Free Speech — A Losing Candidate?
by Stephen Cox | Posted March 24, 2016
Consider these two arrangements of the same story:
- May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after Trump denounced people opposed to his candidacy. People who came to protest against Trump were fought by Trump supporters.
- May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after protesters entered the hall and fought with Trump supporters. Trump had previously denounced protesters who appeared inside his rallies.
Both versions are true. But the first of them is a piece of propaganda, designed to get people to vote against Trump.
It’s easy to write such things. Try your own hand at it — maybe you can get a job with one of those big media outlets that are spending a lot of time blaming Trump for the violence of their own allies, the ’60s refugees and college clones who want to make sure that only one Great Thought gets heard in America.
But before I share any more of my own great thoughts, please take this brief version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test. Have you already concluded that I who am writing this am a supporter or a detractor of Donald Trump?
Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.
If your answer is Yes, you have jumped to a conclusion, and you will interpret all subsequent sentences as further proof of your opinion. You will also conclude — or you have already concluded — that I am either a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, or an American patriot who just wants to see something done about the mess in Washington. I’m sure your ability to divine these things will be gratifying to your self-esteem.
But if your answer is No, then you are qualified to read what follows. Reading involves, among other things, the ability to identify what a piece of writing is about. This piece of writing is not about Donald Trump or my opinion of Donald Trump. It’s about a massive default from the principle of free speech.
Trump’s rally on March 11 was shut down by a mob of leftists, many of them carrying Bernie Sanders signs. Sanders was not behind the action, but his political faction was massively involved. In the for-once-apt words of a police union spokesman, “it was a planned event with professional protestors.” A week or weeks in advance they had planned what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. Once in occupation of the hall where Trump was supposed to speak, they alternately shrieked in well-rehearsed apoplexy and danced and giggled with delight. When attempts were made to interview them about what they were trying to do, most refused to admit knowing any motive. Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.
In short, this was the gross and obvious use of a mob to deny free speech and assembly to one’s political opponents.
That being, as I said, obvious, I confidently awaited the outrage that must surely follow, even from the American political establishment. But I was disappointed. Every online headline I saw made it sound as if Trump had attacked his own rally; every article arranged the story so as to picture “violence” being spontaneously ignited by the presence of people who support Donald Trump, or actually and solely begun by them. The worst headline I saw — but there were probably even worse — was this from the Washington Post:
In truth, the only connection with “race” was the presence of Black Lives Matter activists and other people screaming about Trump being a “white supremacist,” which of course he is not. Trump is a jackass who happens to be white. Other people are jackasses who happen to be black. In neither case does race matter. But if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline. That headline is your license to destroy the right of free speech that allows the Post to enjoy its own ridiculous life.
Similar events continue. When protesters disrupteda Trump rally in Arizona on March 19, after trying to prevent Trump from even reaching the venue, the CBS News headline was “Violence Erupts at Donald Trump Rally in Tucson.” Clever, very clever. Omit the human agents — the people who want to shut Trump up — and make it appear as if Trump were some dangerous natural phenomenon that may “erupt” at any time. The message? Get away from Trump.
if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline.
This is shameful dishonesty. But silly me, I was half expecting leading Democrats to be embarrassed by the mob behavior of some of their supporters. Had it been a Republican mob that attacked a rival political campaign, we would never have heard the end of the Democrats’ outraged demands that all Republicans immediately repudiate such fascist tactics. For the Democrat establishment, however, Trump was the fascist. Sanders showed not a hint of shame about his followers, and no questioner tried to get him to. Mrs. Clinton lost no time in denouncing “the ugly, divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, and the encouragement he has given to violence. . . .” “If you play with matches,” she said, after exhaustive research in America’s vast storehouse of domestic clichés, “you can start a fire you cannot control.” Well, that much was to be expected from such an implacable proponent of objective law as Hillary Clinton.
But let us return to the problem of fouling the well you drink from, which is the giddy enterprise of the Washington Post and other journals that value free speech mainly because it’s good for people who agree with them. Consider Trump’s Republican rivals. Long victims of media slanders about their party’s supposed alliance with the supposed racists and violence-mongers of the Tea Party, Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that. When push came to shove at the Trump rallies, they preferred to blame the victim, a fellow Republican, and try for a cheap political advantage.
Ted Cruz asserted that if you talk as Trump does, “you’re creating an environment that only encourages” violence. This from the man who has been mightily, and unfairly, blamed for inciting the wrath of other Republican senators — by refusing to give up his right to free speech.
John Kasich repeated, like a mantra, “Donald Trump has created a toxic environment . . . Donald is creating a very toxic environment, and it’s dividing people.” Note to Kasich: what is a “toxic environment”? Another note to Kasich: Aren’t you “dividing people” whenever you disagree with somebody? A third note to Kasich: why are your clichés of a higher intellectual quality than Donald Trump’s?
Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that.
But it was left to Marco Rubio — who as I maintained last month is not a bad talker, so long as he’s talking one-on-one and about something specific, instead of standing on the balcony to deliver the papal blessing — it was left to Rubio to deliver the most inane remark of this supremely inane political season:
Presidents and presidential candidates cannot just say whatever they want.
I guess not. And I guess that’s what makes their sayings so profound, so probing, so candid, and so trustworthy.
Republican operatives were singing from the same page as the candidates, or vice versa. To cite one of many examples, Guy Benson, political editor of Town Hall, an outlet for conservative and sometimes radical conservative ideas, and attempts at ideas, used an interview with Fox on March 17 to accuse Trump of “fomenting violence.” To cite another, Doug Heye, a “Republican strategist and advisor,” lamented to Fox’s eager ears that attention had been stolen from Rubio’s campaign by the riot in Chicago, while his interviewer, Shep Smith, noted that some people thought the riot was actually contrived by Trump. To be fair, Heye then said that although Trump used “bigoted” language, he was “not a bigot,” and he himself would vote for Trump if he were nominated.
Let’s pause for a moment, and meditate upon these samples of the Republican mind at work.
If you’ve ever suspected that the political leaders of our nation are just not that bright, here is new evidence. Trump’s political appeal is known to result very largely from his warfare against the politically correct Left, an ideological formation that is feared and despised by almost everyone in the country who doesn’t have a Ph.D., work for a Human Resources department, or hold office in a safe Democrat district. In fact, it’s hated and despised by many people who do fit those descriptions; they’re just afraid to admit it. And as Trump’s Republican opponents have good reason to understand, this aspect of his political appeal is very strong. They also know that Americans traditionally resent blatant attempts to shut people up. They may try to shut people up themselves — specific people on specific occasions — but in the abstract, at least, they dislike the process. They have a feeling that it’s unfair, undemocratic, counterproductive. That feeling also is very strong.
In these circumstances, what would any Republican politician with brains more powerful than a bowl of jello have to say about the politically correct attacks on Trump’s rallies? He would say, “As you know, I am opposed to Donald Trump’s nomination on the Republican ticket. Nevertheless, I believe that all Americans should condemn the dastardly attempt of political radicals and supporters of the Democratic Party to do something that has never been done in American politics — prevent a candidate from running for the high office of president of the United States,” etc., etc., etc. Anyone could write that speech, which would appeal to virtually everyone in the country and position the speaker as morally superior not just to the Democrat mob but also to Donald Trump, whose own protests might be written off as merely self-interested.
Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of Clinton's attempt to escape from being criticized.
But that’s not what happened. It was one of those moments when the fortunes of the Grand Old Party were magically aligned with those of high principle and popular sentiment, and the GOP not only missed the moment but disgraced it. Its candidates and spokesmen actually thought that their own self-interest was involved, not with the assertion of ideas that almost everyone holds, but with the petty advantage to be sought by suggesting that their chief opponent deserved whatever bad things happened to him. In the process, they gratified the politically correct people who can barely force themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, let alone some low-life Republican, and they morally outraged the legions of Trump supporters whose assistance they themselves require for victory.
It seems very childish to point this out. But our politics (not without the help of Donald Trump) have become so childish that anyone who knows that C-A-T spells “cat” is operating with an enormous intellectual advantage over the other kids.
I should have reached this conclusion about the prevalence of baby talk and infantile tantrums when Hillary Clinton went before the Benghazi committee and screamed, with well-rehearsed outrage, “What difference does it make?” Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of her attempt to escape from being criticized. Yet the august organs of public opinion hailed it as an unanswerable defense of her actions. Only later did they sense that there might have been some slippage in the public relations department: everybody but them considered Clinton’s tantrum the worst performance ever presented on TV. So why should I be surprised by the need to suggest that America’s deep political thinkers may have missed a few other things — things that even some non-pundits understand?
Among those things are the following reflections:
- It’s wrong to blame the victim, whether the victim is sensible or not, likable or not, or any other not. A woman who is robbed while walking down a dark street is not responsible for being robbed, even though “she should have known better” than to walk that way. A man who ventures into “a bad neighborhood” with an expensive watch — ditto. A person who makes rude remarks from a public stage is not to blame if someone organizes a mob to kick him off the stage. Even a blowhard who goes around saying, “If anybody tries to kick me off this stage, I’ll hit him in the face” is not to blame if, yes, somebody tries to kick him off the stage. We are not living in the old Soviet Union, which had such tender feelings that any rude remark became a provocation. Weighing rights on the scale with provocations is an excellent means of getting rid of rights, and that’s why it is the consistent practice of dictatorships.
- Whether Donald Trump was being jocular or not when he suggested to his listeners that if somebody caused trouble, people in the audience would be justified in taking physical action against that person, those remarks had nothing to do with the invasions of his rallies. If talking offhandedly about violence actually incited violence, then half the stand-up comics and three-quarters of the leftwing demonstrations in this country would be guilty of inciting violence. If Trump had said absolutely nothing about any kind of violence, the people who turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism would still have turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism. That’s what their signs said they were doing. Logically, anyone sincerely moved to protest Trump’s rude bellowings would want to do so by exhibiting the opposite behavior. But that’s not what makes a mob. For that you need bullhorns, filthy slogans, and, yes, actual violence. When other Republicans maintained that Trump was getting what was coming to him, they were siding with people who would cheerfully raise the same kind of mobs against them.
- When it comes to free speech and free assembly, it makes no difference whether someone is pleasant or unpleasant, or even whether he is a “racist” or some other offensive something. Free speech isn’t about allowing your sweet old grandmother to discuss how much she’s always admired Mother Teresa. Neither she nor her admiration requires protection. It’s unpopular views and unpopular people that require protection, and they are guaranteed protection by our national charter.
So much for my review of ideas that should have occurred to everyone, but obviously have not, although there is nothing more important in the realm of words than everybody’s right to use them freely.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution. Newly published is Culture and Liberty, a selection of works by Isabel Paterson.
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