Trumpism Is the Real Cancel Culture

Why the president threatens free speech more than any of the Republican convention’s bogeymen.

Free speech is under threat in the United States. That’s what numerous speakers have told the Republican convention, which wraps up Thursday night.

They’re right. And the biggest threat comes from the man they’re re-nominating for president, Donald J. Trump.
Trump has called major media outlets “enemies of the people,” warning that he might withhold their broadcast licenses. He encouraged supporters at one of his rallies to assault protesters, promising to pay any legal bills that resulted. And he ordered the removal of peaceful demonstrators from the front of the White House, all so he could pose for a photo-op while holding a Bible.

You haven’t heard anything about that at the GOP convention, of course, where every attack is blamed on the other side. And that’s the biggest problem for free speech in our country right now. We all want the right to speak, but we’re perfectly happy to deny it to somebody else. And that isn’t free speech at all.

So numerous presenters at the convention railed against “cancel culture,” complaining that many Americans are prevented or discouraged from speaking their minds. At universities, especially, “students find themselves suppressing their beliefs to fit into the acceptable groupthink,” as Tiffany Trump, the president’s daughter, declared on Tuesday night.

That’s true. According to a wide swath of research, growing numbers of Americans bite their tongues for fear of being canceled on social media. Disagreement is fine; indeed, it’s the lifeblood of democracy. But when we seek to obliterate our opponents, rejecting not just their ideas but their humanity, we make honest discussion impossible.

But guess who is the Canceler-in-Chief? Donald Trump, of course. To Trump, political challengers aren’t simply people who disagree with him; they’re “losers,” “dummies,” “morons,” and more. He has called Mexicans rapists, women pigs, and African countries shitholes. Almost every day brings another vile presidential tweet, denigrating someone’s intellect, gender, or racial background.

Yet speaker after speaker at the GOP convention condemned opponents for cancelling them. “Joe Biden and the radical left are now coming for our freedom of speech and want to bully us into submission,” Donald Trump, Jr., charged. Seriously? What is his father, if not the quintessential bully? And how can Republicans champion free speech, but ignore the president’s own attacks on the same?

Alas, my fellow liberals have too often demonstrated a similar inconsistency. When Trump or another Republican endangers speech, we raise up a hue and cry. But when the threat comes from our own side, we keep quiet or even cheer it along.

So after prominent University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig tweeted out critical remarks about Black Lives Matter, we called for his head. Ditto for UCLA business professor Gordon Klein, who was placed on leave after questioning students’ demand to change his course requirements in light of the traumas suffered by African Americans.

And when respected Intercept reporter Lee Fang posted an interview with an African American about black victims of crime, Fang was denounced as a racist—really—on social media. Never mind that Fang himself is mixed-race, or that he attended predominantly African-American public schools as a child. The Twitter mob wanted blood, and it got it.

Enough already. If you really believe in free speech, it isn’t enough to complain about somebody else. You have to put your own house in order, and grant other people the same liberty that you want for yourself. “We believe in freedom of thought and expression,” Tiffany Trump told the GOP convention. “Think what you want. Seek out the truth. Learn from those with different opinions. Then freely, make your voice heard.”

If only her father would follow her advice! The biggest danger to free speech is Donald Trump, who has used his own voice to suppress different opinions at every turn. And the second biggest danger is that the rest of us are imitating Trump, all in the guise of resisting him.

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.