In the immediate aftermath of the Florida school shooting earlier this month that claimed the lives of 17 innocent teenagers, I was struck with two very grim premonitions. First, that the NRA social media manager would take a nice long six-day weekend (sure enough, they stopped tweeting on February 14, the day of the shooting, and didn’t post until February 20), and second, that the conservative media machine would soon mobilize to do what even a few years ago seemed fairly unthinkable: outright attack the underaged survivors of the brutal massacre. To my disappointment (but not my surprise), that second one has also come Extremely True. It’s not that I’m Nostradamus or any shit like that, it's just that the conservative script for these things has become just that depressingly predictable.
Way back in 2012 when the Sandy Hook shootings happened, everything felt strangely similar yet very different. Having a president capable of demonstrating even a basic level of empathy went a long way, but outside of Alex Jones (who was a vastly more fringe character back then) and some anonymous online morons, there wasn’t much of an effort to malign the survivors of the shooting or their families. To be honest, after a year of the 2016 campaign and another year of the Trump presidency, that low-ass bar feels like some Andy Griffith–style nostalgia.
As has been covered on many occasions by writers more journalistically inclined than I, there is now a pretty well-trodden path from the online fringes of the far right directly to the cable news network our demented big boy in chief spends 60 percent of his waking hours watching. Hell, if the conspiracy theory about an antifa rebellion can make it to Fox & Friends, who’s to say what won’t break through? What starts as trolling and genuine dumbass credulity in the darkest corners of the web all too often makes this journey to the mainstream, and watching this occur in the weeks following the Parkland shooting has ended up being a pretty great, and terrible, case study.
While the first to jump on any “crisis actor/false flag/soros plants” sort of theory always ends up being a MAGA mondo-weirdo on Twitter, they are usually joined by fringe right-wing sites like realpatriotnewseagle2016.info or some URL like that. From there these theories make the leap to the right wing’s most beloved blue checkmark accounts, who lend them just enough air of legitimacy to be discussed by real people.
Last Friday, actor James Woods—who once sued an anonymous Twitter user for calling him a cocaine addict, and continued the suit after the user died—tweeted out a photo of teen activist and Parkland survivor David Hogg, comparing his anti–gun violence armband to that of the Nazi SS, and suggesting he don a brownshirt and jackboots to complete the look. Putting aside for a second that this is a child—one who saw 17 people gunned down mere weeks ago—the comparison is absurd on its face. But since nothing matters anymore and tribalism is our new law, the post did bigass numbers in the form of 14,000 retweets. And though Woods seems fringey, he's followed by lots of people, including Donald Trump, Jr.
Woods’s post is far from an aberration. Former CPAC keynote speaker and convicted campaign finance fraudster Dinesh D’Souza celebrated the failure of a Florida gun control bill with taunts like, “Adults 1, kids 0.” Last week, a Republican candidate for the Maine House of Representatives named Leslie Gibson said of Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez, “There's nothing about this skinhead lesbian that impresses me and there is nothing to say unless you're frothing at the mouth moonbat.” The right-wing cartoonist Ben Garrison published a cartoon that smeared Hogg as a ventriloquist’s dummy controlled by CNN, which was in turn controlled by the “Deep State.”
This is what the conservative media machine is built to do, so much so that I doubt anyone could really stop it at this point even if they wanted to. A political alliance that is built solely around “triggering the libs” and vicious (usually fact-free) attacks on political opponents is really only capable of a single play in the playbook. Engaging on a factual level about the roots of gun violence in America is a losing game for conservatives, so the only course of action is to vacillate between pompous rhetoric about the Second Amendment and slandering anyone who might disagree. Fox News hosts in the days since have brought on such mainstream conservatives as Ben Shapiro (who was a televised commentator and pro-virginity activist at the age of 17) to claim that these kids are being manipulated by the DNC. This is the GOP now.
I am by no means saying that because the Parkland teens are minors they are beyond reproach. If conservatives and gun lovers want to engage in a debate with these kids, I fully support that—but engage with them on the issues, the facts. Instead, the dominant trend online and even on TV is to impugn these survivors’ credibility—to say they are Soros puppets, doing it for their 15 minutes of fame, doin' it for the Vine, or whatever else. Discussing common sense ways to lower gun violence across groups that all (hopefully) abhor is one thing, calling a group of children dykes or Nazis or agents of the Deep State is uh, entirely another.
While Trump is primarily a symptom of the GOP rot rather than its cause, his ascension to power has undoubtedly accelerated this decline. He is after all the man most responsible for the birther movement, a thoroughly baseless and vitriolic campaign against a black president he hated with a passion. Vitriol against his enemies in the face of facts is his MO: In 1989, he took out newspaper ads calling for the deaths of the “Central Park Five,” a group of black and Latino teens who were later convicted of rape—then, during the 2016 campaign, he insisted they were guilty even though they had by then been exonerated by DNA evidence and released.
This kind of mindset is mirrored in the Republican Party and its supporters today. Show them statistics about how gun control ended mass shootings in other countries. They will say it didn’t. Nothing matters.
So where do we go from here? Will there be a breaking point where conservatives finally say that they have gone too far? What would that even look like, if not the young survivors of a mass shooting? To be honest I have no earthly clue, and I am not particularly hopeful that it will get better any time soon. Conservatives, who constantly are crying to allow the free marketplace of ideas to win out, are unwilling or unable to simply allow these kids to voice their own beliefs. They also seem genuinely convinced that no sane person, even one who just lost 17 friends to gun violence, would ever be pro-gun control. Or maybe they’re full of shit. Who knows. But if we ever emerge from this collective fugue state we have found ourselves in, I hope we never let these assclowns forget what they said about these kids.
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