How right-wing pundits are deciding who should be killed
John Knefel looks at how MAGA extremists are increasingly open about killing certain people, and spoke with me about how politicians like Ron DeSantis are emboldening them.
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In the wake of the killing of Jordan Neely, the homeless black man who was choked to death in a New York subway car, MAGA extremists online have not only made the killer, Daniel Penny, into a hero; They’ve also promoted vigilantism and violence.
And John Knefel, a writer who covers national security and writes for Media Matters, has been monitoring them, and reports that they’re deciding that certain people should actually be killed and are becoming increasingly open about it.
He joined me on my SiriusXM program to talk about it.
Listen in here. Below is a transcript slightly edited for space and clarity.
Michelangelo Signorile: You did a lot of research, obviously listening to a lot of these people, these pundits who, as you say, they're very upfront about who they think should be killed.
And you point out that while there is seemingly more of it now, it's nothing new. Talk a little bit about some of these pundits, what they've done in the past and how it's kind of built to a head now.
John Knefel: So the viciousness and sort of semi overt calls for violence from right wing media is nothing new. One of the standout historical examples, of course, was when Bill O’Reilly, when he was still at Fox News, went after abortion providers, especially Dr. Tiller.
But what we're seeing right now is really much more comfort with an open embrace with the vigilantism that we saw Daniel Penny enact against Jordan Neely.
But then in addition to that, there's another story that I think hasn't received quite as much attention that makes the point. [In May] Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would expand the death penalty as an available option to people who have been convicted of child sexual assault and child rape. And this new Florida bill was cheered on by many, many figures on the right. And so what I did was, I looked at the way that they were openly embracing this expansion of the death penalty. One of the pundits I looked at at The Daily Wire, Matt Walsh, said, "Just execute them all. This is the first right step. There's a lot more that needs to be done."
So you get that kind of rhetoric around this expansion of the death penalty. And it maps almost exactly alongside all of these right wing figures on Fox and The Wall Street Journal op-ed page and elsewhere who are calling Daniel Penny a hero for committing this homicide against Jordan Neely. And I think that what they both show together is a really, really dangerous escalation of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-Black rhetoric that is really always present in right wing media. But it's taking on an increasingly openly violent, and you could even say sort of murderous, angle to it.
MS: I want to talk about DeSantis and that law that he signed in a little bit, but I want to focus in first on Jordan Neely. Tell us some of the things they were saying, almost rationalizing or legitimizing what Daniel Penny did.
JK: Yeah, it’s really been quite astonishing to see and this kind of rhetoric was there both prior to Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg bringing charges against Penny and afterwards. It's accelerated. So early on you have Heather McDonald who frequently is an apologist for racist policing. She's of the conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute. She was on Laura Ingraham's podcast. Laura Ingraham, of course, is the Fox News prime time host as well. And she said—I’m just going to read a quick quote here because I think it captures the overall tenor —McDonald said, "For these activists now to be playing the race card here is preposterous. The government is unwilling to protect its citizens. You are going to have a certain degree of vigilante justice, as far as I'm concerned. And from what we know, this guy is an urban hero."
And that is the kind of rhetoric that we saw on Fox News as well. A contributor named Leo Terrell said that the Marine is a hero. You have people like Charlie Kirk, who is the founder of Turning Point USA, which is this sort of youth outreach group, who called Penny a hero. And the list really just goes on and on.
The Wall Street Journal op ed page, after charges were brought, published a piece called “Free Daniel Penny” by William McGurn. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board wrote a separate piece referring to Penny as one of the good Samaritans, echoing DeSantis’ own tweet about Penny. And so it's essentially ubiquitous in right wing media right now that not only was Penny sort of like forced into what he was doing but that there is a full on endorsement of his actions.
You're not seeing very much hedging of it, like, "Well this is a tragedy', or "Any loss of life is tragic." You're seeing, "We need more people to do exactly this kind of thing." And that, I think, is different than what we have seen in the recent past. And I think it's very alarming.
MS: Right, Because, as we've explored it and as has been reported in much of the media. Jordan Neely was loud. He suffered from mental illness. He was abrasive. He was saying a lot of things that obviously might have unnerved people. But he never raised a hand to anyone, from what any witness said, and never threatened any one person directly.
And Daniel Penny went up from behind him and took him down. And the fact that he died. The fact that he was killed—these people find that it's totally legitimate, that you don't need any due process. You shouldn't even have a trial to look at it. It's really quite alarming.
JK: Yeah, absolutely. And what you're seeing from some corners of the right is not only a defense of Penny, but actually celebrating the fact that Neely is dead. And just to give you one example, again, to cite Matt Walsh here, Walsh responded to Neely's death by calling him and I'm quoting here "a terrible person." And Walsh continued, "The community is better off without him. Everyone is safer without him."
This is an affirmation, an endorsement of a white ex-Marine killing a Black person and saying that society is better because of this act. And I think that opening the door to that kind of response is just incredibly dangerous.
And I think that one of the things that Matt Walsh has really been doing in the right wing media for the last year and a half or so is he's been leading the charge against LGBTQ people and has really defined a lot of that. And so hearing him say things like the community is better off without Neely I think may be a kind of preview of the kinds of things that we will hear more and more from other conservative pundits.
MS: And then DeSantis, with that bill that he signed, which, like some of the other bills he signed, is unconstitutional, according to legal scholars. But he admitted he wants to bring that back up to the Supreme Court—having the death penalty for sex offenders. And as you point out, several of these pundits, Alex Jones, Steven Crowder, Matt Walsh, Michael Knowles, they really glommed onto it. And my first thought when he signed that was how he spent the last two years demonizing LGBTQ people as pedophiles, as groomers. And so has Matt Walsh and the rest of them. And then you come to now—here's what should be done to these people. It's basically promoting open season on LGBTQ people.
JK: Absolutely. There's the long history of conservatives saying gay people are a threat to children that dates back decades but the more recent history, really in the last couple of years, is they have escalated so much, where you've seen openly fascist gangs disrupt pride events, threaten drag performers.
And DeSantis has been absolutely leading that charge from his seat in Florida. I think you're right in terms of signaling to the broader public that not only will the state attempt to carry out this violence, but as we've just been talking about, any vigilantes or fascist groups who, you know, take the law into their own hands, are also almost certainly going to be welcomed by the conservative movement. And so I think that's another absolutely crucial aspect to keep in mind.
MS: You point out, Alex Jones said to Steven Crowder: hang them in the public square as a deterrent because these damn predators are everywhere.
JK: Yeah. What you're seeing already from Jones is threat inflation. "These predators are everywhere.” Certainly wanting to kind of make a spectacle of this and targeting demonized populations.
It never stops with that. They always go after the most hated and maligned parts of the society first. And I think that's what also is important to remember here is that what DeSantis is doing runs absolutely contrary to what advocates who actually work in the best interest of of sexual abuse survivors want. You know this will make it much worse for children. It will make it much more likely that children wouldn't want to come forward. We know that the vast majority of sexual abuse happens either within the family or the friend of the family or somebody who's known to the family in the community. And it's already incredibly difficult for survivors to come forward. And the idea that somebody that their family knows could be potentially put to death because of them coming forward--it's completely contrary to what you would want to do if you were actually addressing the mental health of the children and of society at large.
It's purely about vengeance. And so I think that kind of gives up the whole game here.
MS: And the way they discuss it — you rape a child, you deserve to forfeit your right to life. Nothing about due process, the fact that there are often charges that aren't true and there are, you know, mistakes made and misidentifications. And we've certainly seen that with regard to rape and DNA evidence that comes back and shows that people have been completely innocent and put in prison.
JK: Right. The entire premise of the the DeSantis bill and of the right wing media response to it, I think is completely flawed and is based on an understanding of abuse of children that is essentially adjacent to the kind of QAnon conspiracy, the way that the right wing media has defended this is that there's a kind of external evil that is out there that can be found and punished in this spectacular way as a deterrent. And that is that a cabal of child traffickers can be killed. And then that eliminates the problem.
And, that is a completely incorrect assessment of what actual child abuse is. It's this bizarre QAnon adjacent almost fantasy that externalizes the problem, that blames it on some liberal elites or something as opposed to understanding the actual dynamics here.