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.

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