Charles Blow: Trump remains at war with the U.S. Constitution

His threats of deportation and violence against peaceful protesters, though vague, can’t be ignored.

By Charles M. Blow / The New York Times

At a rally in Wildwood, N.J., on Saturday, Donald Trump said that if he is reelected, he will “immediately deport” any campus protesters who “come here from another country and try to bring jihadism or anti-Americanism or antisemitism.”

Of course, Trump dwells in linguistic imprecision. What does “try to bring” mean? Are we using his definitions of jihadism, anti-Americanism and antisemitism? How would those sentiments be monitored? Would the deportations be extrajudicial? Would the deportations be only of student visa holders, or would it include green card holders?

This campaign pledge — this threat — is not only unworkable; it’s ludicrous. But it’s a powerful bit of propaganda. It ties together Trump’s message of nativism and xenophobia with one of his fixations: an iron-fist approach to protests that challenge his beliefs or interests.

Trump understands, intuitively, the power of crowds, and views it as a pressing threat when aligned against him.

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said Trump was furious about the protests in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. In his memoir, Esper wrote that in one meeting, Trump asked, “Can’t you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?” According to Esper, Trump believed that the protests made the country — and him — look weak.

Trump has a thirst for authoritarianism because he conflates suppression with strength. In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump said this about the Chinese government’s response to the Tiananmen Square protests: “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

It’s hard not to conclude that Trump relishes the idea of doing the same.

But what Trump seems to see as a weakness is actually one of America’s strengths, the First Amendment. It protects not only freedom of speech but also the freedom to peaceably assemble.

The First Amendment also protects the freedom of the press, which has been under constant assault from Trump. Not only have his incessant references to the news media as the “enemy of the people” helped to poison public sentiment about the trustworthiness of basic facts, he has long expressed a desire to erode press freedoms in the country in general.

During his 2016 campaign, he promised to “open up our libel laws” to allow news organizations to be more easily sued if they write what he deems “purposely negative and horrible and false articles.” There is already an avenue for litigation for false reporting, but it is the subjective “negative” and “horrible” designations that should set off alarms.

In many ways, Trump is at war with the Constitution itself.

In 2022, just weeks after announcing his current campaign, he took to social media, continuing his lie that the 2020 election had been stolen, writing: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great ‘Founders’ did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!”

In fact, one of the founders’ greatest fears was a populist demagogue.

As Alexander Hamilton wrote to George Washington in 1792, just a few years after the Constitution was ratified, “the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country is by flattering the prejudices of the people and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion and bring on civil commotion.”

That is a rather prophetic description of the rise of Trump and the precarious point at which the nation now finds itself.

And if Trump is reelected, some of his allies are already planning to indulge and institutionalize his authoritarian inklings. Much of what they have planned involves reshaping the executive branch and exploiting regulatory power.

But it would be unwise to think that Trump would limit himself in this way. With an obsequious Congress — which he would have if it is controlled by Republicans — he could also, potentially, enact laws that undermine the Constitution. We’ve seen this before.

In 1798, fearing a possible war with France, a Federalist Party-controlled Congress passed a series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, permitting the president to deport “aliens” and allowing the arrest, imprisonment and deportation of citizens of an enemy country during wartime. The Sedition Act made it illegal to “print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing” about the government.

As the National Archives explains: “The laws were directed against Democratic-Republicans, the party typically favored by new citizens. The only journalists prosecuted under the Sedition Act were editors of Democratic-Republican newspapers.”

The Sedition Act is no longer on the books, but it is now widely considered to have been unconstitutional. It’s alarming to see so many Americans shrug when a former president floats a similar idea.

As Benjamin Franklin printed in his newspaper, a half-century before our Constitution was written and adopted: “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”

That appears to be Trump’s ambition.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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