In an alarming turn of events, Daniel Penny, charged with manslaughter for the death of Jordan Neely on a subway train, has become the latest cause célèbre for some Republican heavyweights. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida took to Twitter to drum up support for Penny’s legal defense fund, declaring, “We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny…Let’s show this Marine…America’s got his back.”
Following DeSantis’ lead, self-funded presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy hopped on the bandwagon, donating a hefty $10,000. The defense fund hosted on GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding site, has received over 46,000 donations amounting to more than two million dollars.
The circumstances surrounding Neely’s death are indeed distressing. The 30-year-old homeless man, undergoing a mental health crisis, was put in a fatal chokehold for roughly 15 minutes by Penny, a 24-year-old ex-Marine. This unfolded even though one bystander noted that most people would have waited for an additional sign of aggression before taking such extreme action. DeSantis and others on the right have ironically likened Penny to the biblical Good Samaritan.
While his rivals rally around Penny, former President Donald Trump has remained unusually silent on this issue on his typically bustling social media platforms. This silence could be perceived as a missed opportunity to criticize Alvin Bragg, the New York District Attorney, who charged both him and Penny. Trump’s comments on the incident were measured: “So, I haven’t seen the tapes,” Trump said. “I won’t make a definitive [statement] but it looks to me like the people in that car were in great danger.”
While Trump has previously justified the use of force, there have been instances where he called for justice, such as in the case of George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin. “It’s a terrible thing. We all saw what we saw,” Trump said. “Should never be allowed to happen a thing like that. But we’re determined that justice be served.”
Trump’s approach to Penny’s case has stirred up some controversy. One editor at a far-right magazine called Trump’s comments on the death of Neely “pathetic.”
In contrast to Trump’s restrained response, some right-wing figures have gone to great lengths to lionize Penny. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz referred to him as a “subway Superman.” A New York Post editor even compared Penny to the heroic passengers of United 93, the flight that fought back against hijackers on 9/11.
Gavin Wax, the head of the New York Young Republican Club, took to Twitter to proclaim, “This man is a hero.” He shared a reply from an anonymous user claiming that Penny “is no different than the frontiersmen that settled America – brave and fearless against foes.”
The narrative takes a darker turn here, essentially celebrating Penny as a vigilante, despite his own claim that he did not intend to harm anyone. This glorification of violence and disregard for the mental health crisis Neely was experiencing sends a troubling message about what some consider to be heroic.