If Error Had No Rights, Donald Trump Wouldn’t Be President

If Error Had No Rights, Donald Trump Wouldn’t Be President July 12, 2018

On this morning’s walk when I usually converse with the missus, her bad back forced me to listen to a podcast on my trusty Walkman (this one plays mp3 files, unlike the old cassette version). Next in the queue was Jonah Goldberg’s Remnant podcast with a conversation about Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and Trump’s short list for justice nominees. His guest was Ilya Shapiro, a legal scholar with the libertarian Cato Institute. In the course of their conversation, each man distinguished what is legal from what is bad policy. Shapiro, for instance, thinks the Trump Administration’s travel ban is a wrongheaded policy, but that SCOTUS’s upholding of the ban was correct in regarding it as constitutional.

Shapiro and Goldberg each observed that interns and students have trouble understanding the difference between what is legal and what is moral, or between what the law allows and what persons on moral grounds forbid. For instance, television series such as The Wire may be morally objectionable to Christians because it features sex scenes with nudity, foul language, and violence. But those objections do not rise to a level to make a show like The Wire illegal. Freedom of expression gives room for what the censors classify as R-Rated movies or television shows.

In other words, something a Christian deems erroneous is not illegal in a political order like the United States that protects civil liberties.

The opposite of a liberal polity is one like that outlined by the Vatican before the Second Vatican Council. Until the 1960s meeting of bishops in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church had taught — its default position — that error has no rights. For instance in 1885, Pope Leo XIII wrote:

So too, that liberty of thinking and of publishing anything whatsoever, with no restraint at all, is not a good by its own nature over which human society should rightly rejoice, but is the font and origin of many evils… for this reason, a state errs from the rule and prescription of nature if it allows a license of opinion and actions to such an extent that without penalty it is permitted to lead minds away from the truth and souls from virtue.

The same pope 3 years later wrote:

It is scarcely necessary to say that there can be no right for a freedom that is not moderately tempered,but which goes beyond measure and bounds…. For if a boundless license of speaking and writing be conceded to just anyone, nothing is going to remain holy and inviolate, not even those greatest, most true judgments of nature, which are to be considered as the common and most noble patrimony of the human race.

These convictions made it very hard for Roman Catholicism to adjust to the modern world. The sort of liberty for speech, worship, assembly, and publication that in 1789 Protestants in the United States (at least) celebrated took almost 175 years to become legitimate for Roman Catholic officials.

Sometimes when I read critics of Donald Trump, I wonder if they are closet Roman Catholics who pine for the days before the Second Vatican Council because they seem to think that error (like Trump’s) has no rights. That is, they have trouble recognizing the legality and rights of a bad person to be POTUS. Take for instance the recent defense of eating establishments refusing to serve Trump administration officials by Adam Gopnik. He started out liberal and tolerant of error:

On the one hand, one of the ritual functions of restaurants is to make a common place for commonplace civilization to proceed. They build social capital from their openness to all kinds. Think of how much the civilization of American cities depends on our being able to grab not just bite but a bit of anonymity—we eat alongside others without the others looking down too sharply upon us. It’s a fundamental liberal value, worth protecting in all partisan instances and on all partisan sides. And, no, we don’t want to set a precedent in which politics are so personalized that even simple common coexistence becomes impossible. As a moral duty, we should share the pleasures and conversation of the table with as many people of as many views as we can…

But then the pre-Vatican II hammer:

On the other hand, the Trump Administration is not a normal Presidential Administration. This is the essential and easily fudged fact of our historical moment. The Trump Administration is—in ways that are specific to incipient tyrannies—all about an assault on civility. To the degree that Trump has any ideology at all, it’s a hatred of civility—a belief that the normal decencies painfully evolved over centuries are signs of weakness which occlude the natural order of domination and submission. It’s why Trump admires dictators. Theirs are his values; that’s his feast. And, to end the normal discourse of democracy, the Trump Administration must make lies respectable—lying not tactically but all the time about everything, in a way that does not just degrade but destroys exactly the common table of democratic debate.

That’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s chosen role in life—to further those lies, treat lies as truth, and make lies acceptable.

No ideology except hatred of civility. Make lies respectable. And I bet Gopnik thought Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were unhinged about Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Gopnik is entitled to his opinion. It’s a free country and all. But his support for barring Trump officials from restaurants is akin to saying error has no rights. Sure the kind of error he alleges could be illegal, depending on what other branches of government do. Even so, his implication is that the current government is illegitimate because it is so wicked. Hence, error has no rights. The United States, from Johnson and Nixon to Jefferson and Adams, is illegitimate because sinners occupied the White House. Freedom is only for the those who do good.

The fundamentalists have won.

Then again, if you want to maintain that the United States is a Christian nation whose officials must abide by biblical norms, then rejecting Trump and all his sinful predecessors makes perfect sense.

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