How did we get here?

Arthur Caplan, Donald’s Trumpettes, and me

3 minute read
"Trump Wins." (Painting by Dan Lacey via Creative Commons/Flickr)
"Trump Wins." (Painting by Dan Lacey via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Here’s a story out of BSR history that involves the Phillies, a famous Penn ethicist, my wife, me, and now, Donald J. Trump’s newly emboldened followers. Seven years ago, I wrote an article about J.C. Romero, a local World Series hero and alleged steroid cheat. It touched on an essay by former University of Pennsylvania ethicist Arthur Caplan, who has since left that institution for New York University.

Briefly, I mildly criticized Caplan without identifying him by name for politically damning in print a famous bodybuilder and California governor because he used steroids. I found it odd that Dr. Caplan didn’t make any reference to Austrian laws about steroid use at the pertinent time.

No big deal. I had made an oblique reference to an ethicist in what I thought was a clever conclusion to my piece. I didn’t name him because my wife worked for him several years earlier.

The blacklist

Fast forward to 2016, and I find myself semi-horrified by the inclusion of Caplan on a list created by a young conservatives’ group called Turning Point USA (TP), a group apparently focused on identifying notoriously “liberal” academics that smart conservatives everywhere should watch out for, or wear garlic to drive off, or something.

As per’s Will Bunch, TP lists 200 academics and their random offenses in one list so students can “push back” against their ideas. This is the language of one of TP’s young leaders, who denied that the organization was trying to shut up or shut down such academics. After all, as Bunch noted, conservatives love free speech — mostly. Caplan was included on the list for a co-written article from mid-2015 that compared Donald Trump’s immigration ideas to Hitler’s.

As I say, I was only semi-horrified — not terribly concerned — because I had met Caplan and found him an engaging and intelligent man. He had always seemed to be so when called by the folks at NPR for commentary in his primary field of expertise, medical ethics. Caplan, I’m sure, can hold his own against these folks.

“What do we have here?” I thought, mulling over the bulk of Bunch’s article. A grad student at Nebraska who calls himself “the director of constitutional enforcement and transparency" (!) for an obscure organization that apparently thinks liberal academics sneak around leaving messages in fortune cookies to poison the minds of pure American students.

Lines are drawn

But then something else Bunch included caught my eye. He quoted another Penn academic who made TP’s list: “It’s more like a witch hunt than to ‘make America great again.’ This is going to put a chill on a lot of people from saying things. It limits the kind of conversations we can have — who wants these people doxing you?” That, as Bunch explains, means printing personal information such as phone numbers and home addresses of the teachers or researchers in question.

Bunch doesn’t quite assert that TP prints their “bad” academics’ personal data, and neither does another article published by, nor does an article on the group published in late November by the New York Times. A recent casual search of TP’s Professor Watchlist did not yield actual personal data of the teachers “outed.”

That none has been found is a good thing because publishing such data as an address has only one goal: the threat of physical intimidation. Following November's presidential election, there have been accusations of intimidation from both those who voted for and against Mr.Trump. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story over the past weekend about a Bryn Mawr student who felt, as a Trump supporter, that she had to drop out of her school (albeit not because of physical threats). On my daughter's college campus, male Trump supporters began grabbing women’s buttocks because they were "now allowed to."

The line between civilization and something else is not "constitutionality," but rather physical intimidation, actual or threatened. Not seeing that is how we have elected ourselves a president who brags about grabbing women "by the pussy."

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation