In July 2015, candidate Donald Trump told an audience at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa that John McCain “is not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump and McCain, who died last August, had carried on a yearslong feud, which the President — usually inexplicably — revives periodically. Last weekend he tweeted derisively about the late senator. And on Tuesday Trump declared, by way of explanation: “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be.”
One day later the President continued his diatribe against the late senator, who served as a naval aviator in Vietnam and was tortured during his five years as a prisoner of war. Trump said: “I endorsed him at his request, and I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which as President I had to approve. I don’t care about this. I didn’t get thank you. That’s OK. We sent him on the way. But I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”
Shortly after these reprehensible comments, McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, received this disgusting tweet from a stranger, which she shared widely: “Your husband was a traitorous piece of warmongering s— and I’m glad he is dead. Hope your Mrs. Piggy looking daughter chokes to death on the next burger she stuffs down her fat neck, too, c—”
It’s time to stop dismissing these kinds of incidents as coincidence — or merely nonsense to be ignored, and not amplified.
As a scholar of political communication who has studied messaging for over 40 years, I believe we too often normalize what Trump says, failing to take seriously the potential impact of his language and its potentially dangerous behavioral consequences.
While it may be impossible to prove that Trump is the direct cause of the tweet received by Cindy McCain about her husband — or others directed at their daughter Meghan McCain — how can we ignore the fact that the President’s discourse empowers and emboldens despicable people like this to come out of the shadows?