No publicity is bad publicity. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, is an oaf and a bully but he is also a brilliant self-publicist. He knows exactly how far to go to gain maximum exposure in the media while not falling foul of laws on racial hatred.
His call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US is of course offensive – and unconstitutional. But it was carefully calibrated to gain global attention while keeping him out of jail. If he’d said keep out all Jews, it might have been different.
But how easy it is to get the world’s media to pay attention to this flatulent celebrity with his comb-over and suitably silly name. Every newspaper and broadcasting organisation in the world acts as unpaid PR to Mr Trump because he is good copy.
Even I’m dancing to his tune writing about him. We all are. We flatter him by suggesting that his very words pose some kind of threat to civilisation yet recycle them endlessly to further his dubious celebrity.
Really, Mr Trump and so-called Islamic State (IS) are two peas in a pod: they surf the politics of outrage and identity, exploiting our foolishness and gullibility to further the deep social divisions upon which they thrive. They know how to gain maximum exposure and, in the age of social media, they realise they can address directly a willing constituency of outsiders and enlist them to their cause.
It’s as if we can’t stop bigging up Mr Trump. Nearly 250,000 people in Britain have signed a Westminster parliamentary petition calling for him to be banned from entering this country, a perverse mirror image of his own bar on Muslims. This is exactly what he wants because it makes liberals look as intolerant as he is.
We already have laws against incitement to racial hatred that are restrictive enough in a free society. We don’t want to start banning people’s views just because we find them offensive. Charlie Hebdo was offensive.
If you ban Mr Trump for his remarks, you’ll have people saying that the Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell should be banned from Parliament for quoting from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Chairman Mao was a mass murderer. And didn’t McDonnell once say the IRA should be “honoured for their armed struggle”?
Start down this road of censorship on political grounds and you don’t know where you will end up. What about banning the leader of the Labour Party from making speeches in universities because he had described Hezbollah as “our friends”.
The SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh called for a Trump exclusion order at Prime Minister’s Questions, which is somewhat ironic since many Labour politicians argue – quite wrongly – that the Scottish National Party is inherently anti-English and even racist.
I hear people say we should deprive people like Mr Trump of “the oxygen of publicity”. Actually, it was Margaret Thatcher who originally used that phrase when she banned the BBC from transmitting the voices of Sinn Fein politicians. Those politicians are in government in Northern Ireland.
And remember Nick Griffin of the BNP. Many people were appalled when he was given a platform on BBC’s Question Time to express his racist views. In fact, it was the beginning of the end for Mr Griffin. His performance was so dire that the BNP collapsed on itself. His exclusion was part of his mystique.
It’s the same with Mr Trump. He probably realises that he will never secure the Republican nomination. The party will eventually unite against him before the primaries begin to show how electorally toxic he is. But he wins even if he loses.
He tweaks the nose of the media and the liberal intelligentsia in the interests of appealing to his core vote: the 20 per cent white, male working-class Americans who feel left behind by globalisation, gender equality, the collapse of manufacturing jobs and immigration.
These are the people who feel their world has turned upside down; the simple-minded patriotic Americans who see their values expressed in the films of Clint Eastwood, like American Sniper and Gran Torino.
I heard Ross Greer of the Green Party arguing yesterday that Mr Trump should be banned from Scotland on the grounds that his mere presence would make Muslims feel “unsafe”. This echoes the “safe spaces” movement in America, and in some UK universities, that holds that there are certain views that should not be aired in case they give offence to minorities.
At present, the preoccupation of the UK “safe spacers” is transgender issues, which is why the feminist writer, Germaine Greer (no relation), recently became the target of a “no platforming” campaign at Cardiff University on the grounds she had been disrespectful to people who had changed sex.
In short, she’d said that having an operation doesn’t turn you into a woman; offensive to some, but surely a view that she is entitled to express. I would not compare Ms Greer to Mr Trump but such “safe spaces” are precisely what we do not want in universities or anywhere in an open society.
Banning people like Mr Trump for disagreeable views is to accord them a power and a significance they don’t merit. What are we saying? That Muslims are incapable of dealing with prejudice?
Many Muslims experience discrimination on a daily basis, especially since the Paris attacks, and it is patronising to suggest they need to be protected from idiots like Mr Trump.
He was careful to avoid hate speak as such. He said he wanted to ban Muslims on a selective and temporary basis “until we find out what’s going on”. He hasn’t actually said he wants to deprive Muslim citizens of civil rights, though I agree that is a fine distinction.
But during the Second World War, 120,000 American citizens of Japanese origin really were interned without charge or trial after Pearl Harbour: a perverse and disgraceful act, justified at the time in terms of national security, but counterproductive. What better way to turn Japanese immigrants against America than to lock them up in defiance of the constitution?
What better way to antagonise Muslims and aid terrorists propaganda than to suggest that the myth of the “clash of civilisations” is a real one, and that there is a global confrontation between the Christian world and the Muslim.
What should we do about it? We should argue and expose the crass idiocy of these malign attitudes. We don’t run in fear from ideas but hold them to ridicule. We don’t flatter the egos of people like Mr Trump by compromising our commitment to free speech in their honour.
We’ve been here before. Many said the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were offensive and should not have been permitted; that they were asking for trouble and that Muslims should have been protected from offensive depictions of the prophet.
To which the only answer is to paraphrase Voltaire (via Evelyn Beatrice Hall): I find Donald Trump’s world view utterly abhorrent but I would defend to the death his right to express it.
From Herald 9/12/15