For a myriad of obvious reasons, I am not compelled to defend Donald Trump's recent remark about "Second Amendment people" in reference to Hillary Clinton, which many have interpreted as calling for her assassination. While I think there's an evident interpretation of the remark that is innocent, it's also true that Trump has said so many irresponsible things, he hasn't earned the trust necessary for observers to put the best construction on what he says. Further, the bigger issue is that a major qualification for the presidency is effective and, when necessary, measured communication. And that's something Trump seems largely incapable of.
However, if Trump supporters are unmoved by the media's piling on over Trump's comments, I do not blame them. That's because the media adhere to a double standard when it comes to condemning violent rhetoric. The latest example of this is an op-ed published by the Washington Post Thursday condemning Trump's irresponsible rhetoric, "Political violence is no joke." It is currently the second-most read item on the Post's website. The authorship of the piece is a good part of its appeal, and here's how the Post identifies the writers up top:
William Kennedy Smith and Jean Kennedy Smith are the nephew and sister of President John. F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on June 6, 1968.
Certainly the Kennedys have been afflicted by political violence. But the description of the authors here is incomplete. Aside from his famously assassinated relatives, William Kennedy Smith is best known for having been the subject of a very public rape trial. While Smith was acquitted, three other women went public with accusations that he had also raped them, but their testimony was not allowed. Notably, on the night he was accused of rape, Smith was partying with his uncle Ted Kennedy, who in 1969 had left a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, alive in a car for hours while it slowly submerged and she drowned.
After Ted Kennedy died in 2009, former Newsweek and New York Times Magazine editor Ed Klein told the Diane Rehm show, "I don't know if you know this or not, but one of [Ted Kennedy's] favorite topics of humor was indeed Chappaquiddick itself. And he would ask people, 'Have you heard any new jokes about Chappaquiddick?'" (Yes, I know Klein's credibility has taken some hits in the years since then, but it's also undeniably true that he had a cozy relationship with Ted Kennedy.)
In any event, it is pretty nauseating to see the Post give a prominent platform on this topic to a man we have very good reasons to believe escaped accountability for actual acts of life-altering violence. And while we're on the subject of condemning jokes about violence, I must have missed the Kennedy op-ed about Obama joking about gathering Republican senators together under false pretenses and slaughtering them, as he did at the at the White House Correspondents Dinner. But since Obama's "red wedding" joke was a Game of Thrones reference, much of the media treated it as an unserious story about how in-tune Obama is with popular culture.
Obviously, Obama has more goodwill from the media than Trump does when it comes to getting charitable interpretations of his remarks. But this isn't just about Trump. The media applies a strict zero-tolerance standard to any rhetoric touching on violence symbolically or otherwise when it comes to the political right and does not apply that standard to the left. So when Sarah Palin puts crosshairs on a map "targeting" Republican congressional victories, the Washington Post runs a story implicitly blaming her for the shooting of Gabby Giffords by an obviously mentally ill man. But when a gay activist walks into the lobby of a religiously conservative organization and says "I don't like your politics" before shooting a security guard, the Post downplays the statement by fretting about how the emergence of those words would "reignite the culture wars."
To bring this full circle, the media is at pains to recast leftist violence as a result of conservatives. In 2014, during the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik blamed the killing not just on Lee Harvey Oswald, who was a blatant communist, but on the fact that Dallas was "clotted... with right-wing types in the period before Kennedy's fatal visit." Gopnik connected this to today's Tea Party movement. His New Yorker colleague George Packer topped that by asserting the same angry conservative climate that allegedly killed Kennedy is alive and well, because "Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louie Gohmert are the spiritual descendants of [billionaire oilman H. L. Hunt and the right-wing zealot General Edwin Walker]. Fifty years later, Dallas would like to move on from Dealey Plaza. This is normal and right. What's holding it back is the Republican Party." And to think earlier this year so many media professed to be shocked by the fact that Trump would try and blame Ted Cruz's father for Kennedy's assassination, when accusing Cruz—nay, the entire Republican party—of creating a murderous climate was already a standard talking point.
Does the media's hypocrisy excuse Donald Trump saying dumb and irresponsible things? It does not. But the election will be over in three months, and if Trump doesn't win, his blowhard tendencies and lack of verbal acuity are unlikely to necessitate any more media coverage. (Whether the media still hangs on his every word after November is a reflection on them.) If he does win, it will be in no small part because voters invested no credibility in media condemnations of him given the hyperbole they unleashed and sanctioned regarding far more reasonable Republicans. Either way, the fact that the media is so clueless about their own double standards and contemptible rhetoric labeling half the country as violent seems to be a much bigger scandal. And that scandal has been ongoing since long before Trump ever arrived on the political scene.