The media have been desperately searching for an alternative narrative to cover rather than focusing in on Hillary Clinton’s lies about her ailing health. On Monday, through a bout of sheer stupidity combined with willful media manipulation, they got it.
On Monday, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer sandbagged Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence with a question about David Duke. After months of controversy surrounding the Trump campaign’s associations with the alt-right, Pence should have been able to handle the exchange in his sleep. Instead, he handled it awkwardly and foolishly.
Blitzer began by noting that Clinton had talked about the so-called “basket of deplorables” she said constituted half of Trump’s support, then name-dropped former KKK leader David Duke. Pence responded, “I’m not really sure why the media keeps dropping David Duke’s name. Donald Trump has denounced David Duke repeatedly, we don’t want his support and we don’t want the support of people who think like him.”
This is the correct answer. Unfortunately, there was a follow-up. Blitzer, insisting on legitimating Clinton’s “deplorables” language, asked, “You would call him a ‘deplorable’?”
And Pence promptly fumbled the football: “No, I’m not in the name-calling business, Wolf. You know me better than that. What Hillary Clinton did Friday night is shocking.”
Hillary jumped on the remark: “If you won't say the KKK is deplorable,” she tweeted, “you have no business running the country.” No word on whether you have business running the country if you’re a seemingly half-dead advocate for the abortion mill/baby body part-selling Planned Parenthood and the cruelly counterproductive and racist Black Lives Matter movement.
Pence responded again later on Bret Baier’s show on Fox News, explaining, “Donald Trump and I have repeatedly denounced David Duke… And yet the media continues to scamper after this,” he said. “And the question that I got on another network was ‘Do you call him deplorable?’ But I get it, they wanted me to start using terms that Hillary uses. You’ve known me a long time, I’m not a name caller, I don’t play that game. But we have denounced David Duke repeatedly, we’ll continue to do that again.”
A couple of points here. First, Blitzer’s question is clearly a set-up – and a predictable one. But more importantly, there are only two possible reasons for Pence’s response: stupidity, and calculated appeal to Duke supporters. The first seems most likely, obviously – he probably went into these interviews with the purpose of avoiding using Hillary’s chosen verbiage. But he could easily have stated that David Duke is a reprehensible person, and that Hillary’s campaign is supported by mirror-image reprehensible undesirables.
The second possibility, that the Trump campaign doesn’t want to alienate the Duke cretins too much, remains not wholly implausible, particularly given Donald Trump Jr.’s instagramming of an alt-right meme that includes nut job Alex Jones, alt-right defender Milo Yiannopoulos, and alt-right dank meme Pepe (it’s still up). For those who wondered why Trump didn’t simply denounce David Duke back in March in his much-ballyhooed claims of ignorance, the answer was likely that he was asked about Duke just days before the Louisiana primary. So is it possible that the Trump campaign wants to publicly disassociate with the alt-right without totally alienating them? Sure.
But the likelier explanation is stupidity.
Whatever the rationale, this is an unforced error. It gives the media precisely what they want – an excuse to look away from Hillary’s health scandal. That wouldn’t be shocking from Trump. But it is shocking from Pence, who’s supposed to be the smart professional on the team.