In a campaign season that’s brought us small hands (wink-wink), neo-Nazi memes from the depths of the internet and Russian hackers, it’s hard to know what should be shocking anymore.
Colorado Democrats (the official ones, not the regular ones) were aghast at comments from Republican Senate candidate Darryl Glenn that seemed to blame President Barack Obama personally for the FBI not stopping Omar Mateen before he killed 49 people and wounded 53 at an Orlando nightclub.
Glenn’s comments were made at a forum on June 22 before he won the Republican primary, but they didn’t reach a broader audience until August when someone gave audio to Huffington Post.
“What we’re finding out is the FBI actually has the tools, training, equipment to do the job, but it sounds like there might be some political things happening where they’re given direction to look a different way. Why don’t we start there?” Glenn said in audio from the June 22 event that was sent to The Huffington Post.
“I think we need to have hearings on this. I think people need to be held accountable,” Glenn said. “I want to know whether or not our FBI personnel were personally directed to look the other way. Don’t you want to know that?” Glenn said. “The president should be held to account for that if he gave direction that limited the FBI.”
Are you shocked? I wasn’t particularly shocked, and the story, while picked up here and there, didn’t have a lot of legs.
Maybe that’s because I read it the same day that Donald Trump was calling Barack Obama the founder of ISIS.
“In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.”
Or maybe it’s because Trump’s own remarks on Obama and Orlando contained a far stronger implication.
“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said in a lengthy interview on Fox News early Monday morning. “And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”
In that same interview, Trump was asked to explain why he called for Obama to resign in light of the shooting and he answered, in part: “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”
You can see the line from Trump’s remarks to Glenn’s, for sure, but “he gets it better than anybody understands” is chilling in a way that “the president should be held to account for that if he gave direction that limited the FBI” is not.
This is exactly the reaction Chris Meagher, a spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, doesn’t want us to have.
“There are consequences for your words. Out-of-touch candidates like Donald Trump and Darryl Glenn cannot be allowed to normalize this outrageous, divisive, and dangerous rhetoric,” he said in a press release drawing attention to the Huffington Post piece.
Meagher is also implementing the overarching strategy of the Democrats this year in downticket races: Tie Republican candidates to Trump at every opportunity.
And in a year when some Republicans consider Trump so unacceptable they have publicly backed Clinton, it’s not unfair. Glenn supports Trump. He’s said so since back in the primaries, even as he attracted the support of prominent members of the #NeverTrump camp, and he introduced Trump when the candidate spoke in Colorado Springs late last month. So if that’s your litmus test, then Glenn is not your guy.
But was Glenn’s rhetoric “outrageous, divisive and dangerous”?
I called a few people who study rhetoric in politics for a living, and the first thing I asked them was if this year is worse than others in American politics.
“I get asked this question quite a lot, and I am surprised at people’s surprise. I’m shocked at people’s shock,” said Jeff Motter, an instructor in communication in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies political rhetoric and who has worked on campaigns. “To think that this is the worst it’s every been is to have no sense of our history. There have been numerous political elections that make this cycle look tame.”
Well, there was that time that Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. (Those darn Second Amendment people.)
And Andrew Jackson believed the abuse she suffered on the campaign trail caused his wife’s premature death before he took office. She was accused of being a bigamist and an adulteress because her divorce was not final when they married. Opponents also said Jackson’s mother was a prostitute and his father a “mulatto.”
Kathleen E. Kendall, a research professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Maryland, has studied rhetoric particularly in presidential primaries. She has her own “worst” elections, like the Republican primary of 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt accused William Howard Taft of “fraud, trickery, and resorting to practices worse than (Boss) Tweed” while Taft’s supporters spread rumors that Roosevelt was an alcoholic and the candidate himself said Roosevelt would become a dictator, “a Louis XIV, who said, ‘I am it. I am the state.'”
Hmmm. That all sounds familiar.
But Kendall thinks 2016 is distinct.
“There have never been discussions of bathroom jokes or sexual organs in any of the debates until this year,” she said.
Both Motter and Kendall pointed to changes in technology, media and how we consume news that change how this rhetoric feels.
Kendall said insulting language gets picked up faster and spreads further, and of course elements of the national media want to report on it and partisan supporters love it.
“There are people who get a thrill out of having their candidate trash their opponent,” she said. “And what type of stories does the press like? They like conflict, and they like what’s new. And every time Trump has a new accusation, that’s new and you need to report it. And you have conflict.”
Kendall thinks this 2015 CNN report about Trump’s experience with professional wrestling tells us a lot about Trump’s rhetorical style, with the macho posturing that can be written off as exaggeration and entertainment by those so inclined.
Motter said people have more ability now to see through lies and spin and get accurate information, but it doesn’t matter to more partisan voters.
“They believe with all of their heart and all of their mind that the other side is bad in some way,” he said. “And I have no doubt that Darryl Glenn believed that Obama was withholding something. What did Colbert say? He thinks with his gut. If you believe something to be true, then it is. What’s different is that we have instant fact-check.
“That’s the thing that’s scary to me. Even when confronted with more accurate information, people won’t back down.”
Do both sides do it?
Of course. But.
Here’s Motter: “To say that both sides do it would be correct historically, but to say that both sides do it equally at the same time would not be correct. … In a particular election cycle, there is one side that does it more than the other.”
Kendall points to Politifact, which ranks far more of Trump’s statements mostly false, false or “pants on fire” than Clinton’s statements.
And when asked to fit Glenn’s Orlando comments on the rhetoric spectrum, both Motter and Kendall wanted to talk about the truth or falseness of his claims.
“Based on what we know now, do we know that Obama interfered with that case?” Kendall asked. “It seems like an extreme charge. What is the proof?”
Motter distinguishes between negative campaigning (personal attacks) and issue-oriented campaigning. When Democrats started accusing Republicans of waging a “War on Women” in 2012 and playing uncomfortable remarks candidates had made about rape and abortion on a loop in attack ads, Republicans said it was negative, but Motter considers that issue-oriented.
Motter (who has worked for Republican candidates) said those were legitimate lines of attack because those candidates really did say those things. And when Glenn questions how Obama has run the FBI, that’s legitimate — if there’s a factual basis to it.
“It wasn’t out of bounds,” Motter said. “What was weird was that he would make that claim without any knowledge.”
(If you want to dig into why the FBI didn’t keep better track of Omar Mateen, I highly recommend this Politico piece about the changing face of terrorism. The unfortunate answer is that yes, we could do more in some cases, but it gets into pre-crime, “Minority Report” territory pretty quickly. Keep in mind Mateen was an American citizen, born and raised.)
What, exactly, did Glenn mean?
We reached out to the Glenn campaign and haven’t heard back.
After the Huffington Post piece came out, Joe St. George from Fox 31 went to the Red State Gathering in Denver, where Glenn was speaking, to ask him about it:
“Were those comments yours and do you stand by that statement?” Glenn was asked.
“If you actually listen to what I said, I don’t think they understood exactly what I was talking about,” Glenn said.
“Do you believe the president directed the FBI not to investigate?” Glenn was asked.
“I have no basis for even making that assessment,” Glenn said.
Glenn was hustled away at that point, with his campaign spokeswoman Katey Price later issuing this statement: “Darryl’s point is that we have a president who refuses to even name our enemy, much less do what it takes to destroy them. His administration has tied the hands of our law enforcement and military with ridiculous rules of engagement that have made America less safe. Sadly, until we radically change our policy, we will see a lot more tragedies like the one in Orlando.”
That’s the reframing, that Glenn wasn’t saying Obama personally stopped the FBI from arresting one individual but that Obama’s approach to terrorism means the FBI didn’t do all it could have.
Motter said Democrats could have addressed the issue Glenn seemed to be raising, rather than focusing on the rhetoric.
“What it came down to is that he thought the U.S. should have been able to arrest him before he did anything,” Motter said. “And then that gets into what type of policing we support. … Are we innocent until we’re proven guilty or are we guilty under suspicion?
“I think that’s a much stronger argument than, ‘He was mean to me.'”
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