Anybody who has been around social media long enough would recognise the type. They’re the Carols from Wolverhampton and Bills from Dakota, peering into their webcams, their wide-angle grimaces fixated on such narrow points of view. They are the perennially outraged, so well juiced by their own sense of righteousness that they do not realise the hell their good intentions would unleash on the world.
They arrive prepared for the fight which usually starts with a petition against some moral ‘outrage’ that a few might enjoy and the majority accept as alternative point of view. Only ‘tolerance’ does not exist in Carol or Bill’s vocabulary. Their disgust blinds them to the danger posed by their own extremism. They are incapable of seeing that to ban one unpleasant part of the world they would ban other parts that few of us would wish to censor. Yet Carol and Bill cannot look beyond the red mist. They fail to see that they would curtail liberties for all simply to curtail the excesses of a few. And in being so earnest and good, they are shallow and bad. And in being so righteous and ‘liberal’ they are also the very people that make tyranny possible.
Petitions and protests rarely have much of a thinking element and there are very few people brave enough to stand against them. That’s why the media are so happy to pick up these stories as they develop on Twitter and Facebook. They needn’t think about ‘balance’ or offering opposing points of view. Momentum guides the narrative down familiar channels and it doesn’t take long before the issue is driven into the headlines by the gathering mob that only exists in order to surge forward. So certain are they that they will change things for the better, they will rush the walls of established thinking; tearing down, destroying, reducing to rubble in a catharsis of their own stupidity. The fight becomes a frenzy; an unthinking popularism that defies logic or reason.
And so we have America today where we are currently witnessing all the signs of a frenzy in progress. It started in Chicago on Friday night where it was obvious from the start that Donald Trump’s rally would not go ahead at the University of Illinois’s Chicago Pavilion. The demographic of his crowd was wrong. He was about to walk into an ambush.
To understand that you need to know that Trump normally speaks to a largely white and somewhat overweight America. His crowd is filled with stereotypically beer-shaped men in baseball caps and hip sacks; hoary veterans with medals and an air of grievous anger. There are the weekend shooters and early draftees, the ex-bikers with Old Glory headscarves and the retired sheriffs in straw Stetsons who are tired of watching the bad guys win. Many of the women carry some small town tragedy lined on their faces. The poorest don’t look enamoured by life but the rich just look plain angry. Add to the mix some weak-whiskered youths, filled with American pride and a little liquor, and there you have the Trump base in all their blue collar glory.
The group waiting for Trump in Chicago on Friday was very different; so very young and ethnically so very diverse. They were typified by one guy standing near the front wearing a red keffiyeh around his neck, a green army jacket, and the hair and look of the ultra modish hipster. Trump’s security detail clearly knew it was all wrong. After a long delay, a Trump proxy walked out onto the stage and flatly announced that the rally would not go ahead. As if to prove the decision right, those crowding the stage began to fist pump the air, whooping with pleasure. A few girls jumped with excitement as others consulted their phones to send out messages. They had made a difference. ‘Isn’t democracy so easy?’ they appeared to Tweet.
What followed was equally predictable as violent scuffles broke out between protestors and Trump supporters. Long time observers of the Republican race knew it was coming. In recent weeks, particularly recent days, Trump had struggled to give his speeches without being interrupted regularly by protestors. ‘Get ’em out!’ he’d cry with the pantomime delivery that always delights his supporters. Yet increasingly Trump has looked frustrated. The Trump baiting has been proving too popular and it was only going to be a matter of time before the baiters formed a big enough minority to cause a scene like that which unfolded in Chicago.
Protesting at a Trump rally appears to have become a fashionable entertainment for a certain type of young millennial. It is the place to be seen before the police arrive to cart them outside; one of those bucket-list moments they might describe to their children as though Trump in Chicago in 2016 was the same as Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. To a generation wanting their own meaningful moment, Trump seems to offer just that.
Yet alongside the white, privileged and the liberal, were protestors who are justified in their anger. ‘Not your lazy black’ was the sign held up by one such protester in St Louis. The message was contextually odd given that Trump’s rhetoric has rarely touched on issues specific to the African American community. Yet it highlighted how Trump is now conducting anger aimed at the broader establishment; from moderate conservatism to the far-right where it edges into the white supremacist movement that he was too slow to disavow last week. The water contamination in Flint, Michigan is one of the most shameful moments of American history and it is concurrent to Trump’s rise to become the most vocal conservative of the conservatives. His message is ‘pro-police’ and that immediately sets him at odds to the Black Lives Movement, itself a response to police brutality towards the African-American community and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Trump makes for an easy target. His rhetoric is as pastiche of arch conservatism. He is cartoonish in his manner, his language, and his world view. Add to the mix the fact that many of the protestors represent the genuinely oppressed and you begin to understand the nuances and the hesitations displayed by Trump’s ‘dishonest media’ to criticize an already victimized minority.
It is understandable why the protestors are often portrayed as voices against intolerance. The media in recent days portray protestors as bashed, bloodied, bruised and bullied at the rallies. In the more liberal media, there is a hysteria about the reporting as if the reporters too want to claim their grand moment of history. The fight feels epochal and generational. But the reason this narrative takes hold is because so much of it is true. Trump’s supporters have lashed out at protestors. Protestors, in turn, have been noisy but generally non-violent. Trump’s attempts to exploit the popular hatred of political correctness has, on occasion, led him to say things that could be interpreted as inciting violence. When written down, his nuances, his jokes, his posturing do read uglier than they appear on the stage. It makes the opposing sides divide too easily into the good guys and the bad guys. The stories write themselves, making the conclusions as easy as they are misleading.
They mislead because, despite the ugly rhetoric emerging from the right, there is an equally disturbing language coming from the left. It is authoritarian and censorious. More worrying is how parts of the media are displaying a convenient blindness to attacks on the First Amendment that enshrines the people’s right to freedom of speech.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That bit about ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble’ means just that. Nobody has the right to infringe upon other people’s right to gather without fear of interference or opposition. It is a right that generations of campaigners have relied upon to justify their place in the world. From women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights movement, it is the First Amendment that made those social revolutions possible.
Why, then, should 2016 be any different? Consider if the roles were reversed. What would happen if the KKK sent agitators to make loud but non-violent protests at a meeting of the Black Lives Matter movement? Would it be the organisers of that are the problem and not the Klan? If any of racist zealots were harmed when event attendees started to throw punches, would the protestors be innocents?
That isn’t to draw a moral equivalence, of course, but to show that democracy has to be indivisible. The right to gather must be the same for conservatives as is it for liberals, the same as it is for those in the centre. Today it might be liberals fighting prejudice but, equally, tomorrow it could be moral conservatives doing the same in the name of some draconian order. You cannot and should not make a distinction between the two. Protestors would destroy a cornerstone of the liberty they would otherwise champion.
Not that Donald Trump understands this truth any better than the people he has labelled the ‘disrupters’. The events of this weekend should have given him an opportunity to appear presidential but he has instead threatened to send his own protesters to trouble Bernie Sanders. Not only is it a political miscalculation – perhaps the first of Trump’s campaign – but it could mark an escalation in what is showing all the signs of becoming a tyranny of thought; the moment when a freedom of expression became a freedom to repression.