The violent anti-Trump protests in Chicago over the weekend have met with uncharacteristic praise from some conservatives, who seem to think that the mob-activist, anti-free speech tactics of the Left might now be deployed to defeat, or at least temporarily silence, Donald Trump.
Here at The Federalist, David Marcus argues that by forcibly disrupting the rally enough to convince Trump to cancel his appearance, the anti-Trump protesters in Chicago “succeeded in doing what conservatives have failed to do. They shut Donald Trump up.”
He means this as praise, as if shutting down public events is the noble purpose of all protests in a free society. It’s not, and Marcus errs badly in conflating free speech with its opposite—mob rule.
Free Speech Isn’t Just A Competition
Marcus says free speech in a democracy is a competition, a marketplace of ideas. Protesting is the “best of America” because it “makes you fight for your views and values.” But of course that’s only true up to a point. Sure, in a competition, someone wins and someone loses. In a democracy, the idea is to channel that competition into elections and the formation of public policy, and to preempt political violence. Competition is thereby mediated and refined through accountable institutions and civic norms. One party’s candidate wins, the other loses. Fair enough.
But that’s not what the activist Left means by competition. They mean to silence their competitors. Witness the campus protest movement sweeping the country. In many instances, students have been openly hostile to free speech. In some cases, they have said so explicitly. In one particularly ironic case, communications professor Melissa Click, who has since been fired, called for “some muscle” to remove a student reporter who was trying to cover the Black Lives Matter protests at the University of Missouri.
It’s not just speech they wish to silence. Sometimes it’s duly elected representatives of the people. Witness the angry mob that descended on the Texas Legislature in June 2013, not just to protest, but to disrupt and shout down state senators trying to vote on a bill regulating abortion clinics. Recall the tens of thousands of pro-union activists that occupied the Wisconsin Capitol building in 2011, in a failed effort to prevent the legislature from passing Gov. Scott Walker’s labor reforms.
Left-wing Activists Don’t Want Free Speech
Such increasingly common tactics are deployed for one reason: to shut up the other side, in some cases literally by shouting them down.
This is more or less what happened in Chicago. Marcus claims no one violated Trump’s right to free speech by disrupting the rally, that it would have been safe for him to appear on stage. Maybe so. But anyone who read accounts of the protests—or of the protests the next day in Kansas City—knows that their purpose was to disrupt the event and force its cancellation.
Marcus claims that those trying to paint Trump as the victim are engaged in “spurious nonsense of the worst kind.” But there is of course an even worse kind of spurious nonsense, and it begins by conflating high-minded notions about competitive free speech and “the marketplace of ideas” with mob action.
After seven and-a-half years of feeling bullied by the Obama administration on everything from gay marriage to the IRS targeting scandal to the habitual use of the executive branch to harass political enemies, it’s understandable that conservatives might be tempted to adopt strong-arm tactics to silence their political enemies and gain back lost ground. Every time an angry mob shuts down institutions or disrupts the rule of law, voices on the Right murmur about the need to fight fire with fire.
Courting Mob Tactics Is Dangerous
They should resist. Mob activism is a tactic of the Left, and conservatives must reject it outright and emphatically. Conservatism, like American democracy itself, is in the end nothing if not a set of principles that preclude the kind of logic-of-power games the Left often plays.
Conservatives should shun the prospect, even in theory, of unaccountable and unelected forces entering into our politics. We should indeed fight for our views, but we should fight with words and ideas. We shouldn’t be forced to fight with our fists, and we shouldn’t applaud those who do.
Flirting with mob power carries another, somewhat hidden danger. It doesn’t just destroy the principles upon which a free society is built, it also destroys the conscience of the free citizen. As Northrop Frye once wrote, “There can be no free speech in a mob: free speech is one thing a mob can’t stand. You notice that the people who allow their fear of Communism to become hysterical eventually get to screaming that every sane man is a Communist.”
Today, this logic is playing out predictably: Trump supporters attack protesters, anti-Trump protesters accuse his supporters of racism and bigotry, and meanwhile the institutions that bind together our republic continue their long decline. This is not America at its best, it is a glimpse of us at our worst.
John is a senior correspondent at The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter.