Tuesday night’s election left many speechless. Contrary to the initial optimism that accompanied early exit polls and a surge in early voting, Republican nominee Donald Trump, a man with no political experience and a record of corruption, racism, bigotry and misogyny, is now the President-elect of the United States and is set to become one of the most powerful people on the planet.
The results of Tuesday’s election are a testament to the growing ideological divide across the United States and to our unwillingness to listen to others’ opinions and reluctance to adhere to centrist positions above more appealing extremes. It’s not so much that Trump won last night, but rather that American democracy lost.
Trump’s presidency will be a poor shadow of the progress that the Obama administration has brought about in terms of free speech. He has specifically addressed the growing problem of repression of speech on college campuses. During Obama’s commencement address at Howard University in May 2016, he advised young graduates to embrace the exchange of ideas, and to confront “ridiculous or offensive” viewpoints with debate, rather than trying to shut them out.
In a December 2015 interview with NPR, the president issued a warning to student protesters nationwide: “I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right.”
Free speech is a key issue in understanding how we arrived at our current position. Trump rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, but his campaign also fed on a deep-seated resentment of what they saw as “political correctness.” The country’s liberal, educated elites were too quick to dismiss conservative voters’ concerns as a cover for hate speech when, in fact, there is a legitimate problem with the increasing entrenchment of both sides in their own thought echo chambers.
If both halves of the country had made a more significant effort to listen to the other half, and to work with them, perhaps we would not be facing the election of one of the most extreme, least qualified presidents in American history.
Bipartisan cooperation has steadily declined over the years, as ideological and party lines increasingly dictate people’s opinions. A recent Pew survey showed that Americans who have become ideologically consistent have a disproportionate influence on the political process, as they are more likely than those with mixed views to vote regularly, to donate to political campaigns and to contact elected officials.
To those who voted for Trump because they thought that he would have the courage to stand up for our freedom of speech and combat the increasing neutralization of the public space, think again. Don’t be fooled by his passionate defense of the First Amendment, which masks the fact that the candidate only defends free speech when its content pleases him. Trump has institutionalized hatred towards the media, the repression of speech when it “offends” his sensibilities, the public shaming of women who accuse him of sexual assault and a rampant disdain towards minorities. He has inculcated a large swath of the country with the idea that the media cannot be trusted and that he is the sacrosanct purveyor of truth.
In reality, Trump idealizes hatred of the Other and wants to create a system in which those who agree with his rhetoric can speak out, free of the normal restraints of a tolerant and liberal society, and those who disagree can suffer the wrath of his disdain. As a recent Vox article noted, “Donald Trump shows the opposite of ‘political correctness’ isn’t free speech. It’s just different repression.”
George Orwell would be grimly smug if he were alive today. To quote his strangely prophetic words, “The notion that certain opinions cannot safely be allowed a hearing is growing. It is given currency by intellectuals who confuse…democratic opposition and open rebellion, and it is reflected in our growing indifference to tyranny and injustice abroad. And even those who declare themselves to be in favor of freedom of opinion generally drop their claim when it is their own adversaries who are being prosecuted.”
As we move beyond Nov. 8, let us learn our lesson, and earnestly defend both the speech that we approve of and the speech that we believe to be unpalatable and undemocratic. As stated by our outgoing President, the future of our country is bigger than this election, party affiliation and a single individual. Our responsibility now lies in providing the system of checks and balances that American democracy was founded on, and ensuring that freedom of speech remain a right and a privilege in the United States.
Annabelle Timsit is a Senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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