Republican strategist Rick Wilson has been mocking President Donald Trump and his supporters on TV for years. In January 2016, he described “most” of Trump’s supporters as “childless single men who masturbate to anime.” In July 2018, he said Trump supporters want to deport anyone “darker than a latte.” And appearing on CNN this past Saturday night, he called Trump’s base the “credulous boomer rube demo” while putting on a southern accent.
It’s that last insult that sent pro-Trump, right-wing media raging. Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel tweeted, “These liberal hacks paint conservative voters as illiterate hillbillies on national TV because they despise @realDonaldTrump and they despise you.” The Trump campaign sent out fundraising emails centered on the segment. The clip provided team Trump’s media operation with some much-needed content to divert viewers’ attention away from impeachment. The idea that Democrats represent the “out of touch liberal elite” is an evergreen criticism from conservatives, and right-wing media embraced the opportunity to use Wilson’s CNN appearance and host Don Lemon’s reaction to push that messaging once again.
One slight problem in all of this: Wilson is not a Democrat, nor is he someone any reasonable person would describe as “liberal.” Wilson is a conservative (and not exactly a fan of us here at Media Matters) perhaps best known for creating the infamous Reverend Jeremiah Wright ad used to attack then-candidate Barack Obama as “too radical, too risky” ahead of the 2008 presidential election. But on Wednesday, Fox News’ Dagen McDowell tried to argue that the “Never Trumper” Republican is not an actual Republican. He is.
Beyond this controversy, it’s worth exploring the double standards of divisive rhetoric.
Ivanka Trump quote tweeted a video of the CNN segment, writing, “You consistently make fun of half the country and then complain that it is divided.”
Setting aside this conservative-on-conservative quarrel (meant to frame Wilson and CNN as liberal), let’s take a deeper look at who, exactly, is “mak[ing] fun of half the country.”
President Donald Trump is not normally one to mince words. Whether he’s throwing around schoolyard insults at his opponents or making other offensive comments, he “tells it like it is,” his supporters argue, viewing his behavior as a positive trait. Some media figures have gone so far as to laud his strategy of crafting personalized insults for his political enemies. But in accepting Trump’s actions as normal, the press is giving him tacit permission to act in ways that would have landed past presidents in news cycles of condemnation and scandal.
In December, Trump tweeted something that seemed too mean-spirited even for him: “So sad to see that New York City and State are falling apart. All they want to do is investigate to make me hate them even more than I should.”
There aren’t any readily available examples of other modern presidents ever saying they “hate” entire cities or states. Even in the most generous interpretation possible, if one is to believe that he’s only saying that he hates politicians living there, it’s still a disturbing sentiment to have a president saying anything so negative about citizens of his own country.
The following day, Trump lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and called San Francisco a “decaying city.”
These comments popped up in a handful of blog posts at places like Mediaite and Talking Points Memo, but they were only mentioned in passing on some cable news networks and in major newspapers. Deadline simply rolled those tweets and others into a post titled “President Donald Trump Tweetstorm -- The Saturday Edition.”
When Trump came to Chicago in October to attend the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention, he devoted a good portion of his speech to attacks on Chicago and its then-Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
“It’s embarrassing to us as a nation. All over the world, they’re talking about Chicago. Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison,” he said at one point after rattling off homicide statistics.
In 2018, Chicago had just the 16th highest murder rate among U.S. cities, behind places like Memphis, Tennessee; North Charleston, South Carolina; West Palm Beach, Florida; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One difference between Chicago and those cities is that they happen to be in states that Trump won in 2016.
In August, Trump smeared Jewish people who vote for Democrats as either ignorant or disloyal.
At a recent rally, Trump called Democrats “stone-cold crazy,” said “they want crime, they want chaos,” and claimed, “They’re vicious, horrible people.”
His comments were mentioned in passing in a recent Connie Schultz article in The Nation and during a handful of cable news segments. This is a president who shows contempt for people who didn’t vote for him and who views those who criticize or oppose his policies as enemies. But as CNN’s John Avlon -- who was critical of Trump’s language -- said, it “wasn’t normal” and shows that “we are becoming accustomed to this kind of vicious, horrible rhetoric from an American president.” It speaks to the kind of generous curve Trump is regularly graded on compared to other politicians.
For all the outrage emanating from the right-wing circles aimed at the left for its supposed disdain of red America, why don’t they -- or at the very least, mainstream media organizations -- hold Republicans to account for promoting a disdain for Americans who live in big cities or vote for Democrats?
Media aren’t holding Trump to the same standards as past presidents, and it’s not entirely clear why.
Following the news in the Trump era is a lot like trying to drink from a firehose. It’s a near-impossible task that can leave those who try to do it worse off than when they began. As Trump has inserted himself into the news more than any other president -- whether by tweeting his way into a new controversy, setting a new record for spreading false information, or whisking the country into dubiously justified conflicts -- it leaves journalists in a position where they simply cannot cover every single thing he says or does with the same attention they’d have done with past presidents. This means that some stories don’t get the focus they probably deserve. One thing is for certain though: A Democratic president would have been excoriated for weeks on end for some of the things Trump has said without much fanfare. And that’s a problem.
Perhaps Trump’s words were brushed off at the start of his first presidential campaign because most people saw him as a sideshow candidate without a real chance of winning the Republican nomination. Perhaps he was then given a pass because many believed that even after the nomination, he’d lose. Perhaps criticism was held off in hopes that he’d pivot and find a more traditionally presidential tone once in office. But journalists are out of excuses now. They must either start holding Trump to the same exact standards to which they’ve held past presidents and presidential candidates, or they need to admit that those past standards were arbitrary.
During an April 6, 2008, fundraiser, then-candidate Barack Obama addressed one of the most common questions he faced during his run for president: How could he, a first-term senator and a Black man, connect with white, working-class voters? How could a campaign centered on optimism reach people who’d been failed by their government time and again? In explaining why simply ticking off a list of bullet points about policy wouldn’t be enough, he said something that nearly 12 years later is still pointed to as evidence that he was an out-of-touch elitist, even though that’s precisely the opposite of what it shows (emphasis added):
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you’ll find is, is that people of every background -- there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you’ll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I’d be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you’re doing what you’re doing.
Conservative pundits haven’t stopped citing these comments ever since as evidence of Obama’s supposed disdain for rural Americans. At the time, there was a massive outcry over the remarks, often complete with misquoting like when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough alleged that Obama had actually said, “Your faith, the faith of your fathers, the faith of your grandfathers, the faith of your grandmothers -- it's just a crutch. It's just a crutch. You only believe that because you're bitter, because you're poor, because you didn't go to college, because you're working class.” Obviously, that was not what Obama said. Yet the speech continues to be used to paint him -- and Democrats as a whole -- as elitist. A Lexis search for news articles or transcripts containing the words “they get bitter” and “guns” pulls up more than 1,800 results, the most recent being an op-ed published just this month.
When the press reward bad behavior with friendlier coverage, it’s abdicating the crucial role it plays in democracy.
It isn’t just Trump who gets a pass for this rhetoric, either. For years, Republican politicians and conservative pundits have made attacks on cities and those living along the coasts part of their campaign strategy. In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) mocked the people of California, saying, “We are seeing tens of millions of dollars flooding into the state of Texas from liberals all over the country who desperately want to turn the state of Texas blue. They want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair." Last year, Fox Business published an op-ed by Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) about what “real Americans in the heartland” think about Trump’s economic policies. During House impeachment hearings, Republicans brought signs calling Democratic leadership the “coastal impeachment squad,” suggesting that their districts were less important and less worthy of representation than GOP members from Ohio or Nebraska.
These attacks on millions of fellow Americans -- when they come from Republicans -- are generally just shrugged off by mainstream news outlets. Just this month, Sean Hannity praised Trump for raising taxes on people living in blue states by eliminating the state income tax deduction. Sure, these attacks might get written about here and there, but rarely in a way that actually denounces that type of exclusionary rhetoric. Imagine what would have happened had a House Democrat brought a sign into a congressional hearing calling Republican voters a bunch of rural hayseeds or something similarly derogatory. There would be endless handwringing, pearl-clutching, and allegations of snobbery and disrespect -- and all those responses would be correct. But for whatever reason, media rarely hold Republicans to the same standards they hold Democrats.
In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton made headlines with her now-infamous “basket of deplorables” line. She said that there were Trump supporters that you could put in “what I call the basket of deplorables,” who were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic -- you name it” and that they had been embraced by Trump’s campaign. What she said next almost always gets left out in media coverage:
But the other basket -- and I know this because I see friends from all over America here -- I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas -- as well as, you know, New York and California -- but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
Both she and Obama, with his “they get bitter” comment, were trying to discuss the importance of outreach, to not see the “other side” as enemies, and to understand that not everyone can be easily grouped or written off. The comments were about having empathy for people who might not agree with you politically. But both candidates were excoriated in the media.
What does it say about the priorities of mainstream political media that those perhaps inartfully worded comments were attacked while another party’s open disdain for tens of millions of Americans with zero outreach or attempts to connect is just something we all have to accept without criticism?
If providing equal coverage of these comments from the right is too much to ask, the least the media can do is not play along the next time conservatives pretend to be outraged about liberals supposedly attacking Americans.