Figures from Glenn Greenwald to Tucker Carlson have raised the recent posting by University of Chicago Professor Brian Leiter saying that military leaders should “depose” President Donald Trump and jail him. The posting was either a poor attempt at a coup or comedy. The real problem is that in today’s environment it was unclear and, worse yet, unremarkable. On Reddit, readers were directed to “Brian Leiter (UoC professor) calls for a military coup: “Trump should be deposed and jailed” Leiter removed the statement and blamed the lack of a sense of humor on those who objected. He was not calling for a coup d’état, just musing about the possibility of a coup d’état.
On his site, Leiter discussed the criticism of Trump by General Mattis and stated that Mattis now “needs to encourage his military colleagues who share his respect for American democracy and the rule of law to do what he should have done while in office: Trump should be deposed and jailed.”
Leiter later removed the statement with an addendum reading:
“I’ve removed my little joke about a military coup in favor of VP Pence. I have, it appears, more faith in the U.S. military, and its commitment to the rule of law, than most readers.”
The incident however raises a more concerning problem. Many could not tell. It is now routine for academics to make sweeping and irresponsible statements about how to deal with Trump and his Administration. This is not a reference to the distortion of the criminal code to declare a host of criminal acts that are unsupportable under controlling case law. It is superheated rhetoric of professors denouncing the Trump Administration as a fascist regime and even endorsing violent protests as a form of speech.
Harvard Professor Lawrence Tribe retweeted a comparison of Trump to Hitler engaging in similar gestures and calling it “horrifying,” He later took done the tweet and said “I’m not saying Trump is becoming Hitler, so don’t bother tweeting the distinctions.” Many are still making the comparison. Indeed, I have had other professors make the same comparison in conversations.
A professor who said that he teaches a course on fascism insisted that the comparison to fascism is apt and that violence is warranted, including the attack on journalist Andy Ngo: “I don’t have a problem with it. There are children dying of lack of medication in concentration camps in the U.S. If one fascist gets a milkshake thrown at him… And beaten up. I don’t have a problem with it.”
The irony is that many of these same academics (rightfully) chastise Trump for his often inflammatory and reckless rhetoric.
I am entirely convinced that Leiter honestly meant this as a joke and that he is committed to the rule of law. I do not want to pile on him for a simple mistaken posting. However, this controversy is occurring as such rhetoric is on the rise among academics who call Trump a Hitler-like figure and his supporters fascists. While some say afterwards “I was just joking,” the intent is to suggest that such comparisons or counteractions to fascism are warranted.
The point is only that there remains little self-evaluation in the academic over superheated rhetoric. Even a statement calling for a military coup is not particularly notable whether as a joke or a serious suggestion in this environment. The effect is chilling for many Republican and conservative academics and students. I am neither a Republican nor conservative but the level of open hostility and intolerance that I have seen in the academy is shocking and chilling. Such outrageous statements are now treated as a virtual type of article of faith among academics. The result is a type of socially reinforced orthodoxy among academics against those who may agree with the Administration on legal interpretations or policy choices. This is what is not funny in the slightest.