Last week’s profile on Donald Trump supporters at NYU has placed the spotlight on the contentious political environment that supposedly hangs over fans of the Republican frontrunner. The students profiled have stated that “they’re afraid of losing friends, being ridiculed in class, getting worse grades and are even afraid of being assaulted and physically hurt.” These claims of campus-wide political persecution, however, are just the natural results of Trump’s political rhetoric characterized by fear and antagonism. Trump supporters are not going to find a safe space for their ideas at NYU, nor should they expect one. Political discourse on campuses thrives on disagreement and questioning, and when that disagreement turns nasty, the supporters of 2016’s nastiest candidate should consider why that is.
Of course, this is not a call for the silencing of an outspoken minority. The problem here is not the mere existence of an idea that clashes with the NYU norm — the problem is really Trump’s status as a gung-ho political provocateur. His bid for the presidency is a unique phenomenon: an unthinkable candidate in an era where America has moved past outright bigotry as a political platform. But the nature of political discourse is inherently personal and provocative; if one contributes to the public sphere only by prodding with crude and inarticulate talking points, then they should expect that others will respond in kind. Freedom of speech is not a right to be liked or welcomed.
If there’s one thing Trump has to his credit, it’s that he energized the larger political debate. By speaking directly to the racial and economic anxieties of working class white America, he has held a mirror to the institution of American conservatism. He forced mainline conservatives to consider why such a repulsive figure has taken their party hostage, to reflect on their views and hopefully alert the Republican Party to the concerns of the modern electorate. This is the healthy way to respond to disagreement. The unhealthy way is to hide behind a persecution complex and refuse to deal with other opinions for fear of unfriendliness. Trump supporters, take note: this is the skeptical America you live in.
Trump poisoned the value of a rational debate long ago. The vocal minority of Trump supporters, while entitled to their opinions, are ultimately aligning themselves with a man who wants to dismantle people’s fundemental rights. Deporting 11 million immigrants, building a wall to prevent illegal immigration and punishing women for seeking abortion are not feasible nor appropriate ways to “Make America Great Again.” Those in the majority cannot exclude Trump supporters from civil discourse, but they are free to condemn those supporters for their demagogic views. Trump supporters are siding with a bully who is fundamentally incompatible with reasonable debate. They shouldn’t expect the very civility that they denounce.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 4 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]