The Right’s views on free speech have evolved over the last 60 years—could Trump signal another shift?
At risk of stating the obvious, now could not be a more pivotal time for conservatism in America. The political party that has long been synonymous with conservative values is about to nominate a presidential candidate who, to many of the most prominent, proud, and prolific adherents to the conservative brand, poses an existential threat. The great American tradition of free speech is also on bold if not squeamish display, as an unprecedented cacophony of schoolyard banter has seemed to replace dignified political discourse as the new normal in presidential contests. Ironically, the frontrunner who has brought such extraordinary color to the mainstream political lexicon and inspired his adversaries to do the same, has recently advocated “opening up” libel laws so they would be less protective of negative reporting on political candidates by major news outlets.
Now could not be a more pivotal time for conservatism in America.
In the not so distant past, conservative standard-bearers like National Review, would likely have agreed with Donald Trump. But earlier this year this fountainhead of conservatism instigated a sort of intellectual coup against the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee, boldly pronouncing that it is “Against Trump” on its front cover. It has clearly taken a position on what vision of conservatism it supports, and it is decidedly not the approach promoted by the Republican frontrunner.
Back in the mid-century halcyon days of National Review, its position on one issue was crystal clear: Free speech without restraint was a menace. At the time, conservatism stood for a narrow First Amendment; mainstream conservatives supported a freedom of speech that could be significantly tempered by common sense and morality. As I explore in The Right’s First Amendment, in the early decades of the magazine’s publication—beginning roughly sixty years ago—the overwhelming majority of National Review opinion pieces on the First Amendment advocated increased restrictions on free speech. In other words, if an early edition of the National Review could somehow comment on the future events of 2016, it would not merely condemn the unusually tasteless verbal sparring that has broken out in the Republican primary contest as a moral abomination and a threat to traditional values, it likely would have also questioned the very right of speakers to traffic in such vulgarity, vicious invective and fighting words.