With every passing week, those who predicted the tyranny of Donald Trump look sillier. Blocked by the courts, frustrated by Congress, assailed by the press, under mounting pressure from a special counsel, and reduced to re-enacting The Apprentice within the White House, the president has passed from tyranny to trumpery to tomfoolery with the speed of a fat man stepping on a banana skin.
So does that mean we can all stop worrying about tyranny in America? No. For the worst thing about the Trump presidency is that its failure risks opening the door for the equal and opposite but much more ruthless populism of the left. Call me an unreconstructed Cold Warrior, but I find its tyranny far more alarming — and likely.
With few exceptions, American conservatives — even flag-of-convenience Republicans such as Trump — respect the constitution. Read it and you’ll see there’s nothing in that document that prohibits building walls along the border or raising tariffs on Chinese imports.
The modern American left, by contrast, thirsts to get rid of one of the most fundamental protections that the constitution enshrines: free speech. The first amendment bars Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise thereof [of religion]; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble”.
If you want to see where those fundamental freedoms are currently under attack in America, you will have to leave Washington and accompany me to some institutions where you might expect free expression to be revered.
Almost every month this year has seen at least one assault on free speech on a college campus. In February the University of California, Berkeley, cancelled a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, the British alt-right journalist and provocateur, after a violent protest. You may say that Yiannopoulos is an unserious publicity-seeker who welcomed the furore. But the same cannot be said of my old friend Charles Murray, a conservative social scientist and pillar of the American Enterprise Institute, whose book Coming Apart so brilliantly anatomised the social origins of Trumpism.
In March students at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he had been invited to speak, shouted Murray down. When he and his faculty host, Allison Stanger, moved to another room, protesters set off fire alarms. When speaker and host left the building, the protesters pushed and shoved them. Stanger suffered concussion after someone grabbed her by the hair and twisted her neck.
In April a speech at Claremont McKenna College in California by the conservative writer Heather MacDonald had to be live-streamed when protesters blocked access to the auditorium. Berkeley struck again that same month, cancelling a speech by the pro-Trump journalist Ann Coulter because of “security concerns”.
In each of these cases, the target has been on the political right. This probably does not surprise you as most US universities now have something close to a left-wing monoculture. However, there are exceptions.
Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington state, always thought of himself as “deeply progressive”. In May, however, it was his turn to fall victim to the unfree speech vigilantes. Weinstein refused to acquiesce when “white students, staff and faculty” were “invited to leave campus” for a day because (in the words of the Evergreen student newspaper) “students of colour” had “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election”. Weinstein objected, saying this racially targeted “invitation” was “an act of oppression in and of itself”.
In response, a group of about 50 students shrilly accused him of “supporting white supremacy”. The college police, under orders from Evergreen’s president, told Weinstein they could not guarantee his safety. When he held his biology class in a public park, the names of the students who attended were put online, with photographs.
No one could accuse Richard Dawkins of being right-wing. Among my academic friends, he is second only to Simon Schama when it comes to anti-Trump tweets. Yet last month it was Dawkins’s turn to be silenced. A public radio station in — you guessed it — Berkeley cancelled a discussion of his latest book because (in the words of a spokesman) “he has said things that I know have hurt people”, a misleading allusion to the atheist Dawkins’s forthright criticism of Islam, which — along with all religions — he regards as irrational. The station’s general manager declared: “We believe that it is our free speech right not to participate with anyone who uses hateful or hurtful language against a community that is already under attack.”
These are weasel words similar to those published in The New York Times in April by Ulrich Baer, a professor of comparative literature at New York University who also glories in the title of “vice-provost for faculty, arts, humanities and diversity”. “The idea of freedom of speech,” he wrote, “does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognised members of that community . . . Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute . . . it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters.”
Sorry, mate. Freedom of expression is an unchanging absolute and, as a free speech absolutist, I am here a) to defend to the death your right to publish such drivel and b) to explain to as many people as possible why it is so dangerous.
Freedom is rarely killed off by people chanting “Down with freedom!” It is killed off by people claiming that the greater good / the general will / the community / the proletariat requires “examination of the parameters” (or some such cant phrase) of individual liberty. If the criterion for censorship is that nobody’s feelings can be hurt, we are finished as a free society.
Where such arguments lead is just a long-haul flight away. The regime of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela used to be the toast of such darlings of the American left as Naomi Klein, whose 2007 book The Shock Doctrine praised it as “a zone of relative economic calm and predictability” in a world of marauding free-market economists. Today (as was foreseeable 10 years back) Venezuela is in a state of economic collapse, its opposition leaders are in jail and its constitution is about to be rewritten to keep the Chavista dictatorship in power.
Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: the real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).