Right-wing media figures are celebrating both Florida’s expansion of the death penalty for people who have sexually assaulted children as well as the extrajudicial homicide of Jordan Neely, a Black homeless man killed by a white former Marine on the New York City subway on May 1. The two stories illustrate a growing trend in right-wing media to argue that the deaths of marginalized and criminalized populations are not only justified but actually desirable, whether those killings are carried out by the state or by vigilantes.
Bloodlust is nothing new in right-wing media. From the proto-fascist Father Charles Coughlin through Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, conservative pundits and writers frequently fantasize about violence aimed at their political opponents or marginalized people. In 1989, Donald Trump, who was a media personality for decades before entering politics, called for the execution of the wrongly convicted Central Park Five, a group of Black and Latino teenagers railroaded into false confessions by the New York Police Department. The conservative ecosystem made a celebrity of Kyle Rittenhouse — who killed two people and injured a third during an August 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin — and tried to justify the killings of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and Eric Garner.
Building on this history of right-wing calls for state-sanctioned and extrajudicial violence, there now appears to be an increasing frequency of calls from conservative media for their enemies to be put to death. Much of this new intensity has been driven by the two leading hopefuls in the Republican presidential primary, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Trump has called for expanding the death penalty to include people convicted of selling illicit drugs to someone who later overdoses, an idea he has bandied about for years. He also engaged in a “killing spree” in his final months in office, carrying out 13 federal executions in six months, according to recent reporting from Rolling Stone — “more federal executions than in the previous 10 administrations combined.”
But DeSantis has recently captured the right-wing media’s attention with a bill he signed earlier this month that would make convicted child rapists eligible for the death penalty. The new law violates Supreme Court precedent set in Kennedy v. Louisiana, a 5-4 decision in 2008 that found that the death penalty can’t be applied in the case of the rape of a child that didn’t result in murder. Legal challenges to the new Florida law are widely expected.
Conservative media figures cheered on DeSantis’ signing of the bill, often in language mirroring anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that is now ubiquitous on the right. Over the last year, right-wing media have revived a longstanding myth that LGBTQ people are dangers to children, frequently referring to them as “groomers” or pedophiles and endorsing violence targeting their events and communities. Conservative commentators have adopted eliminationist rhetoric toward trans people, openly calling for them to be expelled from public life entirely.
Matt Walsh: “Just execute them all”
It’s in this context that the right-wing media response to DeSantis’ bill needs to be understood, as typified by the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh.
“On the merits of this legislation, it's clearly the right thing,” Walsh began on his May 2 show. “The idea that you can only have — we can only impose capital punishment on someone who kills another person, it's completely arbitrary. There's no, nowhere is that written in the heavens. Certainly the opposite. I mean, if we want to talk about biblical precedent, then that's not biblical precedent.”
Walsh then indulged in an extended thought experiment about having to choose between which types of convicted criminals should be executed, happily concluding that the state doesn’t in fact need to make that choice and should be killing many more people.
“If we have this weird rule that we've imposed on ourselves that we can only execute one, either murderers or child rapist, like if we had to choose between those two categories of people to execute, then I would say, well, if we don't do one, then I'd probably murder the — I'd probably execute, rather — execute legally the child rapist,” Walsh said. “But in fact, we don't have to choose. You know, that's the wonderful thing.”
“We don't have to make choices. We can execute all of them,” he continued. “We should be able to, anyway. Execute all the worst people, all of the worst criminals. Just execute them all. And this is the right first step. There's a lot more that needs to be done. I mean, this is actual criminal justice reform.”
Walsh further justified his desire to drastically ramp up executions on the grounds that the people he wants killed are drains on society, and he argued that their sentences should be carried out with no appeals process.
“Because the other thing about these worst, you know, the worst of the worst, the people that commit heinous, the most heinous sorts of crimes like child rape — well, they are so evil and so monstrous that even the other criminals in prison don't want to be around them,” Walsh argued. “Which means that we don't put them in the general population. So then they are in protective custody. So we're spending more money, society is spending more money just to keep these absolute lowest-of-the-low dirtbags alive.”
“I would say that along with everything else, it is an unjust and undue burden on society. You know, as a taxpayer, I should not be required to keep child rapists alive just because we're too squeamish to execute them as we should,” he continued. “And if we're really starting to understand that society — if we're really starting to reform the system, you know, then we're going to start talking about not only are we executing these people, but we're doing it quickly. We're not giving them 30 years to appeal, OK? The conviction is passed down, you're convicted, you're guilty, you've been found guilty, and then the execution is carried out the next day — how about, carried out at dawn following the conviction.”
Walsh recently argued that the punishment for a false rape accusation should be life in prison, and also implied that he’d be in favor of the death penalty for convicted rapists and those he refers to as “false accusers.”
“I think that actually guilty and convicted rapists should go to prison for life,” Walsh said on his May 9 show. “I'd be in favor of life sentences, at a minimum, for actual rapists. And I would be in favor of life sentences for those who falsely accuse someone of rape because to falsely accuse someone of rape is just as bad as being a rapist. There is no moral distinction between the two.”
Michael Knowles: “I think it’s quite natural, biblical”
Also on May 2, Walsh’s Daily Wire colleague Michael Knowles addressed DeSantis’ bill, supporting it “in principle” but not “in practice.”
“Ron DeSantis says we’re challenging that now if you rape a child, pretty much the most heinous crime you can imagine, you get the death penalty. I totally agree with that in principle,” Knowles said. “I see no problem with that in principle. I see no problem with the death penalty in principle. In fact, I think it's quite natural, biblical.”
Knowles later clarified that the law could create unintended consequences, which gave him pause.
“I don't actually agree with this particular instantiation of the death penalty in practice,” he said. “In principle, I do. But in practice, the only reason I don't is that as a matter of prudence, if you don't kill child rapists, if you, if the punishment is not execution, then it creates some incentive for the rapist not to murder his victim. So if there's any way that through the law, we can incentivize a rapist not to murder his victim, I think that's probably wise and prudent. In principle, they deserve death, certainly.”
After attempting to thread that needle, Knowles made it clear that the way this policy cashed out would be beneficial for DeSantis in a potential 2024 presidential run.
“Broadly speaking, ‘execute pedos’ is a very popular campaign slogan,” he concluded.
Alex Jones to Steven Crowder: “Hang them in the public square” as a deterrent because “these damn predators are everywhere”
Walsh and Knowles are hardly alone in his violent impulses. On the same day the two Daily Wire personalities delivered their blood-soaked monologues, Steven Crowder hosted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his Rumble show and the two also discussed the new Florida law with nearly identical rhetoric.
“I think this is good news to celebrate, right, some actual good news here,” Crowder said to introduce the segment. “Monday, Ron DeSantis — this is really good news — signed a bill that’s going to allow the death penalty for child rapists.”
Crowder played a clip of DeSantis celebrating the bill’s passage and then returned to continue his discussion with Jones.
“First off, you rape a child, you deserve to — you forfeit your right to live,” Crowder said. “You deserve to die actually, not forfeit your right to live. You play the knockout game, you forfeit your right to live because someone has the right to defend themselves. You rape a child, in my opinion, you deserve to die.”
Jones responded, making typically unhinged remarks about supposedly lax liberal state law.
“I think this is good also because it goes against laws in California that they're trying to pass — they passed one where you can have sex with a 12-year-old, you can give people HIV and it's not a felony,” Jones said. “I mean, they're trying to normalize this, the U.N. is trying to normalize this. That's a very strong message we're not going to allow this.” (In 2017, California reduced penalties related to the transmission of HIV, in accordance with public health best practices; it is not legal in the state for an adult to have sex with a 12-year-old.)
“I think if you're caught with evidence that you did it and it's irrefutable, there should be a high burden of proof, but if it's proven I say we take those people out after they've been given their jury trial, we hang them in the public square and let all the other pedophiles know you do this, you're dead,” Jones added.
“Yep,” Crowder replied.
“These damn predators are everywhere,” Jones continued.
“No, you're absolutely right,” Crowder agreed. “I don't think there's any greater evil. And by the way, all societies have recognized that since the beginning of time.”
The two ended the segment by distilling their argument: “Just to be really clear though, to go back and end on the point — someone who rapes someone 12 years old or younger, hang them in the town square?” Crowder said.
“Yes,” Jones responded. “If an adult rapes a child and there’s proof, we kill them.”
Right-wing media agree that the ex-Marine who killed Jordan Neely is a “hero”
In calling for the public execution of people convicted of sexual battery of a child, Crowder’s initial phrasing was nearly identical to the way he characterized the killing of Jordan Neely, an unhoused Black man, by Daniel Penny, a white Marine veteran, on the New York City subway on May 1.
“You start going crazy in a subway car and attack people for the umpteenth time — we don't know if he was attacking there, but we know that people felt attacked, and we do know that he attacked people before in the sub — you do forfeit your right to live,” Crowder said. “The second that you are engaging in an activity where someone else is forced to make a decision to save their life or a life of their loved one — completely, by the way, not of their own volition; you've put them in that scenario — you forfeit your right to live.”
Right-wing commentators almost universally praised Penny’s actions, and several went even further than Crowder, referring to him as a hero.
Racist-policing apologist Heather Mac Donald of conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute was typically effusive in her praise of Penny, who she suggested was justified in carrying out the role of law enforcement.
“For these activists now to be playing the race card here is preposterous, but if the government is unwilling to protect its citizens, you are going to have a certain degree of vigilante justice,” Mac Donald said on the podcast of Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. “And this guy, as far as I'm concerned, from what we know now, is an urban hero.”
“And if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg brings some sort of criminal charge against him, there should be a public uprising, because the reason he was there is because Alvin Bragg refuses to enforce the law against turnstile jumping.”
Fox & Friends co-host Rachel Campos-Duffy made the same argument.
“I think it’s really important as a culture, we need to send very clear messages about how we, what we feel about heroes who step in and protect people in need,” she said. “Now imagine being in that car. You know, we raise our boys to step in and protect those who are vulnerable. But when moms see this, see someone now facing prison time for trying to protect those who are weaker, it makes us wonder: Do we want our kids to be the guy that steps in and protects people or do we want our men in our culture to be the guys who just film crimes on their cell phones?”
Later on the show, Fox News contributor Leo Terrell echoed Campos-Duffy.
“Jordan was a erratic person who had a history of erratic behavior, but you also have other individuals restraining this individual,” Terrell said. “There is no intent and that Marine is a hero. A hero.”
The list goes on. Both Walsh and Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, called Penny a “hero.” So did rape apologist Mike Cernovich and Scott Adams, the openly racist creator of the comic strip Dilbert. Federalist contributor Peachy Keenan (a pseudonym) referred to Penny as an example of “the bravest and most selfless heroes.” PragerU founder Dennis Prager read approvingly from a tweet by cryptofascist online personality Aimee Terese calling Penny a “hero” as well.
“That’s correct,” Prager said. “They don’t want that ethos to catch on. They want a nation of cowards.”
The accolades continued and even escalated after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Penny with second-degree manslaughter, including from the faux high-brow organs of conservative commentary. Echoing a tweet from Gov. DeSantis, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board referred to Penny as one of the “good samaritans,” and worried that “the charges against him will surely deter other potential samaritans from intervening to subdue a seemingly dangerous person or even to stop a robbery or assault.”
At The New York Times, conservative Trump critic David French posed a related counterfactual designed to exonerate, or at least excuse, Penny. “What if Penny had done nothing? Would everyone — including Neely — have emerged from that subway car unscathed?” French wrote. “We can’t know for certain, and that lack of certainty creates the conditions for violence.”
Fox News’ on-air talent uniformly praised Penny. Ingraham responded to the charges by calling Penny a “hero,” and saying he “deserves our thanks.” The Five’s Greg Gutfeld called Bragg’s decision “pro-criminal, anti-hero.” A day later on the same program, Fox News’ Will Cain said “this was not just reasonable behavior by Daniel Penny, but potentially heroic behavior by Daniel Penny. Our society, to be absolutely clear, needs more Daniel Pennys.” On America’s Newsroom, Fox’s Geraldo Rivera predicted Neely’s death would be ruled a “justifiable homicide,” implicitly endorsing that conclusion.
Others in right-wing media joined in as well. YouTube streamer Tim Pool tweeted that he donated $20,000 to a fundraiser supporting Penny, referring to him as the “Subway Good Samaritan.”
Walsh openly celebrated Neely’s death, calling the victim “a terrible person.”
“The community is better off without him — like, everyone is safer without him” Walsh said. “This community, pretending to mourn — you are better off without this guy. You’re all safer because he’s gone.”
This list is illustrative of the conservative media response, and their collective, reflexive justification and celebration of a white person killing a person of color extends far beyond Neely’s death.
Conservatives defend, justify extrajudicial killings not officially sanctioned by the state
Recent examples abound. In April, Carlson and Rittenhouse urged Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to pardon Daniel Perry, who was convicted that month and sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing a Black Lives Matter protester in 2020. Other Fox News stars soon got on board, and Abbott has now promised to pardon him.
In Arizona, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, currently running for Senate, has on at least two recent occasions defended a white person killing someone who isn’t white on the grounds that the shooter was simply exercising their property rights.
On April 21, Lamb attempted to justify Andrew Lester’s shooting of Ralph Yarl, a Black 16-year-old, in an appearance on a white nationalist show. Lester, who is white, “was trying to protect his property, stand his ground,” Lamb said. “You know, he felt that his life was in danger. He took some action and now he's being persecuted.”
Lamb made an almost identical argument to excuse Arizona rancher George Alan Kelly’s lethal shooting of a migrant who he believed was trespassing. Speaking on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast in February, Lamb said the episode looked like “self-defense,” adding, “We have the ability to protect our properties.”
“What right do they have to protect their property?” Lamb continued. “If he feared for his life, and the life of his wife, or the life of somebody else, or feared serious physical injury, then that certainly falls within the justification of using deadly force, whether they’re armed or not.”
Lamb then claimed that “criminals are not being held accountable,” but “then a good citizen does something like this to protect his property and he’s held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.” He then described Kelly as “this poor old guy” and someone who “seems like a very nice guy.”
From Mississippi burning to the police killing of Tyre Nichols
The above examples don’t even touch on right-wing media apologia for police violence, which is reflexive and ubiquitous. Conservative pundits responded to video of Memphis police beating to death Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, by pushing for more police power and autonomy and blaming Nichols for his death. Mac Donald, the Manhattan Institute police propagandist, argued without evidence that Nichols could’ve been on drugs, as though that would have justified his killing.
Taken together, all of these examples underscore a point The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer made in 2018: “The cruelty is the point.” The reactionary desire to enact vengeance winds throughout U.S. history, braiding state and extrajudicial violence together, linking the first and second formations of the Ku Klux Klan to white citizens councils to Jim Crow to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential announcement at the site of the 1964 killing of three civil rights activists.
The viciousness that right-wing media are expressing now isn’t new, but their growing comfort with openly cheering for the deaths of their political opponents and marginalized people is an alarming trend. When conservative media figures proclaim their desire to “just execute them all,” we should take it very seriously.