The Media vs. Trump story that’s been overlooked: Freedom of Speech

Image: DonkeyHotey (Wikimedia)

The phenomenon of the Republican presidential frontrunner has convulsed the media class for almost a year now. Donald Trump has defied every expectation and shown himself impervious to the scientific laws of politics. 

His relationship to the media will be marveled about long after the instant histories of the 2016 election are forgotten. The typical campaign as a rule coddles the boys and girls on the bus, keeping them fed and adequately wi-fi’ed and occasionally offering up the candidate for casual off-the-record discussions. Trump gives them nothing, and in public he herds his media corps into enclosures where they can be ridiculed from the stage and treated like zoo animals by his supporters. He blandly dismisses his policy pratfalls in the face of all but the most determined questioners. He even went eye to eye with Fox News, and the channel blinked. Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox and the New York Post, presumably allowed his flagship tabloid to endorse Trump as today’s New York primary approached.

Having come to this point, the media has turned to self-examination—did news coverage create the man? Did the man create the news coverage? 

But there’s one complicated Media vs. Trump story playing out that’s been overlooked. I speak of the media coverage of the Trump protests that have disrupted many of his appearances and, somewhat regrettably, they leave me having to stand up for Donald Trump. Why? Because the First Amendment does not take sides, not even against pumpkin-haired, nonsense-spewing, bloviating demagogues.

I was once part of the Beltway media elite, now transplanted to Arizona. Maybe it’s because I’m far from the center of the media action, but to me this particular coverage  is distinctive in two ways. One, the media is having a material effect on the race. And two, it’s on the wrong side. It is the most unfair thing that this decidedly unfair man has suffered.

 

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The violence at the large Trump events took hold as a dominant theme in the campaign narrative in February and March. His rallies grew increasingly vulnerable to disruption. Protesters went in with the crowds unobtrusively, but would then shout and interrupt once Trump took the stage. The protesters were duly shouted down by Trump backers before being taken out by security. This process had a certain summer camp feel to it, early on, but after a while the ejections grew more peremptory. Fights sometimes broke out before security guards got to the protesters. In a few cases, protesters were set upon by Trump fans without warning, even though they’d been silenced and contained. Some of these instances were serious, as when an African-American Black Lives Matter protester was punched and kicked at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama. There is also disturbing footage of an extravagantly mustachioed older guy at a rally in North Carolina who, spotting a protester being led out by security, ran over and savagely punched the guy in the face without warning or cause. (The now infamous “sucker-punch” video got all the attention, but there’s actually a much worse incident, involving a bearded protester in an American flag shirt being led out of a rally. A Trump supporter, without provocation, runs over to punch and kick the man a half-dozen times before being arrested. In this case, the attacker was African American, the protester white.)

Such occurrences are disgusting and should be prosecuted, as they are. But look over this running total of violent events published in Slate, for example, and you notice first of all that the overall number is quite low—the magazine has 13—and next that some of them are pretty warm beer. (One is “A Trump security official and Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared to grab and pull a protester at [a] Tucson rally.*) I poked around and couldn’t find a more comprehensive list or any incidents not on Slate’s list, though there certainly might be some out there.

 

The sucker-punch incident was on March 9; two days later, the issue climaxed when Trump abruptly cancelled a rally in Chicago after the crowd was massively infiltrated by protesters. (A CNN report said that “at least five sections in the arena” were filled with opponents.) Attendees were sent home, and scattered violence marked the blocks around the venue as everyone dispersed.

The media has been oohing and aahing about “violence at Donald Trump rallies” ever since. Search for the words “violence trump rally” under the Google “news” tab and you get some two million hits. Trump hasn’t helped himself by refusing to outright condemn the incidents, instead pugnaciously saying he might provide legal help to those arrested.

On TV, the words variations of the phrase “violence at Donald Trump rallies” were recited over and over, typically uttered by various news show hosts in a solemn manner, with a furrowed brow and a look of concern, or perhaps a slow shake of the head. 

Some commentators went farther. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC called the spectacles playing out “a classic political strongman tactic that we are used to seeing in other countries but not our own.” She went on to explain what to her mind was really going on: “Political events are generated to bring violence at the edges into the center, so that violence at these events, which may start organically, is in effect spotlit and encouraged to the point where it becomes something that is legitimately out of control of anyone. And then the spectacle of political violence is itself seen as something that is a problem that needs to be solved by this strongman character who incited the initial incidents in the first place. … Trying to gin up political violence for its electoral utility is inarguably what we’re seeing here. …”

It’s somewhat hard to parse her ponderous language, but she’s saying that the Trump campaign was “ginning up” the violence, and then was in turn using the spectacle of it as an excuse for a crackdown, led by Trump himself. 

One sentiment you almost never hear outside of Fox News itself was that, by any standard of American political discourse, however objectionable one might find Trump’s rhetoric, the protesters are in the wrong. The Trump events themselves are peaceful; they were being disrupted by outsiders making it impossible to hear the candidate that voters showed up to see.

Ah, but what about the protester’s free speech rights? Well, what is it exactly the protesters are targeting? These were people coming out to hear a candidate for public office. It’s often overlooked, but the First Amendment also protects the rights of peaceable assembly. Again, you can disagree with Trump’s rhetoric, but he has a right to share it publicly and those gathered have a right to hear it. A selective enforcement of the Constitution that lets opponents of the speech silence it plainly violates the document’s spirit.

You might have heard how a Trump appearance outside of Phoenix with wacko local sheriff Joe Arpaio was sabotaged. This rally was held at a suburb with only one route in from Phoenix proper. Ingenious protesters sealed off the bottleneck effectively, creating an hours-long traffic jam. I went to a different Trump appearance that morning. He was doing a public taping with Sean Hannity, the Fox News host. I was with a friend, a local GOP operative. He got us pulled first into the VIP section and then—thrillingly—up on stage, sitting behind the host and the candidate. I got a good look at the crowd, which might have numbered five hundred. There were a dozen or so folks there, including a couple of red-faced, bellowing guys on each side of us, who were a little … disturbingly overexcited. Another fifth of the crowd—babbling, incoherent—was plainly off its rocker. (This group included the candidate and his interlocutor.) But there wasn’t any violence, because there weren’t any protesters. Are some Donald Trump fans racists? Seems like it. Are a lot of them pretty dumb? There’s evidence of that, yes. But I don’t remember the asterisk in the Bill of Rights that precludes its protections from bozos and poltroons.

 

Watching the primary play out in Arizona was interesting. I grew up here, to parents who balanced their enthusiastic support for luminaries like Goldwater and Nixon with grimier interest in the John Birch Society and similar groups. (I remember my father yanking the seatbelts out of a new truck; Jimmy Carter wasn’t going to tell him he had to use seatbelts!) I’m going to go out on a limb and say I suspect that were they alive today they’d be moderate to enthusiastic Trump supporters. If they’d gone to a Trump appearance and had it been disrupted (as many have been) or canceled (as the rally in Chicago was), or if they weren’t even able to get there because protesters had blocked the only road into the town, they’d be mad and rightly so.

Trump didn’t tell his supporters to go burn down a mosque, or punch a Black Lives Matter protester. The violent incidents are ignited by the provocations of the protesters themselves. That brings us back to Maddow and her appalling remarks. Her unspoken but plain reference is to the tactics some fascist leaders have taken, where minor or even invented incidents by a targeted minority are used to justify violent crackdowns. If either side was using political disruption to, as Lenin might say, heighten contradictions, it was the protestors. They went in to provoke, and then ran away pointing fingers at the supposed violence. Trump’s rhetoric after the incidents hasn’t helped any, but from his perspective he’s the aggrieved party.

Let’s turn it around and say the Black Lives Matter movement had caught on and was holding an ever-larger series of rallies around the country—rallies that were becoming increasingly disrupted by racists waving Confederate flags.

I don’t think the coverage would have been the same—Rachel Maddow’s perspective on the events would certainly have come from a different place, I suspect—and I think that if there had been footage of an elderly black gentleman sucker-punching a guy carrying a Stars and Bars the commentary on that would have been oddly supportive.

 

Instead, the media’s obsessive attachment to “violence at Donald Trump rallies”  decisively stunted Trump’s momentum. The big rallies all but disappeared. While he continued to speak defiantly about the issue, it was clear that the campaign was changing tactics. A few weeks of punishing news coverage later, Trump got his comeuppance in Wisconsin, which still may yet turn out to have been the turning point in the race.

I take the point that people in elected positions have power and a platform to speak and speak plainly should face whatever protests manifest themselves. That said, is a successful protest one that silences a voice? A few years ago I went to an unusual appearance here in town by Arpaio, who through clever PR moves keeps getting re-elected despite well-documented scandals in virtually every part of his work. Like Trump, he’s a master at swanning through press inquiries. This event was different; he was being questioned by journalism professors at ASU’s Cronkite School, on stage in a controlled environment. We might have seen Arpaio pinned down. But it got interrupted by a bunch of chanting immigration activists. Arpaio, unperturbed, sat patiently, but when it became apparent that the organizers of the event weren’t going to take control of it, he got up and left. In this case, the protestors’ moves were plainly counterproductive, but the point should be made that, even if that weren’t the case, they were still in the wrong.

 

And sure, Trump does deserve it in a way. He doesn’t share many commonly held conventions regarding fairness, context, perspective, or the truth generally. He’s made several proposals that violate the spirit if not the letter of the Bill of Rights, and the statements he’s made about the actions of some of his creepier supporters have been irresponsible at best.

But whatever his buffoonish pronouncements, Donald Trump is in a zone that deserves protection; he’s trying to run for office and wants to make his case. There’s a process in place to oppose him; it’s called an election. Do we really want disruptive, free speech-shattering protests part of our political process? If Trump doesn’t get the nomination, his supporters could well decide, not without justification, that since his campaign had been sabotaged they might well embark on similar activities. At minimum, a lingering resentment will forever give his adherents a dim but justified sense that they’ve been screwed. If you don’t like his ideas, vote for someone else. But if the people opposing him can’t get their message out without using anti-American tactics—and if we in the media don’t call them on it—we all cede the high ground. Is our democracy so weak it can’t handle Donald Trump?

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Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon.com. Follow him @hitsville.