Donald Trump

Free Speech Gave Us Trump

But restrictions on speech will give us something worse.


As the 2016 election judders to a halt, cable news and cocktail chatter seem to consist of little more than endless incredulous repetition of Donald Trump's most quotable quotes. His 2005 hot mic comments about the appropriate way to interact with women, his preferred characterization of Islam, his views on the character of our southern neighbors as well as black citizens here at home have each come up for scrutiny. Trump, in turn, decries political correctness and shrugs "It's just words, folks."

There's something heartening, however, to be found in the deep awfulness of his public statements over the years: the fact that he remains a free man despite uttering them. Because in quite a few otherwise civilized countries, a good deal of what leaves the GOP presidential nominee's mouth on the topic of Muslims, women, and Mexicans could land him in jail.

In the two years since he published his controversial screed against Islamic immigration, Le Suicide Français, the French polemicist Éric Zemmour "has spent half his time collecting prizes and the other half defending himself in court," The Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell explained in a devastating October cover story. Zemmour's crime is writing sentences like these: "Islam is incompatible with secularism, incompatible with democracy, and incompatible with republican government. Islam is incompatible with France."

Stack those strong words up against Trump's comment to CNN's Anderson Cooper in March: "I think Islam hates us." Spokeswoman Katrina Pierson expanded on the candidate's view of the world's second largest religion the following day, saying: "We've allowed this propaganda to spread all through the country that this is a religion of peace."

Or how about this famous line, which Trump dropped into his announcement of the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015? "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best. They're not sending you, they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They bring crime. They're rapists.…And some, I assume, are good people."

Sounds awfully similar to a bit of 2012 radio commentary about Roma immigrants by the Canadian provocateur Ezra Levant. "Too many have come here as false refugees," he said. "They come here to gyp us again and rob us blind as they have done in Europe for centuries.…They're gypsies. And one of the central characteristics of that culture is that their chief economy is theft and begging." A month later, Toronto Police constable Wendy Drummond confirmed, "The hate crime unit is investigating." Levant had already run afoul of Canada's hate speech laws in the late '00s, when the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission targeted him for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. That battle spanned two years and cost him $100,000.

And how do Trump's comments about the need to temporarily halt all immigration from Muslim-dominated countries compare with the remarks of the Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, who was busy in court at the end of September, asking that charges against him be dropped? In 2014, Wilders told supporters who were chanting for "fewer" Moroccan immigrants, "We'll take care of it." The case is ongoing. Before that, Wilders had been acquitted of insulting Islam in 2011.

There's not much daylight between Trump's remarks and those of his European and Canadian counterparts. The big difference is that in the United States, Trump has no fear of prosecution. And thank Cthulhu for that.

In his defense of a free press, John Milton declared that enough vigorous argumentation between competing views would result in progress: "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?" It's certainly comforting to think that late-night tweets calling a Venezuelan-born former Miss Universe "disgusting" and urging readers to "check out sex tape and past" are merely Milton's "the dust and cinders of our feet [which] serve to polish and brighten the armoury of Truth."

But I'm not willing to go full Areopagitica here. Enough people hollering at once needn't necessarily bend the arc of the universe toward justice. After all, we fallible creatures could just as easily be led systematically astray by sophists and seditionists.

Yet even if we don't live in a world where the truth will always out, speech restrictions of the kind that are proliferating abroad remain fatally misguided. Attempting to smother ideas only gives them a kind of occult power. This is especially true of bad ideas—such as a 3,000-mile-long two-ply border wall—which benefit from the reduced scrutiny that forbiddenness brings. The last thing we want is to turn Trump into an American Voldemort, a He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Brutally squelching the wrongheaded merely creates an underground where believers with lame tattoos lurk quietly, waiting for a chance to rise again.

Anyone following the American election has already seen this principle in action: The vague perception that someone out there might want to silence him gives Trump an aura of underdoggery and truth-to-powerishness that has proved incredibly powerful at the polls. Every time someone says "hate speech ought to be illegal," a Trumpkin gets his wings. Every threatened lawsuit over hurtful speech only makes The Donald grow stronger. Political correctness is to Trump as clapping is to Tinker Bell.

The best-case scenario for life under hate speech laws is a game of whack-a-mole. Prohibited speech and speakers would pop up here and there, thwarting censors with code words, dog whistles, and new transmission technology. The worst—and more likely—case is a full-on Hydra situation. (Not the quasi-Nazi Hydra from the Marvel movies. The Greek one that grows two heads for every one that's cut off. Though, come to think of it, maybe the Nazi analogy applies too.)

Let's not confuse laws with rules. Just as it is Donald Trump's right to say what he likes about any group to anyone who wants to listen, it is the right of homeowners and barkeeps to maintain any type of private speech code they like on their property. Enforcement should always begin with a polite request to close your pie-hole, but it can and should escalate from there. It should go without saying that when "locker room talk" translates into action, free speech is no longer the relevant concern.

Unfortunately, a Hillary Clinton presidency will prove the perfect breeding ground for a new generation of antibiotic-resistant super-Trumps. As Editor at Large Matt Welch documented in reason's March cover story, Clinton is no friend of free speech and we're likely to move closer to our European brethren if she has her way. Imagine how people who are only grudging Trumpers today will feel after four or eight years of a coked-up regulatory apparatus cracking down not only on so-called hate speech but on all kinds of political speech (see: campaign finance laws), commercial speech (see: Food and Drug Administration restrictions), and scholarly speech (see: state attorneys general subpoenaing global warming denialists).

While trafficking in American exceptionalism is a high-risk rhetorical strategy, the U.S. really does have something going for it that our neighbors lack: the First Amendment, backed by centuries of robust interpretation. In America, it is simply more difficult to have the long arm of the law hold down people like Trump and wash out their mouths with soap and lawsuits.

Every time he says something awful, Donald Trump makes me proud to be an American.