Trump, White Fear, and the Death of the First Amendment

On the corner television at our local Mexican restaurant, Donald Trump stands all rooster-chested, cock-sure in anticipatory triumph. He repeats his promise, “we will build the wall and Mexico will pay for it,” near-shouting will as if saying it louder might browbeat everyone into understanding.

The waiter–hispanic–refills our chips and pours fresh waters without a word. I thank him as the rhetoric of fear attacks him from the boob tube. In the corner, the pink-nosed presidential candidate furrows his brow and presses duck lips together for a decisive, deal-closing photo. This is how you win an election these days: play to fear and anger; pose for the cameras, for a supporter, for selfie-adulation.

The waiter asks if we needed anything else. No thank you, I say, except I do need something else. I need to be less embarrassed by the status of American politics. I need to not feel the need to apologize to my waiter for the bombastic rhetoric of the bourgeois businessman, for his shelling of former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

My lunch companion–a red tie wearing, conservative, evangelical white man who can only be classified as upper-middle class–shakes his head. “Trump is pandering to white fear,” he says, “and his us-versus-them rhetoric is going to win him the nomination.” I notice the waiter, still standing over my left shoulder and the blood pools in my cheeks. My ears warm. Does the heater ever go off in this joint?

“Perhaps worst of all,” my friend says, “is how the Evangelical community is lining up behind him.”

Wolves to the slaughter, I think. Could someone please turn down the heater?

The television channel changes, and two soccer teams run the field while the commentators offer play-by-play in Spanish. I grab a stack of chips, scoop salsa. I’ve never felt more privileged, more white, more embarrassed than I do now. I secretly wish we’d have chosen Thai, or barbecue, or any restaurant other than this Mexican establishment shaming us with our own would-be kings on the television.

***

The truth about a thing is sometimes hard to admit. But here’s the truth about the Trump campaign–they know exactly what they’re doing. Here’s the corollary truth–Donald Trump is in it to win, and he’s in it for him. He has his money; now, it’s time to get the power.

Time and time again, the Republican frontrunner has used power–specifically fear of the loss of it–to his benefit. He’s race-baited, trumped up a sense of white disenfranchisement, and promised to resolve it by making America great again. He’s promised to build a wall on the southern border, pledged to keep out the Mexican rapists, drug-dealers, and murderers. He’s promised a moratorium on Muslim immigration, preyed upon American fears of radical Islam. In an interview with CNN, he refused to renounce the support of noted racists David Duke.

 

(For a full timeline of Trump’s antics, click here.)

 

Trump is playing a game of Chinese Checkers, separating the world by color and pitting us one against another. It’s the stuff of divide-and-conquer megalomania. It’s the Game Theory of a madman.

Though this race-baiting is concerning, perhaps even more concerning is Trump’s heavy-handed attempts to quell dissent. At Valdosta State University in Georgia, it is reported that the Trump campaign removed black students who attended in silent protest. As concerning as it is that the Trump campaign might use some racial component to determine who is in and who is out, perhaps more concerning is his demonstration of the propensity to chill free speech and the freedom of assembly–both rights protected by the First Amendment. And though Trump is not an acting government agent just yet (in other words, one could argue that he is not prohibited from quelling free speech and assembly rights at his own events), do we believe these chilling tactics will change if he’s seated in the Oval Office?

Evidence suggests otherwise.

On Saturday morning, Trump held a rally in Northwest Arkansas. At our local airport, with reporters present, he stepped from his private plane and walked to the podium. There, he came out swinging at the press–the press who’d recently taken him to task on his race-baiting ways and fear-mongering.

“They write nasty false stories… you can’t really sue because the libel laws are virtually non-existent. … We’re gonna open up the libel laws so when they write falsely, we can sue the media and get damages. … Right now, they can say anything they want to say; someday, in the not-to-distant future if I win, they’re not going to get away with the stuff they get away with.” (Source.)

It was a not-so-subtle shot at the media, a brushback pitch from a fireballing big leaguer. This was Trump’s declaration–I will control the narrative, and may any who tries to hold me accountable by way of the First Amendment be damned.

As a practicing lawyer, I’ve been involved in more than one defamation lawsuit in the last twelve years. Let me assure you–the libel laws of most states are quite robust, and protect against defamatory false reporting. And though defamation does not generally protect a public figure (like Mr. Trump) from opinion, opposition, or dissent, one gets the sense that this is exactly what Mr. Trump wants. Protection from dissent is the ultimate power-grab.

There’s no need for the libel laws to be “opened up,” but this is the sort of we-the-people versus they-the-media/they-the-Hispanics/they-the-Muslims/they-the-Blacks message that has become the Trump hallmark. And whether you believe the billionaire turned vanity-candidate could succeed in efforts to weaken defamation rubrics, I have no doubt that his threat is not an idle one.

All this begs the question: what would a Donald Trump presidency look like? I would propose it might look a lot like this–

Take Trump to task on his future boarder wall? Get sued.

Point to the fact that you are far more likely to involved in a mass shooting carried out by a white American male than a Muslim extremist? Get sued.

Report that the Trump campaign forcibly removed minorities who were silently exercising their First Amendment right of assembly and free speech? Get sued.

It’s his way or the high way, and if Donald Trump gets his way, dissenting reporters, opinion columnists, and political dissenters will be traveling the highway to unemployment. Should he get his way, he’ll have an entire justice department at his disposal to pursue that agenda.

Consider that for a skinny-minute.

***

If you search Mr. Webster’s big book of words for the definition of “brink,” you will find a photograph of Donald Trump’s coif. It’s where we are. On the edge. And if we turn the reins over to this brand of power, I’m convinced America will find itself in less harmonious, more racially divided country. What’s more, if the New York businessman has his way, the American people will find themselves without an avenue of dissent.

This is my country, and I love her. But day by day, primary by primary, Trump-win by Trump-win, I feel a sense a deepening divide. There is an escalation in white-anger, white-fear, and one candidate is capitalizing on this anger and fear, promising that only he can fix it. Talk about the power of persuasion; talk about working the “art of the deal.”

With each passing day, I feel the need to apologize to my Hispanic, Muslim, and Black neighbors for Trump’s brand of politics. I feel the need to assure my Sikh friends that I welcome them into my community–a community without walls. This is their country, too; this is their refuge, too. This is their fertile ground, a place where they can be woven into the inexpressible beauty of the American tapestry.

Yes, this is our place, a place where we might grow into the collective dream voiced for us by a true American leader. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

*Photo by Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons via Flickr.

 

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  • Joanne Peterson

    Seth, you are right on the money saying Trump is appealing to the fear in white Americans. His beliefs and his actions turn my stomach, and I will not, actually refuse for my conscience sake, to vote for him. I will vote with my conscience for a man who is righteous, or who is closest. I must vote, and I’m honestly wondering who will win the primaries? We as white Americans are in the minority demographically, and who will the American people as a whole vote to win the primaries? Trump does not attract those people who he is insulting, demeaning, disrespecting, belittling, etc. and I am disgusted by his actions because his behavior, what he stands for, and his obvious stance to rise to power and control of the American people by taking away the rights of the people who disagree with him. Literally, Lord help us! Joanne

  • pastordt

    Amen, brother. Sadly, I do not think a Cruz victory will be that much different. This is the saddest and scariest of a lot of sad and scary election seasons I’ve ever seen and I’ve been votin’ for a good long time now.