Just before the Illinois Republican primary on March 15, violence broke out at a Donald Trump rally in Chicago. Hundreds of anti-Trump demonstrators had gathered in the hall, with protests starting before the candidate was scheduled to appear on stage. Tensions escalated, and Trump postponed the event; when the announcement came that Trump would not appear, punches were thrown and the fighting began. As police tried to restore order, the protesters, and many of their supporters, celebrated. One of them declared, “This is a victory. This is an absolute victory.”
It was no such thing. The real victory, of course, would be Trump’s: he handily won the Illinois contest, taking more than three-quarters of the state’s delegates. And the protests didn’t slow his momentum or change the trajectory of the race. What they did do, however, was confirm that the Trump campaign is not the only troubling force in American politics.
The Chicago anti-Trump protests exemplify an ugly strain of illiberalism at work in many corners of American society, one that dismisses freedom of speech as the tool of the privileged and makes the right to political expression contingent on the content of a speaker’s views or on one’s status as the member of an oppressed group. This would be worrying at any time, but the rise of Trump only makes it more so. It is difficult to imagine a worse context for repudiating liberal, democratic norms than in the face of a Trump candidacy—after all, these are the very norms to which authoritarian demagogues like Trump have so little attachment, and which his presidency would imperil.
No reasonable observer can deny that Trump has, at the least, come very close to encouraging violence at his rallies. His broader views—about Muslims, about immigrants, about women—are appalling. But forcibly shutting down his political events is no answer. Worse, no one stands to lose more from the flouting of constitutional rights and liberal norms than minorities—the very groups the protesters claim to be defending. Would those who disrupted Trump’s rally in Chicago be comfortable with giving Trump—or anyone with whom they disagree—the power to shut down their political events and activities? The question answers itself.
The illiberalism of such protests is perhaps most evident on today’s college campuses. Take, for example, the dispiriting case of the Emory University students who saw “Trump 2016” chalked on their sidewalks. The responses were over the top. “I legitimately feared for my life,” one undergraduate told the Daily Beast. “Some of us were expecting shootings. We feared walking alone,” said another. Responding to the demands of the protesters, Emory’s president, James W. Wagner, promised to punish those responsible for the Trump graffiti.
In the Emory case and others, the old cliché is true: sunlight is the best disinfectant. Erroneous opinion and bigotry, especially when driven by ignorance, should be held up to public scrutiny, to be seen for what they are. Suppressing the views of Trump’s supporters prevents the absurdity of those views from being exposed, while increasing sympathy for him and his “cause” from all those who rail against the strictures of political correctness.
Trump makes a mockery of the most basic principles of democratic self-government and our constitutional order. In place of reason and argument, he threatens to substitute bombast and even force. He disdains freedom of the press, advocating the expansion of libel laws to intimidate reporters. He seems bound by nothing but his own ambition and desire. Trump is the kind of figure that Abraham Lincoln warned of in his Lyceum Address, the would-be American Caesar, the tyrant hailing from “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.” How, Lincoln asked, could our political institutions be perpetuated when such a man arose? Disruption and revenge would do little good against the mob he commanded. Instead, in Lincoln’s word, “reason—cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason—must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.” The same could be said today. That means Trump must be allowed to have his say, without interference, so that his own words continue to indict him. There should be no distraction from, or excuse for, his vast ignorance and hate.