The ‘snowflake’ in the White House
Trump’s contempt for free speech makes him a president for his time.
Why have President Donald Trump’s public displays of contempt for free speech and a free press sparked relatively few protests? Perhaps because many of those liberal voices now shouting against his immigration order sort-of share Trump’s underlying illiberal attitude to free speech. These anti-Trump protesters simply want to suppress or sanitise different sorts of speech – starting with that of the president himself.
Contrary to historically ignorant claims, Trump is no throwback to 1930s-style book-burning fascism. Far from it — his disdainful attitude towards free speech marks out Trump as a man of his times.
spiked readers will be aware of the 21st-century problem of ‘generation snowflake’ – the hyper-sensitive millennials who want protection from speech they deem too offensive or hateful. Student activists in the US or UK once fought for more free speech on campus. Now they are now more likely to campaign for bans on anything from ‘transphobic’ feminist speakers to right-wing tabloid newspapers, and to demand political Safe Spaces where opinions that might make them ‘uncomfortable’ are barred. Just this week protesters at the University of California at Berkeley stopped the right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart News addressing students, an attack on free speech (in the birthplace of the campus Free Speech Movement) that they justified on the ground that he backs ‘Trump’s possessive fascist government’. One of the forms of speech barred from their Safe Space is apparently irony.
The ‘snowflake’ phenomenon is sometimes talked about in ‘What’s-wrong-with-young-people-today?’ terms, as if it was an incomprehensible characteristic of modern youth, like the latest trends in tattoos or piercing. It should be clear by now that this threat to free speech has much deeper roots, reaching into the heart of contemporary Western culture.
The election of President Trump means that there is a 70-year old snowflake in the White House. The ‘leader of the free world’ is as intolerant of speech he finds offensive as any ban-happy college radical. And this presidential snowflake is empowered, not just to protest against a speaker on campus, but to attack the First Amendment to the US Constitution and try to limit the freedom of the press.
Despite their mutual animosity, Trump displays key characteristics of an anti-free speech snowflake activist. He is a thin-skinned, self-obsessed screecher who interprets any political or intellectual disagreement as a personal assault. His response to ideas he finds offensive is not to challenge them, but to try to silence them. His is a fearful, subjective view of the world in which his feelings count more than facts or fundamental principles. That’s why his administration is effectively running an official Twittermob against Trump’s critics.
None of this has anything to do with fascism. It is ‘snowflakeism’, endorsed with the seal of the President of the United States.
Of course many previous US presidents, like people in power everywhere, had mixed feelings about freedom of speech, especially when applied to their opponents. The pattern was set by the Founding Fathers of the American republic, most of whom, in the words of one historian, displayed an ‘unbridled passion for a bridled liberty of speech’. However, few have been as willing as the new president to display their contempt for the First Amendment in public.
The First Amendment, passed in December 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, enshrines the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and the freedom to petition government for the redress of grievances. The amendment’s central point on freedom of expression states baldly that ‘Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. Some 225 years later, those 14 words still set the global standard for the legal protection of free speech.
Over the past half-century, the US Supreme Court has often interpreted the First Amendment relatively liberally, to give protection to forms of speech that would once have been deemed beyond the pale, from anti-war protesters to the Ku Klux Klan. American libel law has also been liberalised: it is virtually impossible for a political or public figure to sue for defamation, unless they can prove that their critics acted out of malice and knowingly lied.
However, such liberal interpretations of the First Amendment appear increasingly out of step with the times, when speech in the US and across the West is dominated by a creeping culture of conformism and the slogan of the age is ‘You Can’t Say That!’. This is what emboldens the student ‘snowflakes’ to attack free speech on campus. And it has encouraged the new snowflake in the White House to make public his own low opinion of freedom of expression and seek to impose his personal version of political correctness.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump made no secret of his dislike of press freedom and his wish to revise American libel laws to curb the media’s ability to attack him. Trump expressed admiration of English libel law – long seen as the most restrictive in the civilised world. He would happily amend US law along similar lines to enable him to sue his critics into silence.
As Trump announced from a campaign platform in Texas last February: ‘I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.’ He warned the liberal New York Times and Washington Post in particular that his planned legal changes would mean whenever they attacked him in ‘a hit piece which is a total disgrace we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected. We’re going to open up libel laws, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.’ No doubt many other rich and powerful people in America, some of whom are currently using privacy suits to try to gag media critics through the back door, would like to see libel law amended along Trump’s lines. But substitute, say, Fox News for the New York Times, and his assault on the ‘negative, horrible and false’ media also chimes with radical criticisms of ‘too much’ media freedom.
Then when Trump was elected in November, almost the first thing the new president-elect did was to throw a Twitter tantrum attacking the First Amendment on a sensitive issue – flag-burning. In response to reports that the US flag had been burnt during the anti-Trump protests that followed the election, notably at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, the president-elect tweeted that ‘Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!’.
The Supreme Court has previously acknowledged flag-burning as a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment, in a judgment backed even by conservative justices. Very few Americans might want to burn the flag, or would support actual flag-burning in practice. But upholding the principle of the right to burn has been viewed as an example of the acid test for free speech, as set by one Supreme Court justice more than 85 years ago: the need to defend ‘freedom for the thought that we hate’.
Thus liberal critics and lawyers quickly and rightly condemned Trump’s tweet as ‘an attack on our freedom to dissent’, and there was muttering about this as further proof of The Donald’s ‘fascist’ leanings. Yet was the notion of banning that which you cannot comprehend and punishing those who offend your sense of decency so out of step? After all, the last prominent US politician to propose making it a crime to burn the US flag in 2005, with punishment of up to a $100,000 fine, was… then senator Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party candidate of the liberal establishment whom Trump beat to the White House. And suppose the symbol being burned was not the Stars-and-Stripes, but a cross KKK-style, or a Koran — how many college snowflakes would go to bat for the freedom of those offensive arsonists ‘to dissent’ from the mainstream?
In the weeks since his inauguration, President Trump’s thin-skinned intolerance has been most evident in his self-proclaimed ‘running war’ with the press. The president and his spokesmen have clashed with the media over reports of everything from the unsubstantiated allegations about Trump’s past sexual antics in Russia, to the size of the crowd attending the inauguration ceremony in Washington DC.
Things came to head a week ago when chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon, late of the right-wing website Breitbart News, declared in an interview that ‘the media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States. The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.’
Journalists and media bosses reacted to Bannon’s fighting talk with understandable alarm. ‘What country are we living in?’ tweeted Christiane Amanpour, the veteran CNN correspondent.
As it happens Bannon had half a point. Much of the liberal media does tend to see itself as ‘the opposition party’ to Trump. Surveys suggested that 91 per cent of media coverage of his election campaign was negative. It made no difference, because many Trump voters viewed the media as part of the establishment against which they were revolting. Trump’s election was indeed an embarrassment and a humiliation for the mainstream media, and their high-handed attitude since the election suggests they still don’t seem to understand what happened or why. The president is perfectly entitled to criticise the press in blunt fashion, just as they must be free fearlessly to question everything he says or does.
But that is quite different from a senior White House spokesman warning the media to ‘keep its mouth shut’, or President Trump declaring that his administration will hold the media to account. It is the job of a free press to hold the powerful accountable, to expose the truth that those in authority want hidden, to publish and be damned. It is no business of any government or head of state in a free society to threaten press freedom or tell the media what news is and is not fit for them to reveal to the public.
Yet in reality, many of Trump’s critics have equally little time for press freedom as an indivisible liberty. Democrats have long blamed ‘media lies’ for leading astray gullible and ‘low-information’ (aka ‘low-intelligence’) voters. Many would like to ‘shut up’ Fox News or Breitbart. Allegedly liberal lobbyists are often in the frontline of the crusade to make ‘You Can’t Say That!’ the new American anthem. Indeed that was the dominant response to Trump’s rhetorical outbursts in his campaign for president – not to engage with his ideas (such as they were), but simply to announce, in Mrs Clinton’s words, that ‘We should not accept it. You don’t talk like that in political campaigns.’ They did not so much lose the argument as refuse to have it. Now the censorious boot is on the other foot, with Trump’s spokesmen telling his critics to shut up.
Far from being an extraordinary throwback to fascism, Trump’s contempt for free speech might make him seem a representative president for his time. As my book Trigger Warning argues, we live in the age of the ‘reverse-Voltaires’. The classic statement of support for free speech credited to the French revolutionary Voltaire – ‘I may despise what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ – has now been twisted into its opposite: ‘I know I will hate what you say, and I will fight to the end of free speech for my right to stop you saying it.’ The reverse-Voltaire in the White House and the ones protesting outside just disagree about which ideas they find too offensive to tolerate.
Of course, if President Trump tries to pursue this agenda in practice he will find rewriting the First Amendment slightly more difficult than posting a Tweet. But the atmosphere is already becoming more hostile to freedom of expression. The only effective way to respond is to make a stand for freedom for the thought that we hate, and refuse to allow free speech to be frozen by snowflakes, no matter from which direction they are blowing.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and what they’re afraid of, is published by William Collins on 23 February 2017. Pre-order it here.