Free speech is the antidote to Trump


Benjamin Franklin got it right. By DonkeyHotey; CC BY 2.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

The polarising president is a threat to truth itself. Beating him requires a renewed commitment to the most fundamental western value of all.

We can see where this is going. Donald Trump has promised a crackdown on media companies which cover him unfavourably. He tweeted an attack on the New York Times while soldiers he commanded were taking part in a failed raid in Yemen. He held a press conference where he berated the media for more than an hour.

His and his cronies’ lies have become ‘alternative facts’. His spokeswoman has cited a non-existent massacre as justification for his most controversial policy. He has lashed out at the intelligence agencies and begun a review which threatens their independence.

This wannabe autocrat is not just a threat to a 240-year-old republic founded on small-l liberal values; the free world he pretends to lead; and the constitution he promised to preserve, protect and defend. He is a threat to the very idea of truth.

Trump lies repeatedly and brazenly. He and his fans use Twitter to spread disinformation and dismiss reality, or anything that challenges their worldview, as ‘fake news’. It is no coincidence that an unhealthy number of his tweets attack the media. We should be very alarmed that so many of his supporters believe conspiracy theories.

And this is going to get worse. The established press is weak and under pressure to chase clicks. This makes it less likely to perform desperately required scrutiny and more likely to publish emotional think-pieces written in fits of hysterical outrage.

Meanwhile fake news will get worse and Trump will give friendly media outlets greater credibility. On Superbowl Sunday he gave an exclusive interview to Fox News. He is preparing to give White House press passes to Breitbart and even the conspiracy theorist site Infowars. We can expect his warped version of events to become more mainstream.

Now consider how tough it could become to oppose Trump publicly in the next few years. Technology is advancing rapidly. The release of celebrities’ naked photos, the leak of David Beckham’s emails and the Pizzagate affair could be the tip of a very large iceberg. Trump’s most unhinged supporters could hack his outspoken opponents’ emails, text messages, phone records or iCloud accounts. They could create and disseminate plausible, but entirely false, stories to discredit anyone who dares cross his path.

Trump will not need to jail his opponents, as 20th century dictators did. His acolytes will simply bully them out of existence.

The need for humility

So how to oppose him?  The temptation since his election has been to denounce his voters as racists, sexists and bigots; to organise marches of the converted; to bleat about moving to Canada or Spain; to deliver right-on speeches at glitzy Hollywood ceremonies. Doing this brings social status, particularly among our like-minded peers. (This is a large part of the reason why thousands here in the UK march and sign petitions against Trump, but are much quieter when an authoritarian Chinese or Saudi leader comes to visit.)

This is the wrong approach. Trump can only be defeated if his supporters are won over. His opponents must pick their battles, and the battle we face now is a fight for truth and reason.

Liberal democracy requires a reinvention. People want answers on globalisation, the aftermath of the financial crash, rapid automation and the Islamist threat. They distrust the powerful and want to take more control of their lives.

Addressing these concerns will require painful concessions. Trump’s opponents must have the intellectual honesty to accept liberalism’s imperfections. They must be willing to listen and compromise.

The liberal disdain for concepts such as nationhood, patriotism and community will be challenged. Leftists must shake off their incredulity that not everyone thinks social progress is inevitable, or exclusively beneficial. And while politicians will rightly seek to deal with global challenges, they must also consider how to give citizens a greater stake in their societies.

It will be a tough ask in a rapidly changing world, especially as democratically-elected governments become less powerful. But free societies, with all their imperfections and frustrations, are still worth defending. When you can openly moan about anything you like, you know you live in the best type of society our species has invented. The only alternative is for different groups to fight – often literally – for the right to impose their will on each other.

Intolerance feeds intolerance

This is why it should trouble us greatly that, according to a new global survey, young people are highly ambivalent about the concept of free speech. Whereas vast majorities of 18-21 year olds agreed, for example, that men and women should be treated equally, little more than 50% of them in the US agreed that “people should have the right to non-violent free speech in all circumstances even when what they are saying is offensive to minority groups”. In Britain, the figure was just 46%.

Young people need to be given this message very clearly: free speech is the remedy to Trump. Do not punch a Nazi, or anyone you once heard called a Nazi. Do not cheer on those who do. One day they will punch you back – or worse. Use your right to protest peacefully, but beware the comfort zone of your echo chamber. Do not shut down people you disagree with, or riot if they come to speak at your university.

A doubling down on leftist political correctness – as a different form of PC emerges on the right – will force voters to choose between two intolerant strains of thought. Anything the right can do to shut up its opponents, the left can do too. And if the left prioritises identities over values, it will play into the hands of those on the right doing exactly the same thing.

Polarisation is Trump’s best friend. Excuse the overdone historical analogy, but when people wanted to stop the communists, they voted for Hitler. And given the communists’ record in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba, the alternative was hardly more palatable anyway. The autocracies of the 21st century will be different to those of the 20th – but they will retain oppressive and perhaps even murderous instincts.

The way through the current upheaval is not to write off the other half of the population. Trump needs to be seen for what he is – a threat to freedom – and opposed wholeheartedly for it. The free press must be defended. We must be alert to threats to the judiciary and the civil service. Democracies must maintain robust checks and balances.

But almost 63m people voted for Trump. He won states the Democrats took for granted. This is uncomfortable, but it is reality. You can only change it if you engage with it. And that can only happen if people are willing to stop shouting and listen to each other.

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