It’s not easy to make Donald Trump a sympathetic figure, but students at UC Berkeley showed how it can be done: by acting like Trump and his band of miscreants.
Alt-right writer and Brietbart stalwart Milo Yiannapoulos was invited to give a talk on the Berkeley campus, and before the talk even began a destructive protest erupted, with fires started and rocks thrown at buildings. Berkeley sensibly canceled the talk for safety and security reasons.
Those protests are just what Trumpism would recommend – the use of threatened or real force to achieve what is probably a pointless end.
Fortunately, even with this golden opportunity, the Trump administration just wasn’t smart enough to take advantage. First, Trump responded with a veiled threat about Berkeley’s funding (apparently for canceling the talk, not for the protests). Then Kellyanne Conway likened the Berkeley vandalism to recent airport protests over immigration restrictions, with some laugh-out-loud comments about Berkeley unreasonably restricting free speech. With the Trump bunch, thuggery runs deep.
Of course, the real issue for Trumpism is that it can’t deal with dissent – one of the reasons that dissent is valuable. The principled and largely peaceful airport protests were not only unlike the violent Berkeley vandalism, they represented the right of citizens everywhere to speak out against invalid government action. I have nothing but admiration for those taking the time and effort to do so.
Still, it’s possible to be unintelligent in opposition. Violence plays directly into the administration’s hand. With “alt-fact Kellyanne” at the spin-zone controls, there is no guarantee that the collateral damage won’t persist.
If we’re supporting American values, free speech matters. Even speech that is, well, kind of dumb. If someone wants to come and give a talk, let them. Yes, even some ludicrous alt-right nonsense – no one said it has to be taken seriously. Who, at Berkeley, will an alt-right speaker convince? It’s actually a good opportunity – there are plenty of civil ways to register disapproval: failure to applaud, picketing, brisk and possibly ridiculing Q&A-time interrogation. Want to create converts? Assure that Yiannapoulos is at the short end of a clever argument, and publish your clip. Hitting him on the head with a brick will just make people feel sorry for him, and for Trump.
If we’re supporting American values, inclusiveness also matters. A protest movement is actually much more powerful, not less powerful, when it comprises many different voices and views speaking out together. I was honestly surprised and disappointed when some women planning to march against Trump in DC were denigrated for having a considered pro-life stance. Are they not women? Are they not protesting the same basic thing as everyone else? Separatist thinking, a desire for doctrinal conformity, and senseless violence might be the only things that could derail an otherwise admirable protest movement.