Heckling: It’s become the new norm at just about every political rally, debate and gathering of any kind. In a way, it’s a way for individuals to express free speech, one of America’s oldest cultural values, but at what point does it go too far? What is an appropriate way for a candidate to respond?
Former President Bill Clinton recently visited the Keene State College campus to campaign for Hillary. He said nothing groundbreaking or new; his speech was more or less what we all expected, but the most interesting part of the rally was when a heckler suddenly interrupted Clinton, creating a commotion in the crowd in front of him.
Clinton played it off by saying, “You know, give them a round of applause actually, they’ve had a really bad week.” The crowd proceeded to clap as the event’s security guard escorted one of several hecklers away while he screamed, “Make America Great Again!”
Personally, I thought Clinton handled the situation fairly well, granted he had probably thought of what to say in that situation ahead of time. It quickly took attention away from the heckler and, to some degree, mocked the opposing campaign.
Many politicians in recent memory chose to simply talk over hecklers, but with its frequency in this election cycle, most politicians, especially Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and President Obama, have had to respond in some way.
While yes, heckling is a way to exercise free speech, it’s not productive in any way. What are you accomplishing by interrupting a politician at a public event? It’s not an effective way to get your voice heard. Yes, free speech is a vital part of our society, but no one is listening when you’re that screaming lunatic at the political rally.
Now in some cases, it can make a difference, for example at Donald Trump’s rallies, boisterous protesters make regular appearances. In these cases, the goal is to exploit Trump’s temperament. Trump’s rallies are especially bad; those who interrupt Trump have sometimes been met with violent responses from his supporters.
Trump even went so far and said, “If you see anyone about to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. I promise you I’ll pay the legal fees,” prior to a speech in Iowa, claiming that his security had informed him that a heckler may have been planning to throw tomatoes at him.
Trump has shown that he is easily irritated by hecklers, not just in person, but over Twitter as well. Trump’s responses to criticism and heckling are generally offensive and bizarre, but in doing this, he unknowingly, or perhaps knowingly, gives the hecklers just what they want.
In the last presidential debate, Trump claimed that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee had sent people to cause violence at his events. This was after WikiLeaks released another slew of Clinton’s emails, which apparently could have been interpreted in this way. For one thing, if Trump is so worried about violence at his events, perhaps he should stop encouraging it.
I’ve heard so many people say how bizarre this election is, and how they’ve never seen two candidates disrespect each other so much. Trump has certainly said the most outrageous things out of all the presidential nominees that I’ve been alive for, but in the broad scope of American history, what he says is tame compared to what some candidates have said.
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, once said, “I only have two regrets, I didn’t shoot Henry Clay, and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” Henry Clay was one of Jackson’s opponents in the 1824 election, and Calhoun was Jackson’s vice president. During the 1828 election, Jackson’s mother was referred to as a “common prostitute.”
Thomas Paine once said that George Washington was “a hypocrite in public life. The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”
I’d like to think that our elections could be more civil and sophisticated than they were in the nineteenth century, so these old quotes drawing similarities to Trump’s quotes are not at all comforting to me.
As for heckling, my conclusion is this: while it shouldn’t be illegal to bad-mouth our leaders, heckling is not accomplishing much of anything.
If anything, hecklers interrupt the candidate and take away time they could be talking about their stances and policy, causing other voters not to hear those policies and limiting their participation in the democracy. So for this reason, if you are going to be a heckler, do it with good reason.
Elliot Weld can be contacted at Eweld@kscequinox.com