/How Trump Twists ‘Free Speech’

How Trump Twists ‘Free Speech’

Donald Trump

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Fourth estate

Trump doesn’t believe in free speech on social media any more than he believes in open borders or free trade

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

Donald Trump’s unmatched facility at bleeding sense and meaning from words and concepts until only a heap of husk and stalk remains reared up again this week.

Having previously established himself the foe of the First Amendment—calling defenders of free speech on the internet “foolish people,” coercing White House staffers into signing nondisclosure agreements, attacking the mainstream press as the enemy of the people and urging the jailing of flag-burners—Trump has seemingly switched sides. Now he’s presenting himself as a free-speech proponent, introducing a new White House web survey whose purported fact-finding goal is to “advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH” and deter bias on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook by getting you to file a complaint about how they’ve treated you.

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Of course, all this talk about free speech is a Trumpian dodge, designed to advance his political ends: He doesn’t believe in free speech on social media any more than he believes in open borders or free trade, as he’s demonstrated. Suppressing free speech in the name of free speech, he has jawboned Google News search results, demanding the company surface more flattering coverage of his administration. “I think Google has really taken advantage of a lot of people, and I think that’s a very serious thing. That’s a very serious charge,” Trump said last summer, adding that Google, Twitter, Facebook and others “better be careful, because you can’t do that to people.” He has berated social media platforms for suspending the accounts of his supporters, like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, for violating terms of service. He’s accused Twitter of “shadow banning” prominent Republicans.

He even brought Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to the Oval Office recently to lecture him on how to run his platform, telling him the site was “very discriminatory” and “hard for people to sign on.” Accusing Twitter of “playing their political games” (on Twitter, no less), Trump writes, “No wonder Congress wants to get involved—and they should,” a statement that all but threatens regulation of speech.

I would go on, but there’s a certain futility in marshaling arguments against someone who can make words mean whatever he wants them to mean. When there’s no national emergency on the border, he climbs onto his pulpit and declares one. One day he praises special counsel Robert Mueller for acting honorably and says the report has exonerated him; several days later he invokes executive privilege to block the release of the unredacted report. One day he’s preparing the country for war with North Korea or Iran; the next day he’s meh. Other examples abound. The wall, which he says the Mexicans will build, but they aren’t, or which he says he’s already building, but he isn’t. The tariffs, which he says the Chinese are paying, but they aren’t. The Syria reversal. His contradictory recent statements on immigration. His defense of Putin and his walk-back.

Trump turnabouts look like flip-flops, tune-changing, contradictions, post-truth in action—or lies, if you want to exercise your high dudgeon. Without a doubt, Trump lies. But Trump’s method is greater than just lying. He intentionally blurs the meaning of words to make them mean whatever he wants them to mean, resetting definitions and inverting their meaning whenever it suits him. When he accused Democrats of treasonous behavior for their border policies, he wasn’t really claiming they were working with a declared enemy against their own country. He was doing what he always does, drawing shocking words from his inventory to make a splash. Sometimes when people press him for saying outrageous things—that President Barack Obama was the founder of ISIS; that he desires absolute power; that he envies Kim Jong Un’s rule; or that he should be president for life—he claims that he was “joking.” The words he spoke, you see, didn’t mean what they mean in the dictionary. They were for entertainment purposes only.

Trump’s co-optation of the language of free speech to suppress the free speech rights of social media companies isn’t the last straw, but it might be the ultimate one. He’s given us his operational definition of free speech: If it flatters and fluffs Trump, it’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, it must be damned. It’s enough to make Orwell blush.

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Make me blush with mail to [email protected]. My email alerts were just joking when they accused my Twitter feed of treason. My RSS feed is a traitor.

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