So President Donald J. Trump thinks Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James is dumb, because he said Trump is using athletes and athletics to divide the country. The list of people Trump thinks are stupid is long and includes Rep. Maxine Waters and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Usually, these are people of color. Often they are women. All of them are Trumpian critics, which is the material point. If you like Trump, support him or at least don’t get in his way, he’ll tolerate you, maybe even praise you. But if you offer criticism and resistance, fuhgeddabout it. That is not compassion. It is not leadership. And it’s not compassionate leadership.
Americans have a strange notion of free speech. You can’t just say whatever you want about anyone. The Constitution protects Americans’ right to say what they want without fear of government reprisal. But it does not protect that right against reprisal from someone else. Hence, the you-can’t-yell-“fire”-in-a-crowded-theater-just-because-you-feel-like-it argument. If you falsely label someone a child molester in the printed or spoken word, that person may very well sue you for libel or defamation respectively. He or she will have to prove that what you wrote or said was untrue (relatively easy). If he or she is a public figure or official, that person will also have to prove that you acted maliciously when you penned or uttered those words (the so-called absent malice clause, a bit trickier).
It’s usually harder for someone famous to prove he was defamed or libeled but it has been done. In 1976, comedienne-actress Carol Burnett successfully sued the National Enquirer, which falsely claimed she had been drunk in a restaurant. (Burnett, the child of an alcoholic mother and a crusader against alcoholism, ultimately settled out of court for $200,000.)
Trump thinks criticism is a one-way street: He dishes it out and you take it, because he can’t. But to respond or not to respond? The actor Hayden Christensen, perhaps best-known for playing the younger Anakin Skywalker in the “Star Wars” series of movies, once said that he didn’t care what people wrote about him in the press when he knew it wasn’t true. Others vigilantly guard their reputations against falsehoods.
How then to respond to Trumpian attacks? Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers said that players shouldn’t respond to what Trump says about the NFL.
“I think that the more that we give credence to stuff like that, the more it's gonna live on," Rodgers said in an extensive interview with NFL.com reporter Mike Silver. "I think if we can learn to ignore or not respond to stuff like that -- if we can -- it takes away the power of statements like that."
As for James, Rodgers said, “He knows he has the support of his contemporaries, in his own sport and in other sports." He added that James’ silence in the wake of Trump’s criticism was “absolutely beautiful.” (Of course, Rodgers saying we shouldn't respond is a kind of response, isn't it? That's the challenge of coping with someone who's always on the attack. You're always playing defense.)
While I think Rodgers and James are on to something, I have to wonder, At what point does silence become acquiescence? It’s fine for the rich and the famous – those with some power – to take it on the chin. But when Trump goes after the vulnerable, as in the case of immigrants, it’s time to speak up. It was the conservative Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
And, perhaps, to say nothing as well.