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OPINION

The swift boating of Tammy Duckworth

With the senator and decorated veteran on the VP shortlist, Trump's cronies try to impugn her.

Tammy Duckworth at an event sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2008.
Tammy Duckworth at an event sponsored by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in 2008.Damon Winter/NYT

Senator Tammy Duckworth is a decorated Iraq War veteran and one of this nation’s first female combat pilots. In 2004, she lost both legs when a rocket-propelled grenade shot down the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting. Duckworth, that war’s first female American double amputee, was awarded a Purple Heart.

Tucker Carlson is a racist who lies for a living, got quickly booted from “Dancing with the Stars” after a ghastly cha-cha-cha, and was memorably eviscerated on his old CNN show when Jon Stewart called him a four-letter word for male anatomy and a “partisan hack” to his face.

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This is the man disparaging an American hero as “a coward.”

To Carlson, and those who tune into his nightly Fox News show, Duckworth committed an unpardonable sin — she spoke the truth about President Trump. During a recent CNN interview, Duckworth noted that the president has “spent more time worried about honoring dead Confederates” than “about the lives of 130,000 Americans who’ve lost their lives to COVID — or by warning Russia off of the bounties they’re [accused of] putting on Americans’ heads.”

That led the facts-averse Carlson to denounce the Illinois senator as a “moron” and “fraud.” And he accused this woman, who nearly died for her country, of hating America. Duckworth, among the front-runners vying to be former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate, is being “swift boated.”

That term dates back to former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s run as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. With lies and misrepresentations, a right-wing funded group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” savaged Kerry’s Vietnam War service as a Swift boat commander, his patriotism, and his later antiwar activities.

Before the claims were discredited, the baseless attacks on Kerry consumed headlines and airtime, and likely helped President George W. Bush, who avoided service in Vietnam by snagging a coveted spot in the Texas National Guard, to a second term. “Swift boating” is now popular jargon for an untrue political attack.

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President Trump and his cronies regularly rip his many critics, but they seem to reserve a special enmity for current and former military members whose loyalty belongs to this country — not the person leading it. He paints them as political stooges and often questions their patriotism.

That’s why Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who also served in Iraq, recently announced his retirement from the US Army. His distinguished military career stalled after he was a central witness in the impeachment inquiry into the president. In February, Trump fired Vindman as the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert. At the time, Trump told reporters: “Well, I’m not happy with him. You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not.”

That’s the warning: Make Trump happy, or suffer the consequences.

Ever since, Vindman, his attorney said, has been subjected to a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation,” driven by Trump. After Vindman’s decision to retire, Duckworth, in a statement, called Trump “a vindictive commander in chief.”

It’s likely that Duckworth will continue to be a right-wing target. Of course, Trump can’t fire Duckworth, but he’s foolish enough to believe he can bully her, either directly or through eager surrogates like Carlson, into silence.

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It won’t work. Duckworth has clearly endured, survived, and thrived through far worse. Still, as a woman of color — she is a Thai-American — she is Trump’s ideal target. His bile will only become more poisonous.

Trump did not invent the gutter politics of personal annihilation. Yet during his White House tenure, we’ve stopped asking how low he can go. There’s no bottom, and no comment is too scurrilous, depraved, or mendacious for Trump to tweet, retweet, or spew off the cuff.

That he is in proximity to people of great courage and valor, yet prefers to champion dead traitors, is such a tell about this hollow, deeply insecure man. Trump, who retweeted Carlson’s attacks on Duckworth, will trash any career and impugn any reputation if he believes it will move him one step closer to a catastrophic second term. As his re-election desperation deepens, so will the urgency and ugliness of his groundless attacks.

After Carlson’s nasty tirade, Duckworth tweeted, “Does [he] want to walk a mile in my legs and then tell me whether or not I love America?” She already knows the answer. With her record of service as a soldier, congresswoman, and senator, Duckworth has not only proven her patriotism, but that neither Trump nor Carlson could ever truly stand up to her.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.