The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP embraces heavy hand of government to target Big Tech, critical race theory and coronavirus restrictions

Former president Donald Trump during a news conference at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey on Wednesday. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Justin Lane)

On Wednesday, Republican former president Donald Trump filed a lawsuit advancing a rather novel legal theory. It holds that social media giant Facebook, which is a private company, is effectively a government entity and can thus be sued for First Amendment violations against Trump.

The night before, the conservative host of cable news’s highest-rated show advanced a similarly remarkable proposition. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said we should install cameras in public school classrooms to monitor what teachers say at all times.

These are certainly some of the more far-out proposals advanced by a conservative movement, which once, very recently, railed against the tyranny of government and the right of private businesses to do what they want. But they’ve also been a long time coming.

In recent months, Republicans across the country have advanced legislation that would use the government to crack down on Big Tech, the teaching of critical race theory and coronavirus restrictions in ways that bear little resemblance to the GOP of yore.

Most recently came Trump’s lawsuit on Wednesday. The lawsuit, which is more of a news release and a fundraising vehicle than anything else, argues that Facebook in particular should be considered a “state actor.” That’s because one must be a government entity in order to be sued for First Amendment violations. Trump is suing because he was banned by Facebook and Twitter, which he says amounts to impinging upon his right to free speech.

On Tuesday night, Carlson proposed the cameras-in-classrooms idea, giving voice to those decrying supposedly liberal and anti-America curriculums and offering an enforcement mechanism for combating it.

“How widespread is it?” Carlson said. “Well, we can’t really be sure until we finally get cameras in the classroom, as we put them on the chest of police officers — until we finally get a civilian review board in every town in America to oversee the people teaching your children, forming their minds. And let’s hope we get both of those very soon.”

Carlson, as a cable news host, is a provocateur with little compare. But he’s also been renowned not so much as a Trumpian conservative, but as a libertarian. The idea that he would support such a Big Brother-esque proposal is certainly a commentary on our time.

But it’s hardly the first such commentary on how the conservative movement has grown to love government intervention in favor of specific goals in the Trump era.

Much of this has taken place in Florida and Texas, where Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott seem intent upon one-upping each other when it comes to controversial restrictions on teachers and business’s coronavirus policies.

Both men have moved to restrict cruise lines, which frequent both states, from requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination from passengers. This feeds into conservative concern about so-called vaccine passports. Except this involves private companies whose rights to conduct business as they see fit Republicans have long defended (most notably when it comes to gay weddings). And a poll in Florida showed its residents were 3-to-1 against the proposal.

DeSantis, in particular, has been out front in pushing such proposals.

Last week, he signed a bill mandating that public universities require students, faculty and staff to take surveys to help ensure “intellectual diversity” on campus. DeSantis has suggested certain schools could be docked funding if the results don’t meet certain standards.

DeSantis in May also signed a law prohibiting social media companies from banning politicians in the run-up to elections. The law also prohibits those companies from using algorithms to organize content from or about politicians — a clause some experts say is completely unworkable. The libertarian Cato Institute said that “this stipulation ignores both websites’ rights to arrange content as they wish, and how most ‘post-prioritization’ is responsive to user inputs.” In other words, users and platforms wouldn’t be allowed to sort such content in virtually any way.

The law was blocked by a federal judge last week, hours before it was set to go into effect.

Likewise, Texas Republicans have pushed a slightly less far-reaching bill that would ban large social media companies from blocking, demonetizing or discriminating against users based on their political views or their location within the state. Again, the issue is the breadth of the law. Would this also apply to those advocating violence or spewing racism or other extreme beliefs on such platforms? Are those not political views, broadly defined? And even if you believe such private companies should not regulate legitimate political speech or even misinformation on their platforms, where do you draw the line?

Texas Democrats in May successfully stalled to prevent the passage of this bill and other contentious legislation. But Abbott, who has supported the effort along with his lieutenant governor, said Wednesday that he wants the issue on the agenda for an upcoming special session.

(That lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, also this week acknowledged canceling an event at a state museum involving a critical look at the official history of the Alamo.)

A final relevant example involves a bill in another state whose Republicans have often pushed the envelope: Arizona. In May, the Arizona state House passed a law that would fine teachers $5,000 if they teach racist, sexist or other politically controversial topics without giving equal weight to both sides of the debate. Again, the breadth issue. How does one define a controversial topic? How does one determine whether a given side of a debate has been given equal weight? And how do you enforce this?

But now there’s apparently a solution for that.