Four Years Later, Do Words Matter Again?

Back in December of 2015, I wrote a piece on what I believed at the time to be a somewhat momentous Fox News exchange between Bill O’Reilly and the late Charles Krauthammer. The discussion took place on The O’Reilly Factor right after a GOP presidential primary debate, and the topic was the performance of Donald Trump (who was the GOP front-runner and already the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination).

Prior to the debate, in a soundbite that got a lot of attention, Trump suggested that he (if elected) would order the U.S. military to kill the families of ISIS terrorists. Such an action, of course, would amount to a war crime, but Trump didn’t really seem to care. By that point in the election, he had already put together a long list of outrageous campaign statements that were unshackled from such qualms as decency, legality, and even reality. And as with the others, he wasn’t going to walk back the statement.

So, on the debate stage that night, when fellow candidate Rand Paul called Trump out for the remark, Trump responded with, “So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”

“I thought that was a pretty good comeback by Trump,” said O’Reilly to Krauthammer, commenting on the Trump/Paul exchange. “What do you think?”

Krauthammer was clearly taken back. “A pretty good comeback by Trump?” he asked. “On the killing of the brothers and the sisters and the children of terrorists?”

O’Reilly qualified his compliment by saying, “It’s designed to get votes. It’s designed to get people emotionally allied with him. That’s what it’s designed to do. You know that.”

It’s important to note that this was a significant departure from O’Reilly’s longstanding “no spin” mantra. The Fox News host, who’d built and maintained his hugely successful media brand on calling out reckless political demagoguery (and shaming those who employed it) suddenly seemed smitten and even impressed with its usage at the highest level of U.S. electoral politics.

O’Reilly explained to Krauthammer that Trump wouldn’t really murder terrorists’ families, and that he’d only said it because, “he wants votes. He’s doing all of this. It’s theater to get votes. That’s what he’s doing.”

“So you’re saying this is a candidate for the presidency of the United States, talking to the American people and the world, saying x, y, and z…and that the words he says are meaningless?” Krauthammer asked.

“He wants to win,” O’Reilly answered matter-of-factly. “And he’s going to say, like almost every other politician… He’s going to say whatever he thinks is going to put him over the top to win…He’s getting people whipped up so that they will like him because their emotion and his emotion coincide…It’s almost a brilliant strategy. It’s almost brilliant, if all you want to do is win. If all you want to do is win, it’s brilliant, because he marginalizes everybody else around him, because he’s so provocative, and tapping into the fear and anger that is pervasive among the Republican adherence. It’s brilliant.”

When Krauthammer directly asked O’Reilly if he “approved” of Trump’s “demagoguery, untethered to the meanings of the words being used,” O’Reilly (who wasn’t exactly known to pass on an opportunity to cast judgement on a political bomb-thrower) stunningly answered, “I can’t really say whether I approve of it or not.”

O’Reilly wasn’t the first Fox News personality to willfully forfeit long preached principles and standards of conduct for Trump (and he certainly wasn’t the last). But he may have been the first prominent conservative-media figure to attempt to mainstream a now widely accepted theme among the political right: Trump should be assessed not by his words, but by his actions.

Just as a lot of evangelicals have given Trump a “mulligan” on his moral indiscretions (as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council once put it), the same has been true, on a larger scale, of his rhetorical ones.

This was an enormous capitulation from a political faction that, in addition to opposing nearly all of President Obama’s policies, loudly (and rightly) denounced Obama’s apology tour, knocks against American exceptionalism, dishonesty on everything from Obamacare to Benghazi, blanket criticisms of American law enforcement, racially provocative presumptions, class-warfare rhetoric, and other culturally detrimental oratory.

Yet, it’s a brand of hypocrisy that the right has willingly accepted in the interest of political expediency. An added benefit is that it has also alleviated the pressure on supporters who’ve felt inclined to try and rationalize every unhinged, offensive, or dishonest sentence that leaves Trump’s mouth (though there are clearly plenty who are still up for that task).

Now, four years later, we find ourselves at the next fork in the road: The 2020 election.

After insisting all this time that their guy’s zany ideas and extreme rhetoric are inconsequential when it comes to leadership, Trump supporters (including many media-conservatives) are now saying that the zany ideas and extreme rhetoric from the Democratic presidential candidates illustrate a catastrophic threat to the very fabric of our nation.

That is the prevailing pro-Trump case to undecided voters after all, isn’t it? Sure, Trump has problems, but are you listening to all of that crazy stuff the Democrats are saying?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am troubled by what I’ve been hearing from the Democratic field. Abortion without restrictions? Abolishing private health insurance? Eliminating border enforcement? Gun confiscation? Voting rights for felons? Free college tuition and student loan forgiveness? Each of these ideas is very scary, whether it be economically, constitutionally, morally, or culturally.

It should be noted that not all of these candidates are running on every one of these positions, but there’s been enough overlap (including among the top tier of the field) that I think we absolutely should be more than a little worried.

I felt the same way when listening to Donald Trump put forth policy ideas in 2015 and 2016.

Some of you may recall that in addition to ordering our soldiers to target and kill terrorists’ children, Trump campaigned on “bombing the s—” out of oil fields in Iraq and Syria and claiming those nations’ oil for America. He also supported re-instituting waterboarding, not as an interrogation method, but as a punitive measure to teach the bad guys a lesson. Other highlights included a mandatory national tracking registry for Muslims living in America, banning all Muslims from entering our country, and potentially closing down American mosques. On healthcare, Trump praised single-payer and ran on universal, government-paid coverage (which is indistinguishable from what several Democratic candidates are currently running on). On illegal immigration, he promised mass deportations — over 11 million people booted out of our country, and the construction of a nearly 2,000 mile-long border wall — a totally free one, paid for by the Mexican government (who Trump claimed had been dumping their rapists on our side of the border).

That was some pretty nutty stuff (none of which was ever going to come to fruition), and it doesn’t even include the much longer list of character, temperament, and competency concerns that all stemmed from Trump’s rhetoric.

But let’s focus purely on policy for now. How should voters digest what the 2020 Democratic candidates are saying? Does any of it matter? Is their wildest rhetoric in any way an accurate preview of the America they could and would leave us with?

Or should we use the standard for political rhetoric that O’Reilly and so many others among the Trump faithful have set…in that it’s all just harmless, emotionally charged, unimplementable bombast brilliantly designed to appeal to a frightened and angry political base?

If it’s the latter, why should we be the slightest bit worried? And why should we be listening to the warnings of those who’d previously claimed that none of this stuff matters? I mean… they’re just words after all. Just a mechanism for stirring up emotions. Right?

Well, personally, I’m not buying it. My tent is still pitched in the “words matter” camp. Because you never know when even a largely dismissed campaign mantra about “trade deficits” or “endless wars” is going to lead to a self-mutilating trade war or the willful betrayal and slaughter of one of our most loyal and helpful Middle Eastern allies.

Megyn Kelly, on John A. Daly’s new novel, Safeguard.