The arrogance of the ‘Ban Trump’ lobby
It is childish and chilling to try to block Trump's visit to Britain.
If you thought it was only precious student agitators who arrogantly believe they have the right to live in a ‘safe space’ that deflects ideas they don’t like, think again. Now actual grown-ups in the worlds of politics and the media are pleading to be swaddled in bubble wrap and protected from an offensive speaker. They have demanded the No Platforming of none other than President Donald Trump. ‘Ban him from Britain!’, they cry, thinking this makes them sound radical, when in fact they come off like overgrown versions of those students who retreat into cosy rooms with colouring books and puppies for petting whenever someone they disagree with shows up on campus.
The demand that Trump be banned from our shores following his dimwitted retweeting of Britain First videos confirms that the cult of the safe space is spreading. That campus conviction that some of us find both astonishing and alarming — that anyone who rattles my sensibilities or pricks my self-esteem is evil and should be silenced — has gone mainstream. Trump and his blather would not be ‘conducive to the public good’, said Labour MP Chris Bryant, citing British law that allows for the banning of foreign agents who talk balls — this is indistinguishable from when controversy-phobic students ban speakers on the grounds that they will harm the mental wellbeing of the student body.
Indeed, many of the arguments for forcefielding Britain against a state visit by Trump echo the censorious cries of the No Platformers who have colonised student politics. He could ‘stir up hatred’, his aspiring banners cry, which is what the jumped-up Joe Stalins of student politics say when they silence UKIP, or Linda Bellos, or Julie Bindel. A Guardian columnist says his ideas pose a ‘direct challenge to Britain and its values’, just as the people on the NUS’s ever-lengthening No Platform blacklist apparently ‘challenge’ campus values. The Independent says Theresa May should tell Trump he is ‘not welcome to visit Britain’s multicultural nation until he learns some manners’: perhaps he should submit all his tweets and speeches to his British hosts in advance of any future visit, just as ‘unmannerly’ external speakers are expected to do before setting food on stifled, conformist campuses.
For all its progressive pretensions, the ‘Ban Trump’ demand is fuelled by the same allergy to offence and discomfort with speech — mere speech — that defines campus authoritarianism. Consider the suggestion that Trump could ‘stir hate’ during a trip to Blighty: what is being said here is that his words, his ideas, his balderdash could warp minds and cause people to feel either hateful and violent or fearful and sad. It’s the same ugly paternalism that motors the No Platform lobby, which holds that people are so suggestible and weak-willed, such empty vessels simply awaiting the arrival of dodgy ideologies into their spacious heads, that a couple of sore comments or brash words from a visiting speaker might propel them over the edge into hatred / depression. Like all demands for bans, the largely media-driven call for Trump to be blocked from Britain takes as its starting point that they — not nice, clever people like us, but they — will be made even more monstrous upon hearing the speech of Bad People; like when a dog hears the word ‘attack’.
And there is an extraordinary double standard, too, in the idea that Trump’s mean tweets about Muslims mean he is unfit to come here, and certainly to address both Houses of Parliament. Those Houses, if I am not mistaken, are full of politicians who over the past 15 years have voted on three occasions to bomb Muslim-majority countries, with absolutely devastating consequences for life, limb and stability. Where do these people get off telling Trump off for being coarse about people of the Islamic faith? Ladies and gents, the British Parliament, where you can remain a glass-clinking member of the accepted, liked, retweeted political set even after saying, ‘Oh go on then, drop bombs on Libya’, but where sharing a fake-news vid about Muslims will lead to your denunciation as the devil incarnate.
If people want to protest against Trump if he comes to Britain, that is absolutely their right. The right to shout and fume against politicians, whether British or foreign, is central to a free and open society. But to call on the government to ban Trump on the basis of what he says and tweets — that goes against the grain of the free and open society by empowering officialdom to determine what is a fit opinion for visitors to Britain to hold.
It is reported that Trump’s ‘working visit’ to Britain early next year has now been cancelled. This potentially sets a terrible precedent. Small, loud, unrepresentative cliques are developing the power, via Twitter and the media and their connections with the political class, to determine, or at least strongly influence, who may and may not come to Britain on the basis of what they say. Good opinions, you’re in; bad opinions, you’re out. This is undemocratic and wrong. They’re making Britain into a safe space, and worse, British citizens into child-like creatures requiring protection from offence. In such circumstances, I would argue that Trump must come, if only to weaken their censorious forcefield and show them they don’t get to decide who speaks or what we should think. We can judge for ourselves if Trump is talking sense or rubbish. Let him in. And then protest against him, by all means, as loudly and rudely as you like.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
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