He didn’t like the cast of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” reminding his vice president-elect about inclusiveness. He didn’t like “crooked media” reports of his potential conflicts of interest all over the world. He didn’t like a “Saturday Night Live” skit. And he woke up on Tuesday apparently seized with anger at flag-burning. At 6:55 a.m., President-elect Donald Trump declared that “no one should be allowed to burn the American flag.”
In these and other cases, Trump has responded with thunderbolts on Twitter demanding action: for “Hamilton,” an apology; for Saturday Night Live, equal time; for flag-burning, “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” For the media, he’s delivered an unending stream of epithets.
This is a man obsessed with punishing statements he doesn’t like. He celebrates being provocative and brash, but he can’t stand it when his critics fire back. Citizen Trump enjoys freedom of speech, but soon-to-be President Trump is flirting with the dangerous idea that he can crimp the speech of others. Such a notion is the reality of tyrants in other countries, who torment dissidents to silence them, but the United States is different. It is not a single man’s fiefdom alone; it does not put a leader or party above the law. It is not a banana republic where the boss can dictate what is “allowed” and what are the “consequences.”
Let’s talk about flag-burning.
In Dallas in the hot summer days of August 1984, President Ronald Reagan was renominated at the Republican National Convention. Outside the hall, protesters demonstrated against Reagan’s policies. Someone handed an American flag to a protester, Gregory Lee “Joey” Johnson, who doused it in kerosene and set it on fire. No one was hurt, some cheered and others were deeply offended. Johnson was charged with violating a Texas law prohibiting desecration of a venerated object, and sentenced to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. His case went to the Supreme Court, which declared that burning the flag was an act of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Among those in the five-justice majority was Justice Antonin Scalia, whom Trump has praised as “one of the greats” and whose replacement he is poised to name.
The court’s decision was not the end of the matter. After the ruling, Congress passed a law banning flag-burning. That statute was also overturned by the court. So far, efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit burning the flag have fallen short.
That’s where we are today. A nation governed by the rule of law has debated whether burning the flag is protected speech, and the Supreme Court has found that it should be, no matter how objectionable. Trump just does not seem to grasp this core principle about free speech: Sometimes you have to accept the very unpleasant. As Justice William Brennan wrote in Texas v. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Trump, as president, is certainly free to call for change, propose legislation, say what he likes about his convictions. In fact, many people share his thoughts on flag-burning. But as president, he must realize that he can’t bully his way to success. If he wants change, he has to persuade voters and Congress, not issue orders over his morning toast. What’s objectionable about Trump’s tweets is the menacing tone, as if he alone can rule on what speech is acceptable and what is not.
As president, he will be part of a grand Wurlitzer of governing, one big wheel in a machine of many wheels. His sudden morning anxiety about flag-burning ought to bring home to him a reason why the flag generates such emotions. It stands for a system of weights and counterweights, a faith in rule of law and tradition that has, through long and difficult testing, proven durable and effective at protecting freedoms from abuse and encroachment.
Such is the education of Trump. What he was before — boss of his own domain, bruising his way through deals and making outlandish statements — does not easily translate into a working presidency. The real question is whether he will realize this before he walks through the Oval Office doors. So far, he has not.