Trump vs. Khan: How Smearing Everyday Americans Became A Right-Wing Media Tradition

Who picks a campaign fight with Gold Star parents who have paid the ultimate sacrifice?

That’s the dominant campaign question being asked from so many different quarters as Donald Trump continues his jaw-dropping public feud with Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala. The Khans have been the subject of a series of attacks from Trump following Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week with his wife by his side. During that speech, Khan recounted how their son Capt. Humayun Khan had died in 2004 in Iraq as he tried to save fellow American troops, and then forcefully admonished Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering America.

The Republican nominee has received some right-wing media support in his misguided campaign to discredit the sympathetic mother and father, but not much political support. Indeed, Trump’s strategy appears to have been a political blunder, with the nominee being denounced on many sides.

Regardless of the outcome, the sad spectacle exemplifies a right-wing tradition where players don’t hesitate to smear their opponents, including everyday Americans who happen to stand up to or question the GOP orthodoxy, whether it’s parents like the Khans, or injured schoolboys, caring husbands, gunshot victims, health advocates, or the father of a U.S. prisoner of war. They’re people often suffering from loss or trauma in their own lives. People who deserve to be treated with respect, instead of being battered around politically.

But nobody has been immune from the intimidation tactics.

Here’s a look at previous, disturbing examples of when conservatives adopted Trump’s Khan strategy and unleashed coordinated, and unjustified, personal attacks against vulnerable Americans who stood in the way of GOP messaging.

Michael Schiavo

In early 2005, riding the high of President Bush’s 2004 re-election, Republicans decided to turn the painfully personal saga of Terri Schiavo’s right-to-die case in Florida into a partisan football, which was then punted through news cycles during the month of March. That’s when Republicans began their unprecedented push to intervene legislatively in a state court case that had already been heard by numerous judges.

The problem for the GOP was that Terri’s husband Michael had been fighting and winning in courts for years for the right to end Terri’s life. (Terri’s parents opposed Michael’s effort in court.) So the right-wing media set out to transform Michael Schiavo from loving husband to heartless bad guy.

Then-radio host Glenn Beck reportedly tagged Schiavo as a “murderer” who had fathered two “bastard” children. One conservative Colorado columnist denounced Michael as a “scumbag,” while The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan mocked the husband as a “disaffected” “strange-o.”

This, for a man whose wife had lived in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years.

Graeme Frost

In 2007, President George W. Bush vetoed bipartisan legislation to bolster State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. The bill was set to expand the program to millions of children who didn’t have insurance. After the veto, 12-year old Graeme Frost was chosen to give the Democratic response to Bush’s weekly radio address and used his platform to urge the expansion.  

After he suffered injuries from a car crash, including a days-long coma, Frost needed continued therapy. But his working parents, with a combined income of about $45,000, couldn’t afford private health insurance, especially after Frost’s injuries. (Graeme’s sister was also injured in the crash, and remained in a coma for three weeks.)

Soon after the radio address, an electronic mob descended on the Frost family, and specifically their 12-year-old son. Led by conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, who traveled to Maryland to scope out the Frosts (“I just returned from a visit to Frost’s commercial property near Patterson Park in Baltimore. It’s a modest place.”), the right-wing media mob, joined by Rush Limbaugh, lambasted the family, suggesting they were defrauding the government, or clearly undeserving of help. Malkin even dubbed the boy a "human shield" for Democrats.

Digging online, bloggers discovered Graeme attended private school and used that as proof of a scam. But the boy attended the school on scholarship and the family clearly did deserve government help to care for their ailing children. As Time concluded, “The Frosts are precisely the kind of people that the SCHIP program was intended to help.”

But the right-wing media had no problem attacking the family of a little boy who almost died in a car crash.

Sandra Fluke

When Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress in February 2012 about the need for health insurance companies to provide access to affordable contraception, Rush Limbaugh responded with an unhinged, career-defining, three-day smear campaign. During his bullying meltdown, Limbaugh attacked Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and urged her to post online videos of herself having sex. The talker unfurled 46 Fluke insults that week.

The talker even ridiculed her parents on his nationally syndicated radio show:

Can you imagine if you're her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope.

For Limbaugh, the bizarre, misogynistic campaign targeting the previously unknown law school student marked a turning point in his career, as advertisers by the hundreds announced they refused to be associated with his program. Four years later, his show still has not fully recovered from the advertising exodus.

Trayvon Martin

Who would’ve ever thought that a cable news channel would devote 16 months to victim shaming an unarmed teenager shot to death while walking home at night? But that’s what Fox News did to Trayvon Martin after he was killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, during a late-night encounter in a Sanford, Florida, gated community in 2012. Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law. Following intense public outcry, Zimmerman was charged with murder and found not guilty.

But why did the conservative media feel the need to smear and attack a dead teenager? Unlike Frost and Fluke, Martin hadn’t made any overt political statement against the GOP. And the tragic story of his death certainly didn’t fit any pre-existing narratives about crime or gun violence in America that conservatives embrace. In fact, the storyline was an awkward one for Fox News. As Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab wrote at the time, there was “no good way for gun proponents to spin the death of an unarmed teenager.”

Initially, the conservative media mostly downplayed the story. National Review editor Rich Lowry actually published a blog post headlined “Al Sharpton is right,” agreeing that Zimmerman should have immediately been charged with the killing of Martin.

But when President Obama expressed sympathy for the Martin family and famously said, “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," the conservative media, wallowing in Obama Derangement Syndrome, instantly treated that as some sort of declaration of war; a war on “thug” Trayvon Martin and his reputation.

Robert Bergdahl

When President Obama made the Rose Garden announcement on May 31, 2014, that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was returning home after being held captive for five years by the Taliban, there’s probably no way Bowe’s grateful father Robert could have known he’d instantly become the target of the right-wing media’s wrath. (Conservatives were furious Obama exchanged five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo; Bergdahl is currently facing “charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.”)

In what other instance has the father of a returning prisoner of war been depicted by portions of the press as a possible terrorist sympathizer and mocked on national television as he awaited a reunion with his son?   

Fox’s Brian Kilmeade: Bergdahl’s father looks “like a member of the Taliban."

Bill O’Reilly: He “looks like a Muslim.”

Laura Ingraham: “If he wasn’t so light-skinned, he actually looks like the terrorists.”

All of those attacks were launched in the name of scoring partisan points against Obama for okaying a controversial prisoner/detainee swap and returned home a captured American.