Trump, Congress, and the right way to react to heinous speech from the people

Trump, Congress, and the right way to react to heinous speech from the people
(Image: Screen grab of CBS News video, YouTube)

Raheem Kassam had a very important piece at Breitbart on Thursday, warning of the dangers incurred by President Trump’s signature on a joint congressional resolution condemning Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists over the events in Charlottesville on 11 and 12 August.

Kassam correctly points out that the congressional resolution is a “European-style assault on free speech.”

This is not because it condemns Nazis or white supremacists, who richly merit condemnation.

It’s because the government is condemning speech by the people, in a situation in which there is no lawful basis for taking official action against the speech.

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Doing that opens a very dangerous door (this is me speaking now, more explicitly than Kassam put it): a door to vague, open-ended interpretations of what political speech means and leads to.  It also sets up specific categories of “evil speakers,” into which anyone can be put these days if you just donate enough (here too) to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Note this basic constitutional point: the speech itself is protected.  It’s vile, but it’s protected.

What Congress does is use the pretext of the lives lost, in the actual, prosecutable violence at the Charlottesville demonstrations, to condemn the content of the speech.  That’s back-dooring the First Amendment.

The resolution calls on the president, moreover, to, among other things,

… speak out against hate groups that espouse racism, extremism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and White supremacy; and…use all resources available to the President and the President’s Cabinet to address the growing prevalence of those hate groups in the United States…

“Speak out against?”  What is the lawful purpose of that, exactly?  This prescription for the use of presidential power is more in the nature of ordering an Orwellian Two-Minute Hate than of anything the president of the United States should be doing.

The extreme vagueness of the call to “address the growing prevalence of hate groups” can likewise not be overstated.

Raheem Kassam makes these comments:

From the outset this is disingenuous and troublesome.

The President has already disavowed these groups, including Neo Nazis and the KKK. Why are elected members, alongside the White House, wasting time virtue signaling over it?

Perhaps because it backs POTUS into a corner, especially when you consider many establishment media organizations call his former Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon — who has mocked and derided ethno-nationalists — a “white nationalist” or “white supremacist”. This week, ESPN even let one of its hosts off with no more than a slapped wrist for suggesting the President himself was a “white supremacist”.

So by whose definitions are we going?

Whose, indeed?  Consider this one remarkable data point: suddenly, just in the last 48 hours –  as Trump was being presented with this resolution – Ben Shapiro is being condemned at Berkeley as a “white supremacist.”

It’s like there’s a central script the entire left is working from.

There is not, of course, even one whiff of racism or white supremacism about Shapiro.  Not only is there no history of his being accused of white supremacism; from a logical standpoint, the smear is idiotic.  Shapiro is an observant Jew – a category of person pathologically hated by Nazis and white supremacists – and actually left Breitbart during the 2016 primary campaign due to political, editorial, and managerial differences with Steve Bannon.  If Bannon were a white supremacist (and there is no evidence of that either), Shapiro’s public break with the Breitbart brand would strongly indicate that he shouldn’t be tarred with any prejudicial brush in that regard.

But all of a sudden, poor old normal-conservative Ben Shapiro is being so tarred.  The leftists eager to cast the false mantle of “white supremacism” over everyone on the right couldn’t wait even one day to fire at their next target?

I’ll commend the rest of Kassam’s argument to your perusal, as he makes some other very good points.  In this post, I want to focus on two of my own.

Misusing state power

First, it should alarm us the most here that the U.S. federal government is striking attitudes about the people’s speech when the government is not empowered to act on that speech.  Government is not a harmless debating society.  It’s the entity we commission to carry a gun and order us around.  Its powers are formally limited by our Constitution for exactly that reason.

Letting government make theatrical declarations about who’s saying bad things is a misuse of the state’s power.  For one thing, as the example of smearing Ben Shapiro demonstrates, it’s too easy to generate drive-by, defamatory BS against innocent people.  One day, the government official with the armed state behind him is nobly condemning white supremacists; the next day, someone’s got a whole mugshot database of Sudden White Supremacists going.

But since the U.S. government technically isn’t empowered to wield its armed force against white-supremacist speech, what condemning that speech does is even more insidious than merely devaluing the gravitas of government action.

It blurs the line in the people’s minds, exactly where the line must remain clear and sharp: between punishing criminal actions – like killing people with your car – and being angry and indignant about someone’s speech.

Government is doing what it should do, when it investigates and prosecutes criminal actions.  But we cannot long endure a government that commits itself to being angry and indignant about what some of the people are saying – or (and it comes to this every time, and immediately) what they are supposedly all-but-saying, or saying in code, or dog-whistling, or thinking.

In its wording and implications, the joint resolution of Congress is a sterling example of this latter, open-ended misuse of state authority.

The second point I want to focus on is the big take-away from this post.  Please remember this, if you remember nothing else.

Proper use of presidential authority

Congress called on President Trump to sign the resolution, and as Raheem Kassam points out, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he was going to.  Congress wants Trump to put his name and the power of his office on a condemnation of some of the people for their execrable political beliefs.

But that is not the right thing for the president to do.  The right thing for the president to do is affirm what he believes on the matters in question – and what his office therefore believes, and how the executive branch of the federal government will therefore act.

Not only is the president under no obligation to accept the terms “racism, extremism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and White supremacy” as things he must comment on according to the definitions of others.

He is actively responsible for not simply issuing rote condemnations.  Instead, he should be considering the issues the proffered definitions are meant to frame, and deciding what positive, executable things he wants to say about those issues.

He should say, for example, that in America, we hold that all men and women are created equal, and that no one is under an unequal, discriminatory form of suspicion because he is part of a group.  Race, sex, religion, ethnicity, income level, type of work – none of these attributes will be used by the U.S. government to justify prejudicial or discriminatory treatment.  Anti-Semites may indulge in rants of spittle-throwing hate, but they will never turn the U.S. government against Jews.  White supremacists may call other races by vile, disgusting names, but the U.S. government will accord all citizens the same rights and respect, regardless of race.

Of course, making these positive, constructive affirmations also means that white people will not fall under government suspicion merely because they are white.  A president who emphasizes the basis for our constitutional protections won’t be helping radical leftists to silence Ben Shapiro by falsely calling him a white supremacist.

But speaking for myself, I consider that a feature, not a bug.  It’s a terrible thing to run an armed state on the basis of ritual condemnations against politicized categories of people.  The entire 20th century teaches us that.  The U.S. Congress has just proposed that the president sign on to precisely such a program – and the president needs to say no.

His leadership role can only be exercised correctly by leading the people to what is good and right.  You never get to what is good and right by looking around behind you 24/7 for people to condemn over what is bad and wrong.

Raheem Kassam argues that sunlight is the best disinfectant for hateful beliefs.  And there’s a lot to that.  But merely disinfecting hateful beliefs isn’t enough.  Nor is it the president’s job.

The people will benefit most from hearing a clear statement of the righteous beliefs that the president will take as his guidelines.  That, and not condemning the people for their speech, is what the president, of all our officials, ought to focus on.  Say what we will do, not what we will not do.  Say what we affirm, not what we condemn.  Speak on the basis that we will all be treated equally, not as if we are looking to justify putting some people under unequal suspicion.

Unlike ritual condemnation, that program offers leadership – and hope – and a future.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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