CHILMARK, Mass. — This is what McCarthyism evidently looks like on Martha’s Vineyard.
Alan Dershowitz is holding court on the front porch of the Chilmark General Store, talking to old friends and complete strangers, nearly all of whom stop to tell him, between sips of their iced coffee, to keep doing what he’s doing. A young girl compliments his T-shirt (“Kids and Guns Don’t Mix”). His cellphone buzzes constantly, mostly with calls from reporters. “Inside Edition,” the tabloid-style newsmagazine show, wants an interview. So does The New Yorker.
I did, too. I had called Mr. Dershowitz on Tuesday to tell him I was going to be on the island for a long-planned vacation, and I suggested we get together to talk about the stir he kicked up when he wrote, in a column for The Hill, that he had been subject to McCarthy-like shunning tactics from people in his Vineyard social circles. For some of them, his aggressive questioning of the legitimacy of the special counsel investigation into President Trump was indefensible and unforgivable.
He said I should come over to his house. I said I’d rather meet somewhere more public. I wanted to see firsthand how the Harvard University law professor emeritus who helped acquit O.J. Simpson of murder charges — with minimal apparent damage to his social or professional reputation — was handling the backlash to what some believe is his gravest offense: defending Mr. Trump.
“I’m enjoying this,” he told me. “It’s a red badge of courage.”
He said he believes political debate today has essentially degenerated into a fight over one question: Are you for or against Mr. Trump? “We live in a Red Sox/Yankees world,” he said. “And you have to pick a team.”
But whether there is any room for nuance in a conversation about one of the least nuanced presidents of our time seems unlikely — at least on Martha’s Vineyard. The local library, Mr. Dershowitz said, told him they can’t find the time for him to give his regular summer talk this year. And on Thursday, a local paper, The Martha’s Vineyard Times, published the results of an informal poll that asked readers if they would invite “Dersh,” as he is known to friends, to dinner. Thirty-seven percent said they would; 63 percent said no.
The following is an edited and condensed version of our hourlong interview.
You’re no stranger to defending people who are unpopular. Is this actually worse than when you defended O.J. Simpson?
Of course. Or Claus von Bulow or Leona Helmsley or Michael Milken or Mike Tyson. This is much worse than all that, because in those cases people were critical of me, but they were prepared to discuss it. They were prepared to have a dialogue. Here, the people that I’m objecting to want to stop the dialogue. They don’t want to have the conversation. It will upset people at the dinner party or on the porch. This is like safe spaces in colleges.
Your issue on the island is tied into something broader. It’s this belief that one’s personal feelings are paramount. If you are offended, like the people who worked at the restaurant where Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave, that is paramount to her right to eat in that establishment. Is that the world we live in now with Trump as president?
Today the passions are so strong that if I do anything that is perceived as helping Donald Trump, I am an evil conspirator. I go back to the 1950s, when I was one of the few people at Brooklyn College standing up and defending the right of communists to speak and to teach. I hated communism. They would say, “You can’t defend communists. They wouldn’t defend your rights. They would take away your civil liberties.”
And that’s absolutely true. Every generation I’ve lived through, there has been an excuse for taking away civil liberties. “Trump is going to destroy the country; you can’t defend his civil liberties.” Anything you do to help this man is villainy.
You reject the label “Trump supporter,” don’t you?
Absolutely. I’m a Hillary Clinton liberal Democrat who’s trying hard to restore Congress to the Democrats, who will help finance Democratic candidates all over the country. I’m a liberal Democrat. I haven’t changed one iota in 50 years. I am not a Trump supporter. I’m a supporter of civil liberties. Calling me a Trump supporter is like calling me a communist supporter in the 1950s. I was not a communist supporter. I defended the communists’ right to speak and to teach.
And here, you’re defending Trump’s right to …
To be treated fairly. Not to have it considered a crime when you fire, when you exercise your Article II powers under the Constitution.
(He has said he believes a special counsel never should have been appointed to look into the legality of the president’s campaign activities. Instead, Mr. Dershowitz has called for a nonpartisan, independent commission.)
You enjoy being provocative and contrarian.
I’m a teacher and a professor. My job is to provoke and stimulate conversation. The thing I hate most is people who want to shut off conversation.
People only hear one word: Trump.
That’s what reminds me of McCarthyism, when you couldn’t speak out on certain issues. I’m not comparing myself. (Pauses) First of all, I’m enjoying this. So understand that. For me, it’s a red badge of courage.
You have to pretend to be dumb. Because once you get sophisticated and nuanced you’re politically incorrect. There’s no nuance. There’s no sophistication about this. Don’t try to slice the salami thinly. This is just baloney. I grew up in New York, and I’m a Red Sox fan. So I understand nuance.
People often talk of these moments as overcorrecting and then correcting. At what point are we in that cycle now?
I think we’re there on university campuses. When I speak on university campuses now, a lot of moderate conservatives and liberals come up to me and say we need to restore the center.
What’s it been like for you on the island? It seems like no one is throwing things at you. No one is hissing. It seems pretty civil. You’ve got a nice life here.
The perverse result is that the shunners are shunning themselves because people have been supporting me. People come to me and say, “Look. Alan, I have to talk to you. What you’re doing is wrong. And you have to do this, do that.”
Everybody has advice. “Go on television, defend his civil liberties but say he’s the most horrible president in the history of the world.” But only about 10 people have decided that it wasn’t just that they didn’t want to talk to me. They wanted to expand it, to get other people not to talk to me. This was …
An act of hostility?
An act of hostility. An active hostility. And it failed.
Do you think with Trump, and some of the things he has done that people find indefensible — like refusing (at first) to disavow David Duke — that the “both sides” construct is too reductive for this political climate?
Look, I’ve spent 55 years teaching nuance. That’s what I do.
During Vietnam, in the 1970s, you had thousands of people dying every month, a president who had so clearly broken the law. How is that somehow not as bad today? Because people seem to think today it’s worse.
With Trump it’s personal. His personal style is so confrontational. He provokes. He’s a brilliant politician, and let me tell you why. He is pushing Democrats to the left. Because extremism provokes extremism. And the Democrats can’t win from the left. They can only win from the center in a national election. So his fondest hope is that somebody from the left gets the nomination against him.
The reaction to him is seen as such an overreaction at times.
And then he overreacts. Overreaction causes overreaction, which causes overreaction. And the parties split further and further apart, which is good for Trump. The more divided we are, the more his base comes to his support. These articles in The Times and The Globe may hurt me on Martha’s Vineyard, but they help Trump. If there’s one thing you quote me on, I want it to be that.