Why Trump’s rhetoric matters

Free-speech advocates must not shy away from condemning his bigotry.

Wendy Kaminer


‘I think my rhetoric brings people together’, President Trump remarked with a straight face, prior to visiting El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, sites of our latest gun massacres. Whether or not he actually believes this, he’s acknowledging that speech has consequences. Free-speech advocates should be among the first to agree, to condemn the content and possible consequences of the president’s speech, while defending the right to indulge in it.

The trouble with the president’s rhetoric is as obvious as his old-fashioned racism, which is instantly recognisable to me, having grown up in the same era and the same general area as Trump, when racial and ethnic stereotyping and slurs were respectable. Like others of his cohort, he was a white identitarian long before the term ‘identitarianism’ was invented. He has a well-documented history of discriminating against African-Americans in the housing projects built by his father, from whom he inherited a fortune, and a habit of collectivising as well as denigrating members of demographic groups to which he does not belong. He talks about ‘the’ Hispanics and ‘the’ blacks, but you won’t hear him talk about ‘the’ white people.

His Muslim travel ban and immigration policies targeting refugees from Central America and Africa demonstrate the racism of his rhetoric. Trump, the son and grandson of immigrants, isn’t categorically anti-immigrant. He just favours white Europeans, like his in-laws and two of his wives, who bore four of his five children. As a leading administration immigration official recently declared, the famous poem etched on the Statue of Liberty welcoming impoverished ‘huddled masses’ was intended to welcome Europeans.

Trump’s reflexive, mid-century American bigotry may not place him among the increasingly active minority of America’s white supremacists, but he has clearly elicited their support, broadcasting concerns about ‘invasions’ of dark-skinned people from ‘shithole’ countries, condemning Mexican immigrants as rapists, opining that neo-Nazi rioters include some ‘very fine people’, and thuggishly encouraging the occasionally violent fantasies of some supporters. How do you stop migrants from entering the US, Trump asked rhetorically at a rally in the Florida Panhandle? ‘Shoot them’, one audience member shouted, to the president’s amusement. ‘That’s only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement’, he riffed. ‘Only in the Panhandle.’

This doesn’t justify blaming Trump for inciting violence, even in the wake of the massacre in the border community of El Paso by a heavily armed murderer who echoed Trump rhetorically, as well as several Fox News personalities. Pursuant to the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has rightly defined incitement narrowly, as speech intended and likely to cause immediate lawlessness. It does not and must not include even explicit advocacy or approval of violence (much less speech deemed hateful) that has no clear, intentional and immediate connection to a violent act. Incitement is akin to an attempted crime. Directing someone under your control to commit a violent act is incitement; indulging in violent or otherwise inflammatory rhetoric during a speech to a group of supporters is not.

But while Trump hasn’t incited violence against refugees and other minority groups, he has implicitly, effectively condoned it. At the very least he hasn’t discouraged it, as presidents were once expected to do. Yes, as teleprompter Trump, he has offered a staff member’s perfunctory condemnation of white supremacy, but Trump reading scripted, anodyne criticisms of bigotry or calls for national unity is Trump the ventriloquist’s dummy. Critics and supporters alike know that he speaks in his own thuggish voice on Twitter and at his rallies.

Speaking for himself, he wields the loudest bully pulpit in the land, and while he has not incited violence, he has contributed to a culture that seems to nurture it; he has mainstreamed the crudest expressions of bigotry. Free-speech advocates should not be afraid to say so, for fear of encouraging censorship.

We defend the right to speak, with hate as well as compassion, because speech matters. It matters because freedom of speech is essential to freedom of conscience. We have a fundamental moral right to harbour and express our beliefs. Speech has normative value. It matters because speech has the power to persuade, to disseminate ideas, to influence social, cultural and political trends. Speech has instrumental value, with costs as well as benefits. The president speaks with more power than the rest of us, and if we deny or ignore the probable costs of his speech, we deny that speech matters, and undermine our case for defending it.

Conversely, do we risk justifying calls for censorship by criticising the president’s speech? Perhaps. Identify any category of speech as a problem and you inevitably, inadvertently risk fuelling demands for a legal solution. Allegedly hateful speech has long been endangered on campus, and there is considerably more bipartisan support for restricting speech than regulating the civilian right to purchase and carry not just handguns, but weapons of war. Speech is often scapegoated for the problem of gun violence by Second Amendment absolutists, although even they would probably prefer encountering a bad guy with a big mouth than a bad guy with a gun. But censorship movements will thrive whether or not free-speech advocates acknowledge that, for better and worse, speech has consequences, however attenuated, especially when it is widely broadcast and woven into political discourse. And whether we remain silent or speak out in the face of those consequences, we will confront the perennial challenge of explaining why we defend the right to engage in speech we condemn.

We risk more with our silence. We risk suggesting that speech doesn’t matter, and if speech doesn’t matter then neither does censorship.

Wendy Kaminer is an author, a lawyer and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Picture by: Getty.

Why Trump’s rhetoric matters

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Tony Murphy

26th August 2019 at 8:58 pm

So white identitarianism is wrong but all other forms of identitarianism are ok?

Got it.

Hana Jinks

20th August 2019 at 9:14 pm

Wendy KomeInHere.

When you’re a babbling madwoman, the consequences of your speech are that you are seen as hysterically insane outside of extreme-left circle-jerks.

Hana Jinks

20th August 2019 at 9:57 pm

Wendy KomeInHere.

There will soon be a motion put forth granting Trump presidency for life, and with his successor to be Donald Trump Jr. This is designed to thwart dangerous commies like you, and with America still being a democracy, it’s sure to pass. Enjoy the Putin-parallels.

This is Trump v idiot-squad, and why we love him.


Neil McCaughan

20th August 2019 at 8:08 pm

Hard to decide which is sillier – Amin Readh or Miss Kamminer. Their baseless, bigoted attitude to President is just one of the reasons he will win handsomely next year.

Like the great Julie Burchill, I look forward to bathing in all those salt tears.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 10:00 pm

@ Neil McCaughan

He is a liar. A thief. A bigot. A racist and a bigot. He is semi-illiterate and his ego is bigger than the universe. He is completely immoral. The worst person to lead such a great country.

He will get elected for the fear and hatred he can stoke up. And how people like you fall at his feet and excuse ALL his immorality. And yet you know full well about everything said about him is true.

Neil McCaughan

21st August 2019 at 10:57 am

Hysterical nonsense.

Amin Readh

21st August 2019 at 3:27 pm

@ Neil McCaughan

Deluded muppet without a shred of honesty or decency.

Jerry Owen

20th August 2019 at 5:57 pm

Looks like Wendy has had another good beating here. I am so surprised she tried to pull some of the same old tripe as she normally does, as we have dealt most of it the death blow by using the proper quotes instead of her made up stuff.
Ironically the first time she tried to tell us Trump said Nazis were fine people BON on another thread was on about fake newsprint.
I’m not surprised at Wendy’s lack of intelligence but I am surprised Spiked allow such misconstrued rubbish to be printed in their name.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 10:02 pm

@ Jerry Owen

Lol! More of your fantasies. You are full of sh+t. Having to debase your self for Trump!

Gerard Barry

20th August 2019 at 4:47 pm

While Trump doesn’t hold back when he has something to say, many of his comments are called “racist” when they’re actually not. A classic example of this was his tweet directed at the congressman from Baltimore. CNN shamelessly called this tweet racist, presumably simply because the recipient happened to be black. People who think Trump is racist need to get out more. I have to laugh when I hear people in Ireland (where I come from) jumping on the anti-Trump bandwagon when I have clashed with the exact people in the past over genuinely racist and xenophobic comments they have made. One rule for me, another for thee, it seems. Since when do we expect our politicians to be paragons of moral virtue?

Hana Jinks

20th August 2019 at 9:35 pm

Exactly what l was thinking too. Just how “moral” do they think the Clinton’s are? Lol.

They’re actually re-defining racism, to the point where if “the recipient happens fo be black”… their lies are destroying our nations.

Amin Readh

21st August 2019 at 3:40 pm

@ Gerard Barry

” many of his comments are called “racist” when they’re actually not”

Right. So you admit many are racist. What is truly amazing is how people like you know full well what he is yet deny it. It is just lying.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 3:51 pm

@ Jerry Owen

“When Mexico sends its people…” Mexico! Or is that name of a gang too?

“It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America…”

Jerry Owen

20th August 2019 at 4:03 pm

Yes Amin illegal immigration from all over… It must stop.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 10:03 pm

@ Jerry Owen

And yet you pretend otherwise. You are a bare-faced liar.

Philip Humphrey

20th August 2019 at 3:02 pm

Seems to me to be a very convoluted argument in the article that boils down to something like “We have to censor or shout down speech we don’t approve of in order to defend free speech”. In other words, the full Orwell. As for accusing Trump of bigotry, about time the Democrats and liberal elite took a long hard look in the mirror. Of course to the liberal elite, the “basket of deplorables” (mostly poorer whites without college degrees) don’t count and they (the liberal elite) can’t see their own bigotry and classism for what it really is.

Martin Bishop

20th August 2019 at 1:41 pm

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.

The threat of censorship and potential diminishment of responsibility for individual actions is a common shield used by those who believe their speech should be free from blame or consequence. Some people, including certain journalists seem to like using this fear tactic as a means of avoiding being held to account for their contribution to negative culture and influence of actions of individuals.

If words truly held such little power then no one would want to censor, and no one would champion free speech. No one would get sued for libel or slander. Propaganda wouldn’t exist.

To play down the power of influence and power of speech is also to play down the seriousness of censorship. With this power comes a duty of responsibility, so acting with childlike irresponsibility and slopey shoulders invites parental oversight.

brent mckeon

20th August 2019 at 11:21 am

The writer of the article repeats a few ‘fake news errors’ on Trump. He appears to not be a very nice person (seems to be common for N.York business people of all races/types) but that is no reason to lie about what he says or does. Millions are pouring into the USA , a count after Obama was +- 20 million illegal immigrants in the USA. At the same time the Marxist/Left chattering classes and MSM are daily attacking ‘Whites’ for all USA’s racial problems. What country on Earth is there a majority who is on purpose allowing others (since the mid 60s by Ted Kennedy legislation) from all over the world to pour in and change the demographics? If the US is so bad why are millions battering down the borders trying to get in and even more baffling against these USA haters, the numbers have picked up markedly since Trump was elected.. To put it plainly, no country on Earth gets so many immigrants, legal or illegal, (must be a good reason) and this has increased since Trump is the president. Thus either outsiders see the US as better under Trump or the Ruling elites/Swamp is deliberately pushing illegal immigrants via Mexico. Either way Trump is not the illegal immigration baddie.
The racial divide/angst was deliberately magnified (for electoral gain) under Obama, called identity politics. The inconvenient truth is Trump is merely playing on that playing field set by the Dems and their Lefty allies. If the most influential section of the USA punts only ‘Non whites’ (whilst vigorously attacking everything white) inevitably someone will come up and defend the voiceless, who actually made America what it is so that so many millions are throwing everything they know away and rushing to become Americans. – wonder why? Millions rushing to get into America kind of proves it is the greatest country!!!!! When Haitians fled its nature caused angst, where do they sail to, Cuba 50 kms away or Florida over 200 kms away? The latter, wonder why they chose racist America to the socialist paradise of Cuba, please enlighten me?

christopher barnard

20th August 2019 at 10:34 am

Racism is ‘instantly recognisable’ to many people these days.

They see it everywhere they look.

This says more about their own obsessions, their low opinion of others and their inability to debate and address political issues seriously than about racism.

Jerry Owen

20th August 2019 at 9:24 am

Spiked have deleted a comment under moderation. I will try again.
I quote from Kaminer herself in a previous anti Trump piece of TDS writing. I will start just before the relevant part for context, please note the quote marks :-
…,’whom he is loathe to offend. ( Some neo-Nazis are ‘very fine people’, he famously declared ).’ End quote.
We know full well he didn’t and this is meant to deceive.
Trump never had a Muslim travel ban.
Trump referred to many illegals ( Mexicans ) being rapists criminals and drug traffickers, he is of course factually correct, again Kaminer distorts the truth getting us to believe he means all of them.
If you cannot quote factually you have lost the argument.
Please read BONs piece on the El Paso tragedy for an informed article, it will make this article childlike in comparison.. but that’s because it is.
This is an opinion piece light on fact heavy on rhetoric.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 5:25 pm

“Trump never had a Muslim travel ban.”

He wasn’t allowed to by law. His rhetoric during campaigns claimed he was.

“Trump referred to many illegals ( Mexicans ) being rapists criminals and drug traffickers”

Nope. He specifically said Mexican and then expanded it to include other Hispanics.

“If you cannot quote factually you have lost the argument.”


Jerry Owen

20th August 2019 at 5:52 pm

No Amin .. you let your fantasies get in the way, at no stager did he refer to ‘all Mexicans’ as has been alluded too.
The Muslim ban wasn’t .. as the largest Muslim countries were not included ( Obama’s list BTW ). The ban was on the countries most likely to send terrorists .. coincidentally ( I wonder why ) they happened to be mainly but NOT exclusively Muslim.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 8:17 pm

@ Jerry Owen

“No Amin .. you let your fantasies get in the way, at no stager did he refer to ‘all Mexicans’ as has been alluded too.”

This is just outright lying! What else is it?

“The Muslim ban wasn’t”

He was stopped. His rhetoric during the campaign said something else.

“The ban was on the countries most likely to send terrorists”

Nope. The list had huge omissions: Pakistan? Saudi?

“coincidentally ( I wonder why ) they happened to be mainly but NOT exclusively Muslim.”

No you are not wondering why at all.

Jim Lawrie

20th August 2019 at 2:40 am

Had his father not chosen his tenants carefully then he would not have had a penny left to bequeath to his son.
Do you live in a white, European area Ms Kaminer? Brought up in one?

Mark Williams

20th August 2019 at 1:03 am

Wow. Just wow.

“He talks about ‘the’ Hispanics and ‘the’ blacks, but you won’t hear him talk about ‘the’ white people.”.

One can imagine the massive pushback by the Left is he spoke about “the white people”. He’d be howled down as a “white supremacist”.

From the NYT’s article:

“While there is no evidence that Mr. Trump personally set the rental policies at his father’s properties, he was on hand while they were in place, working out of a cubicle in Trump Management’s Brooklyn offices as early as the summer of 1968”.

After two years of the “Russia conspiracy”, we’re expected to believe this nonsense? Give me a break. Where is the evidence that Trump *himself* is racist? I’ve read all these articles, all these claims, and yet I can’t find a single piece of proof that the man is racist. All I read is hearsay.

There was never a Muslim ban. The vast majority (I forget the exact number) of Muslims would have been able to enter the US. It was a ban of specific countries — the list of which was from Obama — that are majority Muslim. These are not the same things.

Why not mentioned AOC’s “concentration camps” comment? The guy who tried to blow up an ICE facility quoted her directly. Why not mention the Ohio shooter?

The “very fine people on both sides” comment was about the protesters who were at Charlotsville to protest the removal of a statue. One can watch the unedited video online. Trump denounces white nationalist/supremacy in the same video, 2 sentences later.

What the articles states is a blatant lie.

The Mexican rapist comments were about MS-13, a brutal gang that rapes women and traffics children.

What the articles states is a blatant lie. Shame on you.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 3:20 am

Shame on you more like it. Trump is a racist, egotistical bigot. Grow up.

“Where is the evidence that Trump *himself* is racist?”

Send her back. Comments on blacks, Mexicans, White Europeans.

“There was never a Muslim ban.”

It was quashed – legally. Yet during campaigning that was what he promised. His son-in-law is deep in with the Saudis and Qataris.

“Why not mentioned AOC’s “concentration camps” comment?”

Because they’ve got nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with AOC. How stupid are you?

“The Mexican rapist comments were about MS-13”

How do you know? He never mentioned any such gang.

Jerry Owen

20th August 2019 at 8:47 am

He did mention the gang.

brent mckeon

20th August 2019 at 10:49 am

Trump is a racist, egotistical bigot because you say so? – proof.
The Pack of 4 were bad mouthing the USA plus Trump (remember one called him a Mother f….r to Lefty delight) so he just said if you don’t like it here go back to where you came from, logic and reason not racism. Ie be part of the solution or buzz off, reasonable.
Trump did not ban Muslims, he merely re-instituted Obama’s ban on 7 Muslim majority countries ‘UNTIL we can sort out the immigration admin details’. If that is racist, then so is Obama.
Funny when Obama banned immigration from the same 7 countries, to sort out admin problems, there was not outcry and judges overturning the executive decision, wonder why not?
AOC’s concentration comment was a direct attack on Trump and his admin. Comparing him to the Nazi concentration camps – who is the racist, ask your Jewish friends?
Mexican rapist comment was in a conversation on the MS-13 gang and the MSM simply omitted that fact. His comment was 100% factually correct in the context of his conversation.
Suggest you try to deal with facts not Lefty MSM misinformation

Ven Oods

20th August 2019 at 3:44 pm

“Grow up.”

A piece of advice that never yet managed to win an argument or change anyone’s mind.

Thetrash Heap

20th August 2019 at 12:45 am

Some of the people at the protest weren’t neo nazis. This is a fact. His statement about the violence being 2 way was also true. Every time you attack him with a lie you hurt your cause.

As for Mexican rapist. After he cracked down on illegal Hispanic migration. He got a 20 point bump amongst Hispanics. Why because they are the ones living beside Ms13 gangsters and competing with illegals for work. While white Middle class liberals had hissy fit about racism. Hispanics shared his worry on crime and cheap labour.

Free speech is open to criticism and trump has many many faults but this crying wolf over racism is dividing the country more than he ever did.

We not only have a free speech problem in this country we have a listening problem. This author is an example of that. Believe the worst in perso and refuse to accept what they say could be true. We need to stop seeing the other side as baddies. Instead we need to realise that most peoples opinion is in good faith and if we disagree we need to win them round with facts and reason. Too often people are switching to outrage and grandstanding over an exchange of ideas.

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 3:22 am

“Believe the worst in perso and refuse to accept what they say could be true. We need to stop seeing the other side as baddies.”

Ah yes, that old trope! As soon as the boot is on the other foot you will be there demonising rather than “listening”. Hypocrisy!

brent mckeon

20th August 2019 at 10:52 am

So why do you always see Trump as the baddie, practice what you preach?

Amin Readh

20th August 2019 at 4:09 pm

@ brent mckeon

“So why do you always see Trump as the baddie, practice what you preach?”

What am I preaching? The f-ck you on about? Trump is rotten to the core.

Jerry Owen

20th August 2019 at 8:48 am

Kaminer is fact light, derangement heavy.

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