Freedom & Liberty

The Last Trump

This is a cross-post by Twll Dun

Last summer, I read a free e-book of Sinclair Lewis’ 1930’s novel “it can’t happen here”. An interesting dystopian counter-history, it told the story of America under the grip of a Fascist demagogue.

It has been playing on my mind of late, as have other fictional variants of the same idea – Roth’s The Plot Against America; All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – because there’s something uniquely disconcerting about America being under the grip of such. Whether you are cynical and jaded or naive and idealistic, the idea of the shining city on the hill still has some draw, and it being in the hands of the enemies of democracy still feels pretty damn scary.

Enter Donald.

I’ll make no bones about it. I’m pretty sure Donald is the closest thing to a fascist the US has seen as a genuine challenger to the presidency (saying that, I don’t think he’ll win the republican nomination and I certainly don’t think – if he does – he’ll win the actual election, but still).

Sure, we can argue over definition, but a combination of exclusionary anti-immigrant rhetoric, masculinity and nationhood tied together in posturing (when he’s not talking about making America great, he’s usually bullying women), anti elitism, anti intellectualism, toxic populism and appeals for economic protectionism sure as hell tick a lot of the boxes marked “fascist” in my eyes.

That all said, I won’t be signing any petition to keep him out of the U.K.

I’m consistent on this, and pretty much opposed any such bans – such as the one enforced on Louis Farrakhan, the repugnant anti-Semite leader of the Nation of Islam, or the attempted ban on the blood libel spouting preacher Raed Salah overturned at least in part by lobbying from his chum, the leader of the Labour Party.

And each time, the reasoning remains the same. It’s threefold, and goes like this:

Reason 1 is such bans are usually counterproductive. Unless there is definitive evidence that links the ban to specific incitement, then the consequences of doing so aren’t pleasant. Extremist ideologies of all stripes have one unifying feature – they revel in a victim complex, with them pitted against an evil establishment that plots to stop them spreading their truth. In the case of the Trump ban, it could very well turn out to be a countrywide recreation of the infamous 2004 Guardian letter writing campaign to Clark County, which urged residents not to support Bush. Oddly enough, those curmudgeonly Americans elected not to follow the well-meaning bien pensant advice of the Islington chatterati and elected to elect Bush. Given the central message of Trump’s campaign is that America is being done down by effete liberals and foreigners, how well do you think banning him will go down with those predisposed to support him? Oddly enough, I think it may harden support. With Salah, the noxious Electronic Intifada site painted the initial ban as a Zionist conspiracy. Grist to their victimology mill. I don’t want that kind of grudgeful conspiracist resentment to have any more ammunition when it comes to the election of the most powerful man in the world, thanks. Colour me cautious.

Reason 2 is I like my fascists (or fascist leaning, or fascist flirting, or however you wish to describe them) in plain sight. You may think that’s not an issue. Trump is indeed in plain sight. Well done. You’ve noticed him. Hard not to, I guess. But it’s not him I’m talking about here. I’m talking about those who think he’s good to go. The supporters and sympathisers. The excuse makers and contextualisers. I want them in plain sight, too. That’s why I’m very glad – to use an aforementioned example – Sheikh Raed Salah’s ban was overturned. That’s why I’m very glad Jeremy sat next to him, welcomed him, praised him. If he had merely defended his right to enter (which had then been denied), his behaviour could have been wished away as that of a liberal. It wasn’t. And those of us who paid attention, who aren’t hiding from some basic truths, took note. As Salah, so Trump. I want to see who will suck up to him, and who will shun him. A basic test.

But the third is the real kicker, for me, and it remains so. When I say I don’t want an assault on freedom of speech at this level – however popular this assault may be – the instant response will be scorn. How on earth is Trump’s freedom of speech being challenged? He’s got a huge platform. He can babble whatever racist nonsense he so desires. To talk about freedom of speech is, therefore, ludicrous.

And yes, I agree. Such a ban wouldn’t materially harm Trump’s freedom of speech. I agree with you. He has a huge platform. He’s running for President, for godsakes.

It would, however, damage ours.

“Everybody knows there is no finesse or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining” – Saul Bellow, “The Adventures of Augie March”

The answer to bigotry such as Trump’s is free speech. It is the liberal, democratic sharing of ideas. Should we decide to delegate that battle to authority, to the cry of the populist community, two problems emerge. The first is that we lose a piece of our own freedom. We say government has the right – the right we have forced upon them – to suppress views the majority dislike. All fun and games now – I join the majority in disliking that view. But what of when it’s a view of mine, or yours, or anyone’s, the majority dislikes? Alan Rusbridger tweeted yesterday something along the lines of “those who support mass state surveillance must ask themselves what would happen if the state was in the hands of a Trump, a Le Pen”. An interesting argument (if a tad slippery slope), but leads me to the counter argument “those liberals who support suppressing speech must ask themselves what would happen were their views as popular in the UK as a Trump’s, as a Le Pen’s?”

What happens if your views are those that make you the outcast of decent liberal society, the shunned? Do you want the state to have the power to shut you down?

I cry no tears for that view of Trump’s – it is noxious, repulsive, horrific and must be combated. Combated. Not closed down. And therein lies the second strand. The liberal left’s current fondness for censoriousness – however much (and Lo, in this case, reader, I sincerely do) I share their revulsion for the view they want censored – is an abnegation of duty. Your duty is to fight these views. Beat them. Win the argument. Relying on any censorship to do so makes you mentally flabby, ill-prepared for combat in the battle of ideas.

And you can very much bet that those views you attempt to suppress won’t be. They’ll have warriors for their cause learning your weaknesses, your flaws and hypocrisies whilst you sit, three monkey-like, seeing, speaking, hearing no evil.