After Super Tuesday, what was once unthinkable may now be inevitable: Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president of the United States.
That’s my cue to join the hundreds of other columnists and pundits scrambling to inform Republican primary voters so that when they vote, they understand the implications of their vote. Of course, the joke is on us. The more we pile on Trump, the more he piles up votes.
Nevertheless, we have a civic duty at moments like this “to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties,” to quote James Madison. There are troubling signs in this campaign that a Trump presidency could be a disaster for First Amendment freedoms.
You might think that Trump and his supporters would be frontline defenders of the First Amendment. After all, no presidential campaign in modern history has taken more advantage of the “free” in free speech.
Vicious name-calling, racist fear-mongering, crude remarks about women’s body parts, cyberbullying, playground taunts: Welcome to the ever-lowering low bar for political discourse in Trump’s America, a reality TV show where decorum, decency, and integrity are out-of-date civic virtues for “losers.”
But while bemoaning this descent into the political gutter, it is worth remembering that we are fortunate to live in a country with the most robust protection for free speech in the history of the world. Offensive, even hateful, speech is the cost of freedom – and we must be willing to pay the price.
After all, the only thing worse than a political arena filled with offensive speech is a political arena where government determines what is offensive.
Having said that, I worry what the election of Donald Trump would mean for the First Amendment – not so much because of the content of his speech, but rather because of the ways in which actions that flow from the speech threaten the freedom of others.
Trump says, for example, that his “first priority” as president would be to “preserve and protect our religious liberty.” But a closer listen reveals that he means, “I’m going to protect Christians,” as he told students at Liberty University.
People of other faiths, not so much: Consider Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. A startling 65 percent of Republican primary voters back this unjust, unconstitutional idea, according to exit polls.
Combine the Muslim ban with Trump’s apparently popular positions that the government might have to “close down mosques” and establish a database to track Muslims in the U.S. – and we get a toxic recipe for violating the religious freedom of an entire faith community.
For other disturbing signs of how the First Amendment might be undermined by a Trump administration, consider the frequent ugly encounters at Trump rallies between Trump supporters and protesters. Egged on by Trump, angry crowds surround protesters – including those standing silently with anti-Trump signs.
“Get ‘em out of here,” shouts Trump – and his followers then taunt, intimidate and sometimes physically attack the protesters. Violence and threats, rare in past American political campaigns, are now the norm on the campaign trail with Trump.
Journalists, especially female reporters, are frequent targets of Trump’s ire, from Megyn Kelly of Fox News to Katy Tur of MSNBC. Trump habitually calls out reporters at his rallies and whips up crowds with tirades about the “absolute scum” in the “dishonest” news media.
Describing the scene at a recent Trump rally in Virginia, Tur tweeted: “Trump trashes press. Crowd jeers. Guy by press ‘pen’ looks at us & screams ‘you’re a bitch!’ Other gentleman gives cameras the double bird.”
The mob anger stirred up by Trump on the road explodes exponentially online. In just 24 hours, Trump supporters tweeted hundreds of sexist slurs directed at Kelly, calling her bitch, bimbo, skank, whore and worse, according to an analysis by the news site Vocativ. Kelly had to get off Twitter.
Beyond reporters, Trump and his 6 million Twitter followers cyberbully anyone and everyone who dares to oppose him – often with personal attacks and deceptive statements that go viral and humiliate the people targeted.
Without a hint of irony, Trump sees himself as the victim because, well, the First Amendment goes too far. During a recent speech in Texas, Trump promised that if elected he would deal with the negative press by opening “up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Something has changed in America. Attacks on religious freedom, intimidation of reporters, assaults on peaceful protesters are now a “winning” formula at the polls. To say the least, this does not bode well for the future vitality of First Amendment freedoms.
At our nation’s founding, John Adams and James Madison famously warned that one of the greatest dangers of democracy is the tyranny of the majority. To safeguard against that danger, our Framers rejected pure democracy in favor of representative democracy or a Republic – and then added a Bill of Rights to ensure that individual freedoms could not be violated by the whims – or the anger – of the majority.
In the hands of a popular authoritarian president, however, the First Amendment could be reduced to what Madison called a “parchment barrier” subverted by the will of the majority. “Repeated violations of these parchment barriers,” he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1788, “have been committed by overbearing majorities in every State.”
If Trumpism triumphs at the Republican convention, the American commitment to our first freedoms will be tested in ways rarely seen in our history. On Nov. 8, 2016, the future of the First Amendment may well be on the ballot.
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center.