“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” —George Orwell, 1945
“Even when it denigrates me?” —Yale protester, 2015
Back in the 1950s, there was this guy named Joe McCarthy. He was a senator from Wisconsin and he really, really didn’t like communists. In fact, he thought communists were such a great threat to the nation that he was willing to drum up a national movement to “expose” alleged commies and commie-sympathizers, with the hopes of ending the professional careers of everyone painted as “reds.”
Just one problem; there were no covert Soviets in the U.S. and the whole thing was basically a ploy to silence all of McCarthy’s political rivals. People lost their jobs, their families, their livelihoods and many were falsely convicted of crimes they never perpetrated.
Fast forward to the 1980s. With Reagan’s election, the evangelical right Moral Majority rose to power. They really, really didn’t like so-called Satanists, so they started a national movement to “expose” devil worshippers. Throughout the U.S., a rash of purported “Satanic Panic” crimes were uncovered, with the most noteworthy being a string of hideous child molestation allegations in California.
Just one problem; there were no covert Satanists in the U.S. and the whole thing was basically a ploy to silence all of the Moral Majority’s political rivals. People lost their jobs, their families, their livelihoods and many were falsely convicted of crimes they never perpetrated.
Both of the lamentable episodes in American history perfectly demonstrate the equation “politics + paranoia = persecution.” We may be a good 400 or so years removed from the Salem trials, but as this year’s election rhetoric proves, we’re still not above outrageous hyperbole and the occasional good old-fashioned witch hunt.
And distressingly, we’re still OK with destroying the lives of people who have not committed any actual crimes simply to confirm our own political biases and affirm our group identities.
Donald Trump is not a popular person in a lot of circles, and for obvious reasons. He’s a loudmouth lie-teller who says a lot of borderline bigoted things about Hispanics, Muslims and the general female population. However, thanks to this little thing called the First Amendment, he and his supporters are guaranteed the right to spout whatever offensive drivel they want to and convene en masse in public, just as long as they do so peaceably and without compromising the general safety of others.
The same right to free expression guarantees the very same to people who don’t like Trump and his supporters. Note, however, that the operative term in all of this is the word public – as in, the open, government-owned sphere. The First Amendment, you must recall, does NOT protect individuals from having their rights to expression curtailed by private, non-government entities in private, non-government-owned places. That means you can stand on a street corner and hold up a sign reading “I hate Trump” without fear of being arrested, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be arrested/tossed out of an NBA game if you start screaming obscenities.
In that sense, Trump rallies are more like NBA games than street corners. His events are privately organized, meaning he pays to rent out whatever venue he is speaking at. To attend, an individual must register online and agree to certain terms and conditions – i.e., the same kind of conduct policies you’d find in the fine print of any sporting event or concert ticket. Legally, that gives Trump and his handlers the contractual right to toss out any protesters, the same way movie theaters have the contractual right to toss out anyone who won’t stop talking during a screening.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, however, the behavior displayed by some anti-Trump protesters cannot be considered anything other than fascistic. It’s one thing to speak one’s mind and cause a commotion at a private function (knowing full well the legal ramifications of your actions) but it’s an entirely different matter when individuals are coordinating massive schemes to prevent people from hearing another person speak altogether.
We saw this utter contempt for free expression in Chicago, when hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of anti-Trump ideologues crashed a rally and used physical intimidation to force the speech to be cancelled. Indeed, at least one account from CBS News indicates that some demonstrators had plans to “rush the stage” as soon as Trump walked out, since “the police would not know who to grab because there would be so many people doing it.”
That’s not protesting, that’s not civil disobedience and it sure isn’t constitutionally-protected expression. That’s mob violence, plain and simple, intended to stop people from voicing their opinions.
We saw the same disturbing lack of civility occur at another anti-Trump protest in Arizona – this time, involving protestors shutting down a highway to prevent people from attending a speech. Once again, that’s not the First Amendment in action – that’s using physical force and jeopardizing public safety to keep people from hearing and supporting something you don’t agree with.
The anti-free expression, anti-Trump rancor has even made the great leap to cyberspace, with vigilante neckbeard brigade Anonymous threatening to steal and post the candidate’s private information online and shut down Trump’s website – both of which constitute felonies, by the way – simply because they don’t like what he’s saying. Employing tactics pulled straight from the playbook of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it is perhaps worth noting that the same group posted highly suspect “data” months earlier claiming to “unhood” purported members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yes, there have been violent episodes at Trump rallies. We’ve seen protestors pushed and shoved and punched… including a few fisticuffs involving some, well, unexpected participants. Those actions are unquestionably indefensible, disgusting and deserving of condemnation and, in the more egregious instances, arrest.
But we’ve also seen Trump supporters have weapons pulled on them, get physically assaulted in the streets and witnessed at least one ACLU representative say that Trump and his supporters needed to be killed because of their political views. And, as both the left-leaning and right-leaning media has been loathe to acknowledge, the pro-Trump side almost never seems to show up uninvited at Clinton or Sanders rallies and stir the same kind of ruckus.
It’s understandable why people despise Trump and his supporters. However, none of their inflammatory rhetoric and unpopular views exonerate their political opponents for their desire to forcibly silence them, be it in the form of violently disrupting events, compromising public safety or committing acts of cyberterrorism.
Lost amid the hysterical accusations that Trump is the next Hitler and his supporters are nothing but racist, closeted Klansmen is this oft-ignored narrative about the increasingly despotic nature of identity politics in America.
Under the guise of “social justice” or “political correctness” or any number of more abstruse-sounding intangible constructs, some progressives are guilty of doing the exact same thing the ultra-right wing McCarthyists and Moral Majoritarians did. Completely averse and hostile to competing ideologies, they seek to not only limit discussion of certain social issues, they are hellbent on completely dominating the debate and scaring away anyone from disagreeing with them through threats of public shaming.
You don’t have to look too hard to see this entitled, neo-fascism taking root throughout millennial America. Indeed, ours is a generation seemingly infatuated with the notion that collective group identity feelings not only outweigh the constitutional rights of others to argue to the contrary, but that our group identity feelings ought to be protected from even being exposed to differing viewpoints.
We saw this blatant hatred of communal free expression when students blocked entrances at a Ben Shapiro speech in California and pulled a fire alarm to disrupt his presentation and we definitely saw it in Anaheim earlier this year when demonstrators physically assaulted KKK members before they even got out of their vehicles, let alone began their perfectly legal public demonstration.
Yes, many of these ideologies are prejudiced and stupid and offensive and reek of historical vileness. But the fact remains that, under the First Amendment, they have just as much a right to peacefully gather and speak their mind as anyone else.
Ironically, the hyperbole-loaded anti-Trump movement has thus far posed a far greater threat to citizen’s civil liberties than anything proposed by Trump’s platform.
After all, there are plenty of government-ensured checks and balances in place to guarantee no one presidential mandate places an undue burden on anyone’s Constitutionally-granted civil protections. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can stop the tyranny of the majority from silencing and alienating those with opinions and beliefs that don’t vibe with the consensus cultural perspective, either.
If the anti-free expression backlash we’re seeing against Trump is any indication of where public discourse is headed in the next few years, you better be prepared for an utterly dystopian future.
One where if you can’t say anything popular, you’re not allowed to say anything at all.