President Donald Trump has made no secret of his disdain for NFL players protesting police treatment of African-Americans by kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. “As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning.
But, in an interview with the conservative Daily Caller site on Tuesday afternoon, Trump took his views on protests even further – raising the question as to whether protests should even be allowed.
“I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters, you don’t even know which side the protesters were on,” Trump said. “But to allow someone to stand up and scream from the top of their lungs and nobody does anything about it is frankly — I think it’s an embarrassment.”
So, uh, well, wait what?
“I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters,” said the President of the United States, who is charged with upholding the Constitution.
Speaking of the Constitution, the First Amendment to it states this (bolding mine): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Let’s take a step back and give some context to Trump’s comments about prohibiting protests. The Daily Caller reporters asked the President if he had watched any of the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court.
“Democrats have put on quite a show, have you kept up with it?” one of the reporters notes. And with that, Trump launches into this answer about protests:
“I’m amazed that people allow the interruption to continue. You know, there are some people that just keep screaming at the same people. In the old days we used to throw them out. Today I guess they just keep screaming. I thought Sen. (Orrin) Hatch was good because he was very indignant at the interruptions by a woman that was up there that just kept going on and on. I don’t know why they don’t, why they don’t take care of a situation like that because it’s terrible. I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters, you don’t even know which side the protesters were on. But to allow someone to stand up and scream from the top of their lungs and nobody does anything about it is frankly — I think it’s an embarrassment. I think, well it’s really early stages, but I think the Democrats are grasping at straws, that looks like to me. It’s incredible how bipartisan everything, when you look at how the opposite, I mean, when you look at how the level of division between the two sides, it’s sort of incredible.”
There’s no question the Kavanaugh hearings have been repeatedly interrupted by protesters. According to the Capitol Police, 70 protesters were arrested across the Capitol complex on Tuesday for protests tied to the Kavanaugh hearings. Within seconds of the opening of the hearings on Wednesday, protesters were being dragged from the room.
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Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch was particularly bothered by the repeated interruptions from protesters claiming that Kavanaugh should never be seated for a variety of reasons. “I don’t know that the committee should have to put up with the type of insolence taking place in this room today,” Hatch said at one point. At another point, he urged Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley to “have this loudmouth removed,” referring to a protester.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Wednesday, “What kind of country do we live in where the Supreme Court candidate can’t bring his children to the hearing?”
The conservative internet was similarly up in arms, noting that these sorts of protests didn’t happen when confirmation hearings were held for former President Barack Obama’s picks to the Supreme Court. (Nota bene: There were protests and arrests during Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, although they were less numerous than in the first day of Kavanaugh.)
Here’s the reality: The protests are disruptive. Before the protesters are escorted out of the committee room, they make quite the ruckus. Their shouts often drown out a question from a senator or an answer from Kavanaugh. At the same time: What these people are doing is constitutionally protected.
Most of the people being arrested for protesting are waiting in the line for the public to enter the hearings. (There are several rows of seats in the Judiciary Committee room reserved for a rotating group of average citizens.) Once in the hearings, they are protesting. They are doing so knowing they will be arrested for civil disobedience.
Protest and dissent – vocal and peaceful – has a long history in the United States. From women’s suffrage to the civil right movements, protest helped shine a light on injustice. That’s not to say that the protests plaguing the Kavanaugh hearings are that same sort of historic moment, or that putting him on the Supreme Court is a universally agreed-upon injustice.
But it is to say that when the President of the United States openly wonders why protests are allowed, it creates a chilling echo of authoritarian regimes in which dissent is crushed by the government. Even broaching the idea that protests should not be allowed suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which free speech should and does work. In Trump’s mind, people who protest don’t like America – and should get the hell out. In reality, the right to speak out – even and especially when that speech takes the form of protest – is deeply intertwined with what makes America, well, America.