As he tells it, President Donald Trump is fighting to deliver us from left-wing radicals out to destroy our history. That few if any such figures exist has not deterred him. Nor does it give him pause that destroying history — whatever that may mean — is not the same as protesting particular monuments. Most disturbing is not the illogic of the quest, but the presumption that anyone who disagrees with Trump’s version of the past is an enemy of the state.
Such intolerance in the presidency is much more dangerous, and un-American, than the threat Trump supposedly fights to contain. Also, Trump seems oblivious to the fact that the First Amendment is not designed to protect the president from people who disagree with him but to protect protesters against the repression of the state.
His speech at Mount Rushmore this past weekend, attacking those out to “overthrow the American Revolution,” reminds me of the rhetoric of World War I: rhetoric weaponized against tens of thousands of people guilty only of opposing the war and President Woodrow Wilson.
Echoes of a century ago at Rushmore
Trump’s language, with its reference to government agents assigned to protect us against a sinister campaign of destruction and indoctrination, could have been lifted almost verbatim from the government’s anti-dissident playbook of over 100 years ago.
In September 1917, the Justice Department indicted 166 members of the Industrial Workers of the World for interfering with the war effort. The U.S. District Attorney in Chicago, who handled the case, claimed union leaders were promoting “the most vicious forms of sabotage, particularly in industries engaged in furnishing war munitions.” The government also alleged that the IWW had blown up ammunition factories, tried to foment armed resistance, and torched forests and lumber mills.
None of the ugly allegations was ever proven to be true. Most were never really addressed at trial.
Even so, the establishment press blindly supported the government. As the marathon trial moved toward a conclusion, the New York Times published a wrap-up that read more like a prosecution brief than a news report. It praised the judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, as “one of the most able judicial officers on the Federal Bench.” (The Times’ assessment notwithstanding, in 1921 the Supreme Court tossed out a conviction of — and 20-year sentence imposed on — anti-war congressman Victor Berger because of bias Landis had exhibited at trial.)
The Times portrayed the IWW as a band of dangerous outlaws: “American Bolsheviki” under the Soviet boot, and “a revolutionary society which has openly declared … that its purpose is unceasing warfare to exterminate the wage system and seize the industries of the nation.”
In such an agitated atmosphere, impartiality was impossible. The entire IWW group (or what remained of it after various individuals had disappeared or had their cases dismissed) was convicted. Union leader Bill Haywood and his 14 top lieutenants were sentenced to 20 years. Haywood escaped imprisonment by fleeing the country, but numerous IWW members served hard time in federal confinement before President Warren Harding commuted their sentences in 1923.
Out to obscure history, not defend it
By then the Red Scare was over, along with the practice of arresting thousands of people just for speaking out. Also, Americans were beginning to understand — thanks in part to the efforts of the recently founded American Civil Liberties Union — that the point of the First Amendment was to protect them against such abuse.
Few people are prepared to defend the notion of a mob tearing down any statue it happens to dislike. But Trump’s campaign goes much further than that. Protesters are not demanding “absolute allegiance” to anything. Nor are they attempting to “destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”
Trump’s dishonest characterization and vilification of people whose only crime is having inconvenient opinions takes us uncomfortably close to the rhetoric that justified the worst excesses of the World War I era.
After weeks of defending monuments of Confederate war heroes, Trump has decided America needs a so-called statuary park honoring American heroes. Too timid, apparently, to commission new statues of Confederate officers, he proposes featuring such luminaries as Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and the Wright brothers.
Never mind that no one is threatening to pull down statues of Abraham Lincoln and the Wright brothers. Never mind that a few more statues of such people would add nothing to anyone’s understanding of American history.
In truth, Trump is not out to defend history but to obscure it — and to crush those who would bring it to light — while replacing reality with his fairy tale version in which he somehow ends up the hero.
Ellis Cose, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is the author of "Democracy, If We Can Keep It: The ACLU’s 100-Year Fight for Rights in America," which is publishing Tuesday and from which parts of this column are adapted. His next book, "The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America," will be released Sept. 15. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisCose
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's intolerance is dangerous, un-American and anti-First Amendment