How Much Are Far-Left Activists Fueling Trump? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In addressing the question, reader Alycee seems to draw a line between free speech and speech that incites violence—a line that’s difficult to determine sometimes:

At some point we have to face up to how our 1st Amendment protections of hate speech undermine the spirit and purposes of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause and, in so doing, undercut what we mean—or should mean—by a “free society.” Trump’s campaign brings this problem into sharp relief, and I shudder to think how he’ll translate, as POTUS, his hate speech into substantive policies.

Having said that: my take here is that Jonathan Chait’s analysis [excerpted earlier] is wildly off the mark. It is not so much the “morality of a tactic” that is at issue. What is at issue is the morality of the speaker against whom the tactic is employed as well as the morality of those who employ the tactic. Ultimately, the tactic is given meaning by those who use it.

Thus, in 2008 Barack Obama was calling for hope, not hate. In not one of his speeches speech did he denigrate a broad swath of the American public. He never characterized immigrants as rapists, murderers, thieves, and terrorists. [CB note: Nor did Obama denigrate the white working class—and even his Bittergate comment, distorted by his opponents, wasn’t said on the stump.] He did not yearn for the good old days when “we” would use thuggish, brute force to deal with dissenters. He did not promise to uproot a million people and ship them off to another land. He never embraced, however subtly, the support of an organization whose history includes such heinous acts as lynching ...

Instead, Obama called upon us to be our better selves, spoke of us as one people with a common destiny. It is the morality of that message that “right wing protesters” would have disrupted in 2008 had they chosen to do so. (One could argue that they are disrupting that message now, though in the context of a Trump campaign rally—or that they’ve been disrupting that message ever since Obama took office.) Consequently, in their hands, the tactic of disruption would have been nothing less than the language of their moral cause, of whatever they embraced as the antithesis of hope, commonality, and all the other moral claims with which Obama infused his speeches. Something Trump-esque, I imagine.

Trump, on the other hand, champions a vicious white nationalism. And it is the morality of this message, and the messenger, that “Leftist protesters” disrupted. And their disruption was the language of their moral cause: freedom from racism, xenophobia, hate, and the promises of our so-called founding fathers—liberty, justice, equality.

Of course, this is not to excuse any violence on the part of “leftist protesters”; I am deeply opposed to violent protest. It is to say, however, that it doesn’t make much sense to treat the imagined right-wing disruption and the protesters’ disruption at the Trump rallies as moral equivalences (a mystification that defenses of free speech often enact).

Now, should Trump have been “permitted to be heard”? To speak, yes. To be heard—not necessarily. Hate speech is not something we’re bound to respect with a hearing, and freedom of speech is not, under most circumstances, freedom to speak without any disruption.

And let’s be honest: one doesn’t engage in hate speech with the expectation that the objects of one’s hate will sit quietly and not engage. If anything, one engages in hate speech with the hope, if not desire, for confrontation. It is yearned for.

Isn’t that true about Trump? He loves this stuff. So maybe the real question is not whether we should let him speak, but whether we should feed his appetite at all.

Lots a great points. But there’s a key distinction to draw, I think, between hate speech—however that’s defined exactly—and speech that incites violence—a.k.a. “true threats,” a legally defined term when it comes to speech. Trump tip-toes right up to the line of incitement, like when he grotesquely says at a rally “I’d like to punch [that protester] in the face,” which is very close to saying “Go punch that protester in the face!” Maybe a lawyer with expertise in this can weigh in: