(AP/Richard Shiro/Salon)

Who needs a Constitution anyway? Donald Trump sets the First Amendment on fire

The founding fathers probably had Trump in mind when drafting the Bill of Rights as he looks to persecute Muslims


Aaron R. Hanlon
December 14, 2015 4:00PM (UTC)

The day before Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he cited political correctness as a serious contributing factor to the San Bernardino attack, a move that neatly united his disdain for “p.c. culture” with his disdain for the Muslim community.  

If you think like Trump and his supporters, it makes sense to tether “p.c. culture” to Islam and scorn this new Axis of Evil.  Trump’s brand of no-nonsense masculinism favors just saying what you mean rather than dancing around or sugarcoating the issue.  In simple (and charitable) terms, Trump abides an ethics of bluntness and insensitivity because he believes these are more truthful ways of proceeding.  And for Trump, the blunt truth is that Muslims deserve to be persecuted rather than coddled or excused.

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I’m not the only writer who finds in Trump’s demagoguery a form of truth, an uncouth willingness to say straightforwardly all the things that Republican voters with their own p.c. hang-ups are thinking and feeling but not articulating in polite company.  True, Trump’s most recent contribution to his growing series of openly bigoted statements — each of which was supposed to be the last he could get away with as a major U.S. presidential candidate — has drawn criticism from his own side.  David French at National Review repudiates Trump’s proposed moratorium on Muslims entering the U.S. as “foolishness.”  

But French couldn’t chastise Trump for going too far without affirming that “Islam has a massive problem with hate and bigotry,” and is thus — apparently unlike Christianity when vaguely related to terrorism and extremist hatred and bigotry — “not … a peaceful, tolerant faith.”  In other words, Trump’s unfiltered bigotry puts anti-p.c. warriors like French in a bind, forcing them to police Trump’s speech for its political expediency—to practice political correctness—while simultaneously conveying enough Islamophobia to appear open to the “hard truths” (read: forms of bigotry) that underwrite the popular backlash against political correctness.

For Trump, however, the Islamophobic statements and policy proposals amount to just calling it like it is (clichéd expression suits blunt thinking), the kind of uncomfortably necessary statement that makes the First Amendment so valuable.  Following the logic of Trump’s comments about the role of political correctness in the San Bernardino shooting, if we’re too afraid to speak the blunt truth when under siege because we don’t want to offend our enemies, what good is free expression?  As Trump reasoned,

If they thought there was something wrong with that group and they saw what was happening, and they didn’t want to call the police because they didn’t want to be profiling, I think that’s pretty bad…So everybody wants to be politically correct, and that’s part of the problem in our country.

Thus, for Trump, we have to be willing not only to articulate who we think the enemy is— regardless of matters of sensitivity— but also to profile the enemy.  It follows that Trump — who has identified Muslims as the enemy — would support an effort to profile Muslims not just on the streets of America but at the borders, before Muslim feet set down on U.S. soil.

In the minds of anti-p.c. warriors like Trump, this move is deliciously awkward for “sensitive” people because it forces those of us who care about not profiling or persecuting all members of a major world religion to ask ourselves an uncomfortable question: Exactly how scared of Muslims am I? We’re supposed to bristle at the blunt truth of our collective fear and declare gratitude for those who had the courage all along to stand up to political correctness and protect us from the Islamist evil it enables.  

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In fact, Trump’s opposition to both Muslims and political correctness will prove far more awkward for Trump.  That’s the case because Trump has stumbled upon true constitutional awkwardness, arising from the fact that the drafters of the Bill of Rights— specifically the First amendment to the U.S. Constitution — saw fit to protect freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the same prominent amendment.  I quote the text of the First Amendment in its entirety below, since it’s such a modishly important text for anti-p.c. warriors like Trump who are, in his words, “so tired of this politically correct crap”:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.     

Noting that the First Amendment includes both a “free exercise” clause — which protects, say, Muslims against state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of religion —and a “freedom of speech” clause, it’s worth considering why both kinds of protections belong together in the same amendment. Trump would like to select à la carte which clauses of the First Amendment he’d like to honor, but we shouldn’t honor his or anyone’s First Amendment demagoguery.

The Bill of Rights itself was an 18th-century compromise to ensure the ratification of the Constitution, which the aptly named Antifederalists opposed because, without the Bill of Rights, it didn’t provide much of a framework for civil liberties.  Given the struggles to ratify the Constitution and to delicately unify a society that valued pluralism—the protection of states’ rights, religious differences, and an oppositional press—we shouldn’t take lightly the idea that the freedom to say something is inextricably connected with the freedom to believe it.  

Thus, Trump’s image as an anti-p.c.., no-nonsense guy who values blunt speech over “sensitivities” saddles him, his supporters, and so many of his in-house critics with the burden of accepting the whole First Amendment. It would be enough of a repudiation to say that Trump’s recent proposals—not just banning Muslims from U.S. soil, but requiring the ones already here to be tracked in a special Muslim database—are unconstitutional, anti-pluralist, and as such in conflict with the most fundamental of U.S. political values; but Trump really opens up his broad side by recommending Islamophobia in place of political correctness. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion go together. We don’t value speech so politicians can flap their gums.  We value speech because it’s the voice of conviction.

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Aaron R. Hanlon

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