely is worth watching all the way through:
The “comic” premise of the piece is essentially: China, so tricky!! Let’s go see some people with Asian faces and ask them why China so tricky?, and what they (as obvious outsiders to the “real” America) make of this confusing political spectacle, while meanwhile they are eating their perplexing food and cooking up their secret potions.
There are a million things to dislike about this approach, which you can figure out for yourself. The meanest part of the segment is around time 1:00, when Watters mocks two older immigrant-looking people for not answering his questions, when they obviously don’t speak English at all. But before and after that he gets into almost every devious-Oriental stereotype you’ve ever encountered. The only big one left out is the Yellow Peril standby of Asian hordes lusting for white women. It does, though, get into the opposite stereotype—of the exotic, giggly, and “me love you long time” young Asian beauty. See Vox for more.
Is this so bad? Can’t I take a joke? Wow, isn’t political correctness run amok, if we can’t even do a light skit?
I really do think this is bad, in that it reprocesses several centuries’ worth of anti-Asian stereotypes for airing not in 1937 but in 2016. That may just be because I’ve spent so much of my life living in various parts of Asia and trying to understand their workings as an outsider. But I think you only have to imagine a similar “light” segment being done about blacks in South Side Chicago, or Jews in Brooklyn, to realize how gross this is, and that segments about most other minorities would never get on the air even at Fox. (“We’re here in Brooklyn, and tell me, what’s the deal with your funny hats and beards? And where do you keep all your money?”)
Assuming for now that Trump does not actually become president—even though the whole Republican establishment is still saying, He’s fine!—we won’t know for quite a while whether the mark he’s left on our culture is something transient, from which we’ll recover, or a turning point in a much nastier direction. Either way, this segment on a “news” network is a benchmark of where things stand as of October, 2016.