Soon after Trump took office in January 2017, campus leftists and antifascists began mobilizing, sometimes violently, to shut down conservative speakers like provocateur Milo Yiannopolous, who amplified the dehumanizing rhetoric aimed at Muslims, refugees, immigrants and transgender people that helped get Trump elected.
Almost overnight, “free speech” became the rallying cry of the right, but they were already largely primed for it. There’s a whole cottage industry of right-wing media stoking the fear and loathing of liberalism, progressivism and socialism — collapsible and interchangeable terms to their foes. Trying to prevent a speaking engagement at UC Berkeley by Ben Shapiro, the author of Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America and Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, might not have been the most optically sound tactic.
Alt-right trolls on the Daily Stormer website and 4chan discussion boards gleefully churned out violently anti-Semitic memes intended to red-pill potential recruits and trigger opponents. The newly-minted Proud Boys and the gladiatorial “Based Stickman” Kyle Chapman hit the streets in Berkeley to do battle with Antifa during “free speech” rallies in Berkeley last April. Emerging groups like Identity Evropa, who cloaked their white nationalism in softer rhetoric about preserving Western civilization, melted into the crowd. Right-wing patriot militias could claim to be supporting the First Amendment while maintaining plausible denial about white nationalism.
President Trump, notably, has never made much claim to support free speech.
During a March 2016 rally in Fayetteville, where a supporter punched a black protester who was being escorted out of the arena, Trump said, “They used to treat them very, very rough, and when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.”
And scarcely a month after Trump’s moral equivalency about “blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, while defending those who protested taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee and criticizing “the alt-left that came charging,” Trump squarely attacked black NFL players protesting police brutality.
Trump had previously suggested that people who burn the flag should go to jail — a blatant violation of the Constitution. In contrast, the gesture made by Colin Kaepernick and other players was solemn, even respectful expression of dissent — kneeling during the National Anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,’” Trump said to loud applause while campaigning for US Senate candidate Luther Strange in Huntsville, Ala.
Notably, “I Stand” Facebook profile photos blossomed on the pages of many of the same patriot militia activists who only five months earlier made righteous sermons in support of the First Amendment rights of conservative speakers in Berkeley.
Now that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has decreed that all players must stand to show respect for the flag and the anthem (with the bizarre carve-out that players who choose to not stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room, as if protest is a private act like prayer), the right is suddenly no longer the champion of free speech.
The NFL protest ban is the perfect emblem of a new study by Steven V. Miller and Nicholas T. Davis, two political scientists at Clemson University and Texas A&M University respectively, entitled “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy.” Using data from the World Values Survey, the authors found strong evidence to suggest that white people who fear becoming a minority are comfortable abridging democratic freedoms as a trade-off for maintaining racial dominance.
“White Americans who would not want an immigrant/foreign worker, someone who spoke a different language, or someone from a different race as a neighbor are more likely to support strongman rule in the United States, rule of the US government by the army, and are more likely to outright reject having a democracy for the United States,” the authors write.
Trump frequently signals to his aggrieved white base. Many of the ideologically committed activists in the white nationalist movement — a comparatively small cohort — have grown impatient with the president.
They make no pretense at venerating the democratic processes or the Constitution.
Michael Hill, president of the League of the South — one of the larger groups in the Nationalist Front coalition that supplied shock troops for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville — said in a 2013 speech: “We’re not wedded in the League or in the true South to a universal proposition. Equality, democracy, the universal rights of man — all of these poisonous things that have been foisted upon us we’ve been conditioned to think are good. No, we are wedded to a real historical order, based on, as I said, blood and soil, kith and kin.”
Democracy is not compatible with a politics built around racial or religious identity.
Lest there be any doubt about the League’s agenda, Hill lays it out pretty clearly in an April 25 open letter: “We have radicalized by openly and directly addressing the Negro (and general dark-skinned) Question and the Jew Question. We are de facto and openly professed white/Southern nationalists, meaning that we seek to restore the South to the dominance of the white man and to make it our own ethno-state for our posterity.”