Channeling her inner ISIS, comedian Kathy Griffin appeared in a photo shoot Tuesday carrying the bloody decapitated head of Donald Trump. The conservative internet is apoplectic, but a lot of us on the left aren’t terribly pleased either. Griffin’s beheaded heathen stunt isn’t just grotesque—assassination jokes go over in Washington about as well as Holocaust humor in Tel Aviv—it’s also bad politics.
Griffin took to Twitter to defend/explain herself:
“I caption this ‘there was blood coming out of his eyes, blood coming out of his...wherever.’ OBVIOUSLY, I do not condone ANY violence by my fans or others to anyone, ever! I'm merely mocking the Mocker in Chief.”
An hour later, Griffin published a video with a full-throated mea culpa. “I sincerely apologize… I am sorry, I went way too far. I made a mistake and I was wrong.” Griffin also added that she would ask the photographer to take down the image.
And good for her. While I get the “joke”—Griffin is quoting Trump’s obscene comments during the campaign about former Fox anchor Megyn Kelly—gags about killing the president are never appropriate, and it’s good that Griffin has now acknowledged that. Imagine how Democrats would react if Ann Coulter were photographed swinging the disembodied head of President Obama. And in fact, Democrats were rightly livid when two University of Wisconsin football fans dressed as Obama with a noose around his neck. There was an equal outcry, back in 1994, when Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) joked that President Clinton was so unpopular among soldiers in North Carolina that he’d better bring a bodyguard if he visited the state.
This is not to suggest that the left and right are equal in their embrace of violence as politics through other means. It was the Trump, and not Clinton, campaign that regularly egged its crowds on to manhandle protesters. Trump even promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who “knocked the crap out of them.” And it’s Republicans and not Democrats who routinely call the media “the enemy.” The press is only the latest victim of GOP ire. During the 2000s, Republicans in Congress demonized “activist” judges who, they said, were running roughshod over the Constitution. It was only after some of those judges were murdered, forcing former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to tell the GOP to back off, that the rhetoric cooled–until now. Since Donald Trump added judges to his enemies list early on in the campaign, the threats have begun anew for America’s jurists.
It’s an Ann Coulterization of politics—valuing trollery and shock value above all else. And I’m worried about its spread to the left: not what we are, but what we may become. We’ve seen a creeping intolerance on the left, from the Bernie Bros to the Richard Spencer-punchers. It’s subtle, and not nearly as bad as the right, but it’s there. I’ve worked in national politics for nearly 30 years, and it is difficult to face an enemy for decades and not ultimately become them. Their anger fuels your anger. And the incessant attacks on everything you hold dear can eventually break you. And it’s our job as progressives to be better than that. To be better than them.
But there’s another reason I’m speaking out about Kathy Griffin’s joke: It’s not just bad manners, it’s bad politics. I work in Washington because I care about our country and want to make a difference. Joking about Donald Trump’s violent demise doesn’t help us win any votes in Congress or at the ballot box. All it does is feed a Fox News marketing machine desperate for anything it can find to detract from Donald Trump’s latest himbo eruption. While Trump will still be president for the foreseeable future, his presidency is increasingly on the ropes, particularly as the Russia investigation continues to hit closer and closer to home. Why do anything to detract from that?
There’s an adage in politics: “If your opponent is hanging himself, get out of the way.” Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. He’s not going to grow up and suddenly become more presidential at age 70. One of the few things that can save Donald Trump is Democrats screwing up.
So, to all the Kathy Griffins out there, please just get out of the way.