When I think of former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a prominent surrogate for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, I tend to think of the trip he took a month after the election. The Georgia Republican went to Moscow and signaled to business leaders that the incoming Trump administration may be prepared to lift economic sanctions against Russia.
Now, however, Kingston may be known for something else: he’s the guy who’s criticizing the teenaged survivors of the Parkland mass-shooting, suggesting they may be puppets of nefarious liberal forces. He made the argument on CNN yesterday morning – he’s an official political commentator on the network – and repeated it again last night.
As the New York Times reported, Kingston is not alone.
[I]n certain right-wing corners of the web — and, increasingly, from more mainstream voices like Rush Limbaugh and a commentator on CNN — the students are being portrayed not as grief-ridden survivors but as pawns and conspiracists intent on exploiting a tragedy to undermine the nation’s laws.
In these baseless accounts, which by Tuesday had spread rapidly on social media, the students are described as “crisis actors,” who travel to the sites of shootings to instigate fury against guns. Or they are called F.B.I. plants, defending the bureau for its failure to catch the shooter. They have been portrayed as puppets being coached and manipulated by the Democratic Party, gun control activists, the so-called antifa movement and the left-wing billionaire George Soros.
The theories are far-fetched. But they are finding a broad and prominent audience online. On Tuesday, the president’s son Donald J. Trump Jr. liked a pair of tweets that accused David Hogg, a 17-year-old who is among the most outspoken of the Parkland students, of criticizing the Trump administration in an effort to protect his father, whom Mr. Hogg has described as a retired F.B.I. agent.
The right-wing pushback against these kids has been fierce, but just as importantly, it’s been widespread.
If the attacks were limited to fringe, crackpot websites, they might be easier to overlook, but prominent figures in conservative media have gone on the offensive, criticizing the kids with lies and conspiracy theories, and the nonsense is spreading.
In one instance yesterday, as Florida’s Republican-run state House was preparing to vote on a measure to ban assault weapons, a GOP aide told a local reporter that some of the high-school students lobbying for new gun restrictions are secretly actors who travel from city to city, trying to exploit tragedies.
The aide was soon after fired, but the garbage talking points are part of a larger effort to discredit the young people trying to make a difference – all while sending a signal to others that if they stand up, the right may very well target them, too.
Doug Heye, a former House Republican leadership aide, said on Twitter this week, “Questioning the motivations of Parkland students/bizarre conspiracy theories should be beyond the pale. I may disagree with some of their policy goals, but the motivation of these incredibly well-spoken, poised kids is clear: their friends were shot.”
The fact that so many other conservatives can’t adopt this sensible posture is a reminder of the kind of toxic indecency that exists among far-right extremists. If there’s anyone in the country right now who deserves some sympathy, it’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Perhaps, instead of attacking them, Republicans should consider hearing them out?