By Todd Neikirk
Remember when Howard Dean was a rising star within the Democratic Party, in sight of the 2004 presidential nomination, only to see his campaign torpedoed because he yelled awkwardly at a rally? Such innocent days those were.
Today, politicians — and they’re pretty much exclusively Republicans — can utter all manner of things, then skirt accountability simply by saying, “I was just kidding.” For this tectonic shift in what’s considered acceptable in politics we can thank Donald Trump.
Give him credit: Trump was a pioneer. Back in 2015, barely a month into his campaign for president, Trump said of Vietnam war hero Sen. John McCain: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
It was a shocking statement about the veteran, who’d spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp and endured unspeakable torture. Trump’s GOP competitors — heck, anyone with a modicum of dignity — raced to condemn him. And yet, not only did Trump’s statement not harm Trump, it helped him. Ignored or maligned by a press corps who saw him as a joke, Trump’s outrageous comments intensified, crowding out any substantive coverage about quaint things like policies or campaign promises.
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Trump picked up steam once he hit the debate stage. Here, his brutishness and lack of polish were on full display. He referred to Sen. Marco Rubio as “little Marco.” He essentially called Carly Fiorina ugly, then claimed his knocks on her looks shouldn’t have been taken seriously.
“I’m not talking about looks. I’m talking about persona,” he said.
Trump also knocked the looks of Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and hinted the Texas senator’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Cruz himself brushed it off. On The View just a few months ago, Cruz said, “Heidi laughed when he said that. My father laughed, by the way — my dad didn't just kill Kennedy, he's got Jimmy Hoffa buried in the backyard. It was idiotic.”
The strategy of Cruz’s response was obvious: Undermine the bully by not taking him seriously. The problem was, that approach only emboldens Trump and the very targets of his attacks became his enablers.
In May 2019, for instance, President Trump retweeted a Jerry Falwell post that suggested he should have two additional years tacked on to the end of his term. Asked to comment, Sen. Lindsey Graham responded, “I think y’all people are crazy. When it comes to Trump, people need to dial it back a little bit.” Texas Republican John Cornyn claimed, “The president has sort of a dry sense of humor. He obviously understands that’s not possible.” By treating Trump’s dictatorial tendencies as a joke, Republicans helped normalized the outrageously authoritarian conduct that culminated in the January 6 coup attempt.
Innumerable examples of Trump using the “just joking” line could be cited. In June 2020, as the pandemic was ripping through the country and his reelection campaign was foundering, Trump claimed at a rally that he had ordered covid testing to be slowed down so fewer cases would be reported.
As the above clip shows, Trump clearly was serious. But Kayleigh McEnany, who often had to clean up Trump’s messes, told the press, “any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact. It was a comment that he made in jest.”
Other politicians took note: You can say anything. If it comes back to bite you, just say you were kidding. In today’s GOP, gaslighting is much more effective than taking responsibility.
“Russia, if you’re listening”
Russia has often been the subject of right-wing “jokes.” In one of the most infamous episodes of the 2016 campaign, Trump encouraged Russian hackers to attack Hillary Clinton during a news conference. He subsequently tried to rewrite history by saying “then we all laughed together,” even though he was clearly dead serious.
Just last month, Twitter owner/aspiring right-winger Elon Musk pulled a Trump by claiming he was just trolling after came under heavy criticism for amplifying a bizarre Twitter thread from Putin apparatchik Dmitry Medvedev. Back in 2017, Kevin McCarthy (now the House speaker) claimed he was just joking when audio emerged of him saying that Putin pays Trump. Tucker Carlson claimed he was “just joking” after he said on his show that he was rooting for Russia against Ukraine. (He was serious.) I could go on and on.
Trump’s protégés have clearly learned from the master, as Marjorie Taylor Greene — a onetime QAnon adherent who’s perhaps the most brash elected official to follow in Trump’s political footsteps — demonstrated just last month.
During a speech to the New York Young Republican Club on December 10, Greene said that if she and Steve Bannon had organized January 6, “we would have won, not to mention we would’ve been armed.” Her comments were recorded by an attendee and a clip eventually hit social media.
But as she came under criticism from the Biden administration and others for her incendiary comments, Greene deployed the “just joking” defense. She told reporters, “the White House needs to learn how sarcasm works. My comments were making fun of Joe Biden and the Democrats and the Democrats who have continuously made me a target since January 6th.” Presto! Greene avoided accountability for her comments.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy not only gave Greene a pass but reportedly plans to put her on the House Oversight Committee. He has his reasons — Greene was a staunch supporter of his speaker bid.
Donald Trump’s political career may be close to ending. Since a disastrous 2022 midterm season, his poll numbers have eroded.
Still, Trump’s behavior and actions have changed the playbook, at least for the GOP lawmakers. Even Ron DeSantis, Trump’s potential successor as head of the party, has gotten the memo. Last August, the Florida governor said the “little elf” Anthony Fauci should be thrown into the Potomac River.
DeSantis was clearly serious, and in this case he didn’t even bother to try to claim he was joking. Nearly eight years into Trumpism, Republicans are more comfortable than ever just leaning into the cruelty.
Nancy Mace is the new Susan Collins
By Aaron Rupar
Ben Sasse. Susan Collins. We all remember Trump-era Republicans who loved to make a fuss of their purported independence from the big guy, but ultimately didn’t have the courage to break from the party at key moments.
Nancy Mace made clear this week that she follows in those footsteps.
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