Last week, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro—in bizarre fashion—took to Twitter to release a list of 44 individual donors in the San Antonio region who had contributed to Donald Trump’s campaign. It’s a list that, funny enough, contained some of Castro’s own benefactors. Castro singled out these donors’ businesses in what was an obvious push to hurt them financially. That’s worrisome.
Sure, it was merely a tweet, but it had some hefty implications. At best, it could be perceived as a deeply cynical attempt to signal to far-left partisans that Castro is sufficiently opposed to the Trump administration. At worst, it was a call to remove certain businesses and people with the “wrong” political ideas from the public square.
Congressman Castro graduated from Stanford University with a degree in political science, so doubtless he’s familiar with the work of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. In his heyday, Mussolini enlisted an armed squadron known as the squadristi, or Blackshirts, to implement his agenda. All too often, this meant destroying businesses when their owners’ political or religious views came into conflict with his. And it worked: going after someone’s source of income is a pretty effective way to silence them. Other dictators did the same thing to citizens they didn’t much care for.
This isn’t to draw a moral equivalency between Congressman Castro and Benito Mussolini. But it is to suggest that Castro’s tactic has some significant and troubling authoritarian roots. Such statist tendencies are governed by a vision wherein all areas of life (religion, commerce, education) must be oriented around a political project—whether it be far-left or authoritarian right. Exactly where does freedom fit into that?
As conservative writer Jonah Goldberg astutely points out, politics from this angle is viewed as an organism. Dissent, then, must be a sort of virus. As Goldberg argues in his book Liberal Fascism, such thinking underpinned early progressive Woodrow Wilson’s decision during his presidency to institute a Ministry of Propaganda and Committee on Public Information, which boosted his efforts to crack down on independent press coverage and dissidents.
This perspective is hardly limited to our haughtiest political leaders. In his book The Smallest Minority, conservative writer Kevin Williamson contends that human beings in general have authoritarian predispositions. Classical liberalism, properly understood, is designed to stifle that natural inclination on both a governmental and social level. With equal protection under the law and a commitment to viewpoint neutrality, classical liberalism provides a governmental structure that enables us to live together despite profound differences ranging from religion to our conceptions of happiness.
Williamson explains that one way to awaken such authoritarian tendencies is through a crisis. Crafty politicians, like Castro, realize that they can gain power by manufacturing a state of panic. By stating that Trump is, at least in part, responsible for the El Paso shooting, and identifying business owners who “enable” him, those proprietors can then be pushed out of the public square—for everyone’s “safety.”
Of course, that’s gross hyperbole. President Trump can be justly characterized as indecent and even racially insensitive, but he’s not running concentration camps and isn’t a raging white nationalist, as many self-aggrandizing politicians would like you to think. If he were, boycotting his donors would certainly be the humanitarian thing to do. But he’s not, so those business owners who toss money his way don’t deserve to be shamed forever.
Wittingly raising the political temperature in an effort to garner support is destructive to civil discourse and exacerbates polarization. Unfortunately, Congressman Castro did just that by attributing President Trump’s worst comments to his supporters, despite no evidence whatsoever that those people agree with everything Trump says.
Castro has since defended his tweet, saying it was public information and contained no explicit call to action. But it is willful ignorance to suggest that this was anything other than a coordinated attempt to expose and humiliate. Congressman Castro obviously hoped these businesses would be boycotted and feel the sting of financial loss.
It’s an approach that, if taken to its furthest conclusion, would see people affiliating only with companies and individuals that share their political beliefs. This, of course, is deeply antithetical to the spirit of classical liberalism and the tolerance that progressives so often tout as paramount.
I lean right politically, yet I still enjoy shopping at stores whose owners most likely disagree with my politics. I buy Nike shoes and won’t stop shaving with Gillette razors anytime soon. Living in a classical liberal society means that we have to interact with those with whom we disagree. Sometimes we even give them our money in exchange for goods, and that’s all right; in fact, it’s necessary.
How strange it is that our elected officials so often dismiss that.
Ethan Lamb (@realethanlamb) is a Young Voices contributor and an incoming law student at Georgetown University.