The election of Donald J. Trump as president has produced considerable hand-wringing from Democrats, progressives, and even some conservatives revolted by the way Trump ran his campaign. In an unprecedented step, protests have broken out in cities across the country and students of all ages have conducted mass walkouts.
Trump pledged in his victory speech to “bind the wounds of division” in the United States. Yet his appointment of Stephen Bannon – a senior executive at Breitbart News, a website that has been accused of catering to white supremacists and anti-Semites – has been widely seen as a sign that he does not plan to moderate his views or behavior once in the Oval Office.
One of the biggest points of concern for many about the prospect of a Trump White House is his threat to prosecute his defeated opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Chants of “lock her up” were a staple of Trump’s rallies, with the candidate himself whipping crowds into a frenzy with heated (and mostly false) claims about Clinton.
Perhaps the lowest moment came in August, when Trump seemingly referred offhandedly to the possibility that Clinton would be assassinated should she be elected president. In a speech at a rally, Trump said that – if Clinton won the election – the only possibility of stopping her agenda would be available to “Second Amendment people.”
Trump and his campaign denied that he meant anything beyond a reference to the public protests, while many reporters noted the vitriolic screaming of “kill them” from Trump’s crowds – with no attempt at repudiation by the candidate – at all of Trump’s references to Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Entering this fray were two distinguished members of the Kennedy clan, the first family of American politics.
Jean Kennedy Smith, the only surviving child of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Kennedy, is the brother of both President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, two of the most high-profile victims of political assassination in modern history. Her son, William Kennedy Smith, is – of course – President and Senator Kennedy’s nephew.
Writing in the Washington Post, the Kennedy Smith’s used their wrenching personal experience to late out a clear case about the dangers of hateful rhetoric – and the power of uplifting discourse – in shaping our country and its direction. They also included a lacing takedown of Trump’s repeated slanders directed at all number of political opponents and minority groups.
“Today, almost 50 years later, words still matter. They shape who we are as a people and who we wish to be as a nation,” Jean and William Kennedy Smith wrote. “In the white-hot cauldron of a presidential campaign, it is still the words delivered extemporaneously, off the cuff, in the raw pressure of the moment that matter most. They say most directly what is in a candidate’s heart.”
While the election has fortunately passed without the violence that marred the 1968 campaign, the other lessons from the Kennedy family’s piece should endure as Democrats, progressives, and Never Trumpers prepare for the next four years. Their words have particular meaning considering Trump’s recent, post-election attacks on journalists and opponents.
“To borrow the words of Army Counsel Joseph Welch, directed at another dangerous demagogue: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?’ the Kennedy Smith’s wrote. “The truth remains that words do matter, especially when it comes to presidential candidates. On that basis alone, Donald Trump is not qualified to be president of the United States.”