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Smearing Parkland Students Is a Symptom of the Right’s Ideological Exhaustion

Lacking strong arguments, conservatives have taken to labeling students as bullies and liars.

Larry French / Getty Images

There’s no better proof of the impact of gun-control activism than the unrestrained vitriol directed against the students from Stoneman Douglas High School, who are now the most vocal public voices in the debate. Less than two weeks after the mass shooting in February, Charles C.W. Cooke published an article with the unfortunate title “David Hogg Is Fair Game for Critics.” Cooke made the reasonable argument that Hogg, one of the most prominent student survivors, was now a public figure voicing controversial opinions, so political opponents shouldn’t shy away from making sharp, if respectful, rebuttals. 

Cooke’s argument, on its own terms, is perfectly reasonable. The problem is that much of the response on the right has included nasty and mendacious personal attacks on the students, not rational arguments about the wisdom of gun control. The dominance of personal attacks suggests that on the issue of guns, the right is facing a genuine conundrum: The students combine unimpeachable personal testimony (their experience surviving the shooting) with specific gun-control policies that are popular with the vast majority of Americans

Lacking any persuasive political arguments, the right has decided to smear the students. What’s notable is that this effort extends to many different factions of conservatism, from hard-core Trumpists to supposedly more moderate Never Trump conservatives. As ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum notes:

Breitbart highlighted videos purportedly showing Hogg making a Nazi salute.  Representative Steve King attacked another student activist, Emma González, for both wearing a Cuban patch flag and for not knowing Spanish. There’s been a raft of other conspiracy theories floating around right-wing social media, ranging from the students being crisis actors to González ripping up a copy of the Constitution. 

Disturbingly, these conspiracy theories have popped up not just in sites like Gateway Pundit and Infowars (which is infamous for claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation) but on more respectable sites, too. On Tuesday, Erick Erickson, who often presents himself as a reasonable Never Trump Republican interested in finding common ground, touted an article on his website, RedState, that claimed that Hogg wasn’t even at the school during the shooting. Erickson assured his readers that this “isn’t a fake news Gateway Pundit story.” But in fact, although not a deliberate deception, the story was completely bogus. It was based on the reporter not understanding that a video showing Hogg talking about going back to the school was shot long after the gun violence ended. The reporter Sarah Rumpf gracefully recanted the story

What’s disturbing about the RedState story is not that the website made a mistake but that it was so quick to try and discredit Hogg (who they never tried to contact before the story went up). Instead of keeping to an argument about gun control, the first instinct was to paint Hogg as a liar. As Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post notes, “What we’re seeing here is a spreading stain, in which conspiracy mongering from the likes of Infowars and, yes, Gateway Pundit is adopted by some elements of the formerly mainstream right and peddled to a receptive audience softened up for decades by Fox News.”

One of the favorite smear tactics is to label the Parkland students as “bullies.” In February, Erickson blogged, “David Hogg Is a High School Bully.” This is a charge echoed by the popular Never Trump Twitter account Reagan Battalion and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg (who accused Hogg of “emotional bullying”).

One problem with this accusation is that magazines like National Review have, on other occasions, celebrated “bullying” as a necessary tool for building character.

But a deeper problem is that when dealing with survivors of school shootings, bringing up bullying plays into the popular myth that school shooters are produced by bullying. In effect, it blames the survivors for causing the massacre. Breitbart reporter Charles Nash spelled out the implicit logic of this argument:

The Parkland students are already being made to feel tremendous and unjustified guilt over alleged bullying of the shooter. Whether by design or by accident, the constant refrain on the right about “bullying” plays to that false narrative.

But who are the real bullies? On Wednesday morning, Laura Ingraham mocked David Hogg for being rejected by four colleges:

The only reason Ingraham tweeted this is because she objects to Hogg’s politics. It should be clear who the actual bullies are: not the students but the powerful right-wing pundits who, bereft of any solid arguments, have decided to launch personal attacks on students who survived one of the worst school shootings in American history.