Donald Trump's election was a disruptive event. It has challenged basic assumptions about the stability of American democracy. His installation in office has also called into doubt basic assumptions about America's role in the world and about whether pluralism, democracy and equality remain the country's core values. Trump has also encouraged and given permission to a resurgent white supremacist movement, which now appears to have significant influence over the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
This moment of political crisis has also encouraged fierce debates about free speech in the United States. Should all speech be protected? How is free speech being used to empower Donald Trump's authoritarian and fascist movement? Likewise, how is free speech by those who disagree with Trump's policies being silenced and punished? What do these debates about free speech reveal about the political forces that swept Trump into power?
Lars Maischak, a history lecturer at California State University, Fresno, provides an object lesson in these debates. Several months ago, Maischak wrote this on Twitter: “To save American democracy, Trump must hang. The sooner and the higher, the better." He also asked whether anyone had started "soliciting money and design[ing] drafts for a monument honoring the Trump assassin” and suggested “the execution of two Republicans for each deported immigrant.”
Maischak's comments were immediately targeted by websites such as the Daily Caller and Breitbart and subsequently circulated throughout the right-wing echo chamber including Fox News. Right-wing advocacy groups such as Campus Reform have used Maischak's comments to advance their smear campaign against "dangerous" professors who are supposedly indoctrinating students with left-wing ideology.
Maischak has not been dismissed by his university, but he was placed on leave and eventually removed from the classroom and any traditional teaching responsibilities. He has also received hundreds of death threats and other harassing emails and phone calls.
How do you explain Donald Trump's election?
I was convinced that it was a distinct possibility because the kind of liberalism that Clinton stood for is so goody-two-shoes, so tone-deaf to class, and she is the kind of benevolent but strict school teacher you always hated because when you messed up and did stuff you weren’t supposed to; she would bear down on you really hard and it would feel so good to show that person who is boss.
A second reason is that because Americans believe their country is so exceptional, few people were paying attention to politics in Europe. However, the right-wing is watching. That is why they like Brexit: They’re taking notes and studying how to do it. I believe that is the recipe of success for Trump. To tilt the mind of the working class in that direction of valuing race over class. Remember the white guy who came out of the polling station in 2008 in western Pennsylvania, which now is a Trump stronghold? He was asked by an interviewer, “Who did you vote for?" and he said, “I voted for the …” and then he used the N-word. That’s basically the kind of social stratum I’m thinking about. [This story, although often repeated in various versions, is apocryphal.]
How would you locate Trump's election relative to a broader crisis in liberalism around the world?
I believe that the problem with liberalism is that it is joined at the hip to a project of modernizing and strengthening capitalism. This is the idea that there is simply nothing you can do if the economy moves on, becomes more global and more automated. To quote [former British prime minister] Tony Blair, "You can’t be smarter than the market." That is the trap in which liberalism is contained. Liberals can’t comprehend fascism fully because they don’t want to talk about capitalism.
You are an intellectual historian. As you watched Trump's rise and the hateful and ugly politics he encouraged, what historical and political boxes were you checking about his movement?
Definitely, the racial ideology. In the anti-immigrant rhetoric in particular, that automatic assumption that alien means dangerous, that you have people who are inherently criminal and threatening. Racism has always, in all its guises, been about rolling back an idea of shared culture and equality. Trump is the first time in recent American politics where the rejection of equality as a principle guides policy-making in the government.
How have the forces that installed Trump in power, and the right-wing movement more generally, impacted you personally?
They didn’t trickle down. It was more like a deluge or a flood. Somebody who read my Twitter feed told the Daily Caller about it. They read it and reported about it and highlighted three tweets in particular. One that was sarcastic, where I said, “Has anybody started collecting money for a monument to the Trump assassin yet?”
Two were essentially predictive in nature. One was “Trump must hang to save American democracy,” written at the time that he had just called the press enemies of the people. The other was “Justice equals the execution of two Republicans for each deported immigrant,” which was when it became clear that they were actually going to go through with deporting up to 11 million people. That, in my view, was an example of ethnic cleansing, and of course the far right has used that term -- Richard Spencer calls it "peaceful ethnic cleansing." To me, the equivalent to that would be if people went and executed Republicans. It would be the exact same thing. It is the kind of thing that would invite a backlash, or so I thought in a country which I believed was firmly committed to democracy and equality. I’m not so sure right now.
When they found these tweets, they packaged them in an article on the Daily Caller. It was picked up by Breitbart right away and then was disseminated across the right-wing media. Local right-wing talk radio in Fresno is strong, and they also picked it up. One of those local stations devoted the whole day to having people call in and say how they would like me killed, arrested, fired, deported or, ideally, all four things at once. That wouldn’t have been the worst, because I had seen this happen to other people before and it didn’t happen completely out of the blue for me.
I believe it was clear to most people who looked at my tweets in context. If I had wanted to say people should go and kill Republicans, I could have said that, but I didn’t. I tend to choose my words pretty precisely. If I had wanted to say, “I want to go and kill Trump,” I could have said that, but that’s not what I said. In reality I said, “Trump must hang if democracy is to stand.” Something along those lines. I expected the school, Fresno State, to stand up to this and say this is an example of right-wing harassment and of creating artificial outrage at somebody who is a good teacher and so forth, but they didn’t do that. Rather, on the first day that the story broke, they called the federal authorities. The Secret Service, after conducting an investigation, concluded this was a baseless accusation.
The school has made it clear from the get-go that it was not interested in ascertaining what I really meant. They wanted to be rid of me. They also told me in my very first communication with them, since this news story surfaced, that they were hoping that the threats of violence would entice me to quit my position.
The right-wing is very well-organized and very well-funded. They are also engaging in a systematic campaign to purge teachers and professors they view as "dangerous." What are some of the specific threats that have been directed at you?
The themes include anti-gay slurs. I’m not gay, but apparently that’s automatically assumed if you’re white and not a racist. There must be something wrong with you, and what else could it be than sexual orientation. The idea that you need to shut the hell up and get out of my country, because you’re a foreigner. There may be a right to free speech, but you don’t have it. Then of course, “I’m coming for you,” or “We’re coming for you. We have the guns. Campus security is no match for us.” Another original one was to simply call a funeral home and say, “This guy needs a funeral organized for him. Please call him.”
I always try to look at the big picture and ask, "What is this an example of?" There is a remarkable amount of projection at work in how conservatives are attacking liberals and progressives in this country. I mean, Joseph Goebbels would be proud of this. It is propaganda 101: accuse your enemies of what you’re doing. Conservatives say they support free speech except when it’s inconvenient. They accuse liberals and Democrats and academics of wanting safe spaces and of being "snowflakes," when in reality conservatives are the ones who are remarkably fragile and sensitive. Is there a moment where you’re laughing at the absurdity of all this?
Yes. It is one of the things that has convinced me that this was a fascist movement and a politically dangerous group of people who must be told in no uncertain terms that their goals and that their methods are not accepted. We do not want a society where threats of violence, harassment, the social Darwinism that permeates all levels of administration and social interaction is the norm. We do not share these values.
With the attempt to create the sense that "antifa" as well as individual academics are inciting left-wing violence, the right-wing movement is desperate to find anybody who they can parade around as an example. It is projection, but of course it’s also the way that the right engages in discourse and debate, in a schoolyard kind of fashion. “No, you stink. No, you’re the Nazi.” By calling me names like “fascist” and “racist,” you’re revealing you are actually those things.
The people who rely exclusively for their worldview on that hermetically closed system of right-wing disinformation do not have a way out. That is one of the more baffling things. How do you shake people out of that commitment to denying reality and to living in a fantasy world created by propaganda?
Republicans and the right also have a delusional belief that they are somehow victims of violence and discrimination in America, when all the data indicates that right-wing domestic terrorists are a far greater threat than ISIS or al-Qaida. How do you make sense of this alternate reality?
The foundation of it is the assumption that members of the American right-wing and Trump's movement believe they are better by virtue of their race. This has to do with capitalism too, because you look around and you see that nonwhite people seem to be much poorer.
This new McCarthyism against professors and teachers is part of it too.
I have much good company on that professor watch list. It is based on an assumption that you can't let these unhinged radicals loose on conservative students because they’re going to do damage to so-called impressionable minds. What condescension. My goodness. The conservative students I’ve taught were quite capable of thinking for themselves. They had certain commitments intellectually to believing certain things and seeing things a certain way, but no, they’re not impressionable in the sense that you’re going to turn them.
Have you received any words or other encouragements of support?
There have been plenty. I’m especially proud of the conservatives here in Fresno who have called in to that radio show where they were vilifying me back in April to speak out on my side. I also appreciate certain journalists in this town who called me and said, “We want to hear your side of the story. We’ll give you all the time you need to tell it.” I didn’t take them up on it because I was dealing with my employment situation first, but since then I’ve done that. The students and other people who supported me basically said, “Obviously, to us what you said was not meant as an incitement to violence."
People who supported me also said, “It’s important that you speak out against Trump. We wish more people would do it.” The scary thing, however, is in what hushed tones people would tell me this. Like in a whisper, literally, they would say, “I would support you publicly, but I can’t because of my employment situation and so forth.” That also gave me pause. However, for my own sense of reality, it was important to have those people who contacted me and voiced their support.
How has this experience changed -- or not changed -- how you think about teaching and the classroom?
I think I will have to address this story explicitly. I can’t walk into a classroom and pretend that didn’t happen. That is going to change things, and if people who identify as conservatives stay away from my classes because of that, it would be disappointing. I will make every effort that they not do that. To me there is certainly no assumption off the bat that a conservative is going to fail my class or a liberal or a progressive is going to pass it. No self-respecting professor, no self-respecting teacher, I believe, would do that.
You’re writing a new book on America, Trump and fascism. How do you define the term, and does Donald Trump meet the criteria?
Yes, he does. Fascism is reactionary. It wants to go back to a time before the French and the American revolutions. On various counts, especially civic equality and equal rights before the law, he meets that criteria. Fascism is also revolutionary. It is driven by a sense that something about the existing order is flawed and it can’t be fixed from within but needs to be torn down. This idea that we’re going to go blow it up.
That peculiar mix is not conservatism, because it is not interested in building communities, in strengthening the common good or common-sense values and morality and so forth. Rather, it is about dividing people into "worthy" and "unworthy," to be members of this community and to be beneficiaries of that membership, because with citizenship comes certain tangible things. The underlying purpose of fascism is to give capital a free hand in doing things its own way. Go to town on making profit -- this is ultimately what explains how German and Italian fascism came to power.
Where do you go from here?
Me? Personally, I think my job is to finish that book and stand here and not go away, and keep saying what I have been saying. Just so that the right-wing, the fascists, know that they have not succeeded in destroying me or my career. I think I owe them that much. For the country, I believe that we need a fundamental move to democratize the society. I mean that both in terms of the political as well as the economic structure.
There is a micro-fascism that I witness, an authoritarianism that permeates so many relations between functionaries and many bureaucracies like health, the police, education, etc., and their clients. As well as between employers and employees where people can’t speak their mind, they can’t follow their interests. They are being bossed around and kept down and they don’t have recourse. Hopefully if you can offer a democratic alternative to fascism, that will convince enough people that it’s worth it to fight for that alternative.