Missing the Point in the Trump Chicago Protests

In the aftermath of the canceled Trump Rally in Chicago, there was a dizzying array of mistaken and confusing commentary on the subject. It was a big news story, so you probably heard about it. But in case you didn’t, basically Trump had scheduled a characteristically massive rally at a venue in Chicago. Many left-leaning protesters got tickets to the event, and others held rallies outside. The protesters who got tickets to the event apparently planned to continuously disrupt Trump’s speech when he arrived, and their presence was significant enough that it was creating a very tense situation between protesters and supporters. In response, Trump canceled the event citing the safety concerns.

Trump claimed that he took this step on advice of law enforcement, while others have disputed that claim. Ultimately, it’s not really an important detail. A big protest happened; a political rally was canceled; and some violence broke out after the cancellation anyway. These are the relevant facts.

For the sake of analyzing this story rationally, it’s useful to set aside our political preferences for the moment. Perhaps surprisingly, your opinion of this event shouldn’t hinge on whether you think Trump really will Make America Great Again or think he’s a racist jerk. (Though for the record, we’ll note that we do not support Donald Trump, and have previously argued that while he’s clearly awful, he’s not obviously much worse than the major party alternatives. American politics circa 2016 is just pretty depressing across the board in our view.)

Now that the disclaimers and background are out of the way, let’s move on to the details.

Stop Talking About the First Amendment
A common theme in the aftermath of this event was debating the right to free speech. On the left, a common argument was that the protesters were exercising their right to protest, free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment protections, and should be applauded for standing up to the racist rhetoric. On the right, people claimed that Donald Trump’s right to free speech / First Amendment protections had been violated. Indeed, there was a delightful symmetry to it. As a bonus, neither side is actually correct–at least as far as the First Amendment is concerned.

See, the problem here is that the First Amendment, protects freedom of speech and protest from government crackdowns. It does not say anything about private actors. If you don’t believe me, just read it:

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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment does not guarantee protesters the right to heckle a speaker, nor does it give said speaker a right not to be heckled by private actors. It’s just not a First Amendment issue. The government, in this case, wasn’t suppressing anyone’s speech, so the Constitutional amendment isn’t really relevant.

That said, the protesters who got into the event and deliberately attempted to disrupt it would likely be guilty of trespassing. The idea here is that when they got tickets to the Trump event, they are implicitly consenting to not disrupt the event.* If they proceed to disrupt the event (and thereby violate the implicit agreement), the Trump Campaign or the venue’s security would be within their rights to kick those protesters out. If the protesters refused, then at that point, they would be trespassing.

At first glance, this could seem counterintuitive, because we often talk about freedom of speech / protesting in the abstract. But in reality, most protests do violate minor laws–usually trespassing. If you get a permit to hold a rally, then you’re fine. But if you just engage in spontaneous direct action–particularly if it’s on private property–you’re probably violating some laws. Whether it will be enforced debatable, and it might well be worth doing. The point is that civil disobedience is part and parcel of protesting. In fact, it’s often a deliberate tactic to try to get more press coverage for an issue.

Similarly, the right of free speech, such as it is, is only the right to not have the government suppress your speech. If you come to my apartment and insult my cat, I can tell you to get the hell out. You don’t have a right to free speech in my apartment because I set the rules there. And if you don’t like it, you can leave. Coincidentally, this is also how it works on social media. Twitter recently has gotten publicity for blocking certain people that were accused of expressing intolerant or hateful views. There too, many people complained about freedom of speech violations. And certainly, Twitter’s actions were irritating to libertarians that believe freedom of speech should be extended to even, and especially, those marginal we find disagreeable or downright appalling. But it was not illegal. Twitter sets the rules on its website, just like I set a rule that no one is allowed to comment on my cat’s weight in my house. (She’s self-conscious; back off.) And if you don’t like it, you can leave.

Effects of Silencing Speech
Moving beyond these technical matters, it’s true that the protests did effectively silence Trump for the evening. This was hailed as a success by many and suggested as a possible model for the future. This tweet captures the sentiment well I think:

Trump just showed he’ll cancel an event if enough people protest it. Game on

— DrewCurtis (@DrewCurtis) March 12, 2016

This is mistaken for two reasons. First, on a philosophical level, this is problematic. If you believe in the merits of free speech or tolerance, you have to also tolerate things you disagree with. That’s kind of fundamental to the notion of tolerance. You don’t have to tolerate ideas you like, because, well, you like them. It follows that support for the idea of free speech is meaningless if you don’t support free speech for those that you find most repellent. Yes, Trump says horrible nationalistic and bigoted things all the time. But if you believe in free speech–and as Americans, most of us theoretically do–you should want him to be able to express those ideas regardless.

Just as important, it’s worth noting that this tactic will obviously backfire in this campaign cycle. For many disenchanted, right-leaning folks, the left is just as much the enemy as the GOP Establishment. That’s why every desperate effort by think-tanks and “respected” Republican politicians to condemn Trump has only boosted his support. It’s the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic applied to electoral politics. The American and Republican electorate may not know much, but they appear to know enough to despise Establishment politicians like John McCain or Mitt Romney. So when these voices speak out against Trump, it only boosts his brand. At this point, this effect should be expected.

The same rule applies to the left. Just think about it. For his supporters, one major appeal of Trump this year is his complete dismissal of political correctness–and yes, that’s why he says things that are more overtly bigoted than his competitors. By staging a protest against what he says–on the grounds that they are offensive–plays directly into his hands. Even though the concerns are clearly warranted, the effect is that it adds to his appeal as the anti-political correctness candidate.

Moreover, how likely is it that the average centrist American is going to look favorably on a massive protest, from mostly college kids, that shut down a popular political candidate’s rally and ended in violence? It doesn’t even matter who started the actual violence. It should be obvious that this narrative is likely to work in Trump’s favor.

Indeed, there’s already some evidence that this is the case. A new post-Chicago poll indicates that, among potential voters whose opinions were shifted by the Chicago rally, two-thirds were more likely to vote for Trump and only one-third was less likely to support him.

This outcome is so predictable that it beggars belief why the condemnations keep coming. Nobody cares. Instead, if Democrats or the GOP establishment really wanted to #StopTrump, they should be endorsing him. Have Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid come out in support of Trump on the same day and then see how well his poll numbers hold up. Is it really the case that no one with power has thought of this plan? Or are they just too uncomfortable with the idea of weaponizing their own unpopularity? Whatever the reason, it’s clear that unless they stop helping his message, Donald Trump is quite likely to be the next US President.

*This great blog post from Paul Grad offers an expanded analysis of the libertarian / property rights angle on this story.

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