As an Iranian, I have an intimate understanding of the horrible implications of hate speech, as it has been directed against Iran and its citizens numerous times in American history. During the hostage crisis of Carter’s administration, the period after 9/11, and the entirety of Trump’s campaign, Iranians—and many other Middle Easterners—were (and still are) targeted by the inflammatory comments of many members of the right. I well recognize, therefore, the instinctual desire to protest speakers like Corey Lewandowski, who spoke at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP) on February 15, for fear that letting them speak legitimizes their message of hate. However, such protests are misguided because this type of hateful ideology is already normalized and because these types of protests only serve to empower Trump and his bigoted lieutenants.
Whether we like it or not, Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and Corey Lewandowski played a significant role in getting him to that position. Though Lewandowski does spew unfounded hate, we are not “legitimizing” this language by having him come to campus. He and other Trumpists were legitimized and normalized on January 20, 2017, when Donald Trump was sworn into office. This type of speech cannot be ignored or shunned because these are not random members of the alt-right: this type of hate is governing our nation. We, on the left, cannot change this fact, no matter how many events of his we protest.
We should view an off-the-record talk with Lewandowski as an opportunity for our student body—he can tell us about the campaign process, what fears they capitalized on, and how they took Trump from being a humorous distraction to being a serious candidate. And we must understand how they were able to be successful if we have any hope of defeating them in 2018 and 2020. Attempting to shut down Lewandowski only ignores the problem that we must solve before the next election cycle. Had Lewandowski been, say, a white nationalist merely on the fringe of our political world, the debate surrounding the legitimacy of these protests would be vastly different. But he isn’t. This man controlled the campaign of our current president for a considerable amount of time, and I, for one, would like to know how he did so successfully. Only by truly understanding how hate succeeds can we stop hate in the future.
Beyond the fact that Trump and Trumpism are already legitimized, shutting down Lewandowski might actually embolden support for Trump’s discriminatory policies. According to IOP Fellow and Washington Post journalist Robert Costa, Lewandowski and Trump love this style of protest. He mentioned that, according to those close to the president, Trump sees campus unrest as a way of characterizing the left and the Democratic Party. Such protests further the narrative of the intolerable left: we become the political faction that opposes free speech. Though there is a distinction between hate speech and free speech, shutting down powerful speakers on the right can seem like a flagrant attack on free speech to many conservatives. It is this narrative of leftist intolerance and lawlessness that helped Trump get elected, and if we, the left, continue to play into their hands as such, it will be the narrative that helps him get re-elected. And as someone whose family has been affected by Trump’s horrendous policies, the same policies espoused by Lewandowski, we cannot afford another loss in the 2018 midterm elections. We need to understand the other side so that we can properly resist them.
The proper way to protest a speaker like Lewandowski is not to shut him down: this only makes him look like a victim in the eyes of his supporters. Rather, we must go to these events, ask difficult questions, and truly test these speakers. To reach the point where we can effectively resist these policies and elect more progressive legislators, we must first listen. Now, this is not to say that all protests are useless. On the contrary, I believe that the Women’s March and protests at O’Hare and airports across the nation were incredibly productive. In those protests, we did not look to shut anyone down, we were not looking for a scapegoat—we were calmly and peacefully protesting discriminatory policies. We had a common purpose and a common goal (lifting the travel ban in the case of the airport protests). Comparatively, the protests outside the Lewandowski event, focused more around a person than a policy, serving short-term anger rather than long-term policy goals. By devolving into outlets for the protestors themselves to release anger, those protesting are neglecting the millions that they are ostensibly protesting for.
For instance, the numerous chants against the police at the Lewandowski protest alienate potential allies. I went to O’Hare Airport a few days ago to translate for Iranian travellers who were treated unjustly by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It wasn’t a busy night, so we were able to talk with a lot of workers at the airport, including a CPD officer, who told us that he respected what we were doing at that he was “rooting for [us].” We alienate people like this officer—those who do not support Trump or Lewandowski but are nonetheless targeted by these protests. The left is right to raise concerns about unchecked police power, namely allegations of racism and excessive force, and I am completely in favor of protests whose goals are to hold police accountable. That being said, we cannot generalize an entire profession when protesting Trumpism, considering that many policemen and women are on our side. By protesting against all police, we alienate a large number of potential Democratic voters in the 2018 or 2020 elections. Our movement should be inclusive, not exclusive.
It is imperative that we leftists do not allow our rage to distract from us from our ultimate goals. To defeat Trumpism, we must ultimately win elections. We live in the same country that elected President Obama twice; it is not an impossible task to put a Democrat in office. Unless we want to be in the same position in 2018 and 2020 as we are now, we shouldn’t alienate a large part of the electorate. Rather, we should work to understand how figures like Lewandowski and Trump exploited a large segment of the population and work to win these people back.
Ashton Hashemipour is a first-year in the College majoring in political science.