When U.C. Berkeley students protested a campus visit by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, President Trump threatened to cut the university’s federal funding. The fact that this threat was issued via Twitter made it no less chilling.
I remember Skokie. I remember the outrage and shame.
In 1997, the Supreme Court upheld the ACLU defense of a neo-Nazi organization to march through Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb populated by a large number of Holocaust survivors. The marchers wore swastika armbands and held signs reading “Freedom of Speech.”
Today, we are at a similar crossroads regarding the protections of the First Amendment. When U.C. Berkeley students protested a campus visit by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, President Trump threatened to cut the university’s federal funding. The fact that this threat was issued via Twitter made it no less chilling. Where will the ACLU chime in on this? With the students or with the Alt-Right editor?
Perhaps I am catastrophizing, but if the Trump Administration is left unchecked, with the former publisher of Breitbart at the helm, I see them turning the First Amendment into a political tool with which to incite violent religious and ethnic hatred. Whether he admits to knowing David Duke or not, Trump just removed white supremacist groups from the list of violent domestic extremists the U.S. government will work to deter, thereby legitimizing them and all but inviting them into our campuses and communities.
Let me get this. If Trump champions free speech by the Klan and the alt-Right, why is he bludgeoning free speech by the 1,000 State Department employees who voiced their concerns about the executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries? Why was he so quick to silence Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates for doing her job? Why did his henchman Steve Bannon tell the media to “shut up”? More to the point, how long will it take for this administration’s self-serving interpretation of the First Amendment to escalate into full blown fascism with the National Guard re-enacting the Kent State Massacre?
Call me an alarmist, but I have never been so fearful for my country. I am told there are “checks and balances” to prevent our democracy from a demagogue or madman. But when I heard that Trump had invited two Supreme Court candidates to come to the White House, all I can say is that I was relieved he didn’t hand Judge Gorsuch a red rose. (Thank God, the other candidate has enough self-respect to stay home.)
There is a theory quickly spreading on social media warning that all of the executive orders issued during the administration’s first week were a “head fake.” In other words, many people believe they were created to distract us from truly dangerous and probably unlawful activities that could be taking place out of public view. This could include covert operations in Iran, Iraq, or Syria to make good on another campaign promise such as taking the oil fields. Sure, it’s illegal. But the law doesn’t seem to apply to Herr Trump.
If not stealing oil fields, the Trump-Bannon regime could be cozying up to Russia and forming secret trade and military alliances of which Ukraine will be collateral damage. Or who knows? The man who said “We’ve got ’em. Why not use ’em?” might decide to nuke Iran.
Which brings me to my only hope. While I applaud the millions who marched across the country and around the world on Jan. 21, I believe the only way liberals like me will prevent the Constitution from going up in flames is to partner with Republicans who share our concerns. Earlier this week, I called the office of Republican Pa. Rep. Charlie Dent to thank him for voicing opposition to the Muslim ban. He is but one of dozens of Republican congressmen and senators who are not afraid to stand up to Trump and his cronies. As months (and our freedoms) unravel, I expect many other Republican politicians with an eye on 2018 elections to join the voices of dissent. These are the people with whom we need to collaborate regarding the dangers Trump presents to freedom of speech. Even if we differ regarding other issues.
This is a unique and uncertain time in American history for which we will be judged for centuries to come. We need to come out of our social media echo chambers and speak with our neighbors, face to face, to find the common humanity that is in all of us. Before the Supreme Court give us another Skokie.