Yes, it’s fair to Shut Down Trump
I’m going to start with a confession: There are some people in this world who I do, truly hate. Don Blankenship is one of them. Sheriff Joe Arpaio comes to mind. Televangelist John Hagee is probably on that list. Seriously, listen to Hagee argue that people on welfare should literally starve and die in the streets. Yeah, he definitely makes the cut.
Here’s another confession: I don’t think Jonathan Chait belongs with that group. I mean, most of what he says is awful, but I’ll concede that he’s right about some things. Look, here he is doing his best to challenge an ignorant, racially tone-deaf Wall St. Journal op-ed column! Granted, in doing so, Chait is reaching for the lowest possible hanging fruit, but good on him for sticking his neck out and bravely proclaiming that some of the racial attitudes espoused on the WSJ editorial page may be problematic.
That having been said, holy shit does Jonathan Chait need to stop talking about political correctness.
I mean, if he wants to keep talking about it, I’m not going to stop him. But Chait’s lack of perspective on this issue and his frustrating inability to have a more nuanced discussion about free speech is not only aggravating — I think it can be dangerous. Chait’s critique of ‘p.c. culture’ has resonated with a staggering number of bros, civil libertarians, and otherwise well-meaning older people. More importantly, it has served as the intellectual foundation for the current hyper-nationalist, ambiguously-fascist movement in American politics.
Think that’s a stretch? Immediately after this week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, Ted Cruz released a frantic statement calling upon our government to patrol and ‘secure’ Muslim neighborhoods (what exactly do we think ‘secure’ entails?) under the headline ‘We Can No Longer Surrender to the Enemy Through Political Correctness.’ When Donald Trump laments that his supporters aren’t able to harm political protesters with impunity, political correctness is to blame.
What’s more, Chait’s selective free-speech absolutism is also being used as a cudgel against people who engage in peaceful, yet confrontational protests against Mr. Trump. He writes:
If you defend the morality of a tactic against Trump, then you should be prepared to defend its morality against any candidate.
I’m actually completely on board with this. If you are going support the tactic of disrupting a politician, it would be troubling to argue that it is only appropriate to disrupt that specific person. But left-wing protesters have absolutely used similar tactics against other politicians.
Anti-deportation activists have frequently heckled President Obama. Black Lives Matter protesters famously took the mic from Bernie Sanders at a rally in Seattle. Since Bernie stepped aside, listened, and didn’t threaten impose violence on any political dissidents, protesters haven’t kept coming back. Moreover, Democratic candidates have been forced to confront the issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and economic inequality to a degree that would be unimaginable without these types of organized protests.
By contrast, when faced with the same kind of disruptions that every presidential candidate eventually encounters, Trump chose to respond with extremism, which, naturally, fueled more extreme protests. Trump’s reaction to protesters has exposed his almost sadistic delight in arousing the angriest members of a mob. That he is arrogant and bombastic would not have been news at the beginning of his campaign. His sincerity and his willingness to tacitly and, at times, explicitly incite violence has been genuinely newsworthy.
One of the reasons we subject presidential candidates to this grueling marathon of public scrutiny is because we hope it will give us some clue as to how they will carry themselves once in office. For a candidate who has never before served as an elected official, this function of the campaign is all the more important. Were it not for these protests, most people simply wouldn’t realize how sincere Trump’s rhetoric is and how violent he and his white nationalist base can be. This is probably an important thing to know before an election.
Back to Chait:
Now imagine that right-wing protesters had set out to disrupt Barack Obama’s speeches in 2008. If you’re not okay with that scenario, you should not be okay with protesters doing it to Trump.
Barack Obama has governed like a marginally left-of-center president whose signature healthcare law looks a whole lot like John Chafee and Bob Dole’s center-right market-based health care reform plan from the early 1990s. His rhetoric and actions are indicative of a man who is willing to be conciliatory towards well-intentioned people with opposing interests. Without having this devolve into a discussion about whether he has been too conciliatory or whether or not progressives should be disappointed with Obama, I think we can all agree that he has pushed for incremental change and is certainly in the vicinity of the center on the ideological spectrum.
Equating where Donald Trump (and, actually, to a greater extent, Ted Cruz) stands on the ideological spectrum with President Obama’s position is a dangerous, lazy false equivalency. In order to properly engage with Chait’s argument, we need to consider a more appropriate analogue to Trump.
If there were a leftist presidential candidate who spoke wistfully about centrally-planned economies, openly threatened to blacklist journalists and curtail freedoms of the press, repeatedly encouraged violence against political protesters, and had zero substantive policy proposals outside of building a border wall and mobilizing government agents to expel whichever ethnic or religious minority he blames for the country’s decline, I sure as hell would want people disrupting that candidate and exposing him for the petty tyrant that he is. In fact, I would see it as a moral imperative to do so.
There are few more reliable constants in human history than the scapegoating of religious and ethnic minorities for whatever political, social, or economic problem happens to ill a country at that particular time. Every day, black, Latino, and Muslim Americans experience the damage incurred by systemic racism. They know this new strain of open, unmasked white supremacy and white nationalism poses an imminent physical threat to the safety of their families and their communities. In this context, shutting down Trump is an act of self-defense and community preservation in the face of this very real and very dangerous threat.
The activists who disrupt Trump are sending out a warning, and it would behoove white moderates like Chait to listen. Those who dismiss this warning and instead choose to condemn the alleged ‘illiberalism’ of certain tactics are complicit in this terror.