In defense of incivility
Ostracizing Trump administration officials in public isn't rude. It's necessary.
Trump administration officials are having restaurant troubles. Over the weekend, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted to dine with her family at a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, and the owner decided, in consultation with her employees, to refuse to serve them. This follows on the heels of senior policy adviser Stephen Miller being called a fascist in a D.C. Mexican restaurant, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen being chased out of another Mexican restaurant by Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) protesters.
A certain class of centrist liberal was upset by this supposed affront to civility. The Washington Post editorial board wrote that current history doesn't justify uncivil behavior, and Sanders "should be allowed to eat dinner in peace." Former Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted that he was "appalled" at people celebrating Sanders getting kicked out. The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf suggests that such incivility increases the likelihood of a Trump re-election.
This reaction is silly, and it divides the opposition to President Trump for zero political gain.
First of all, we should be clear about what is going on. Nobody jumped Miller and beat him senseless, or made any violent threats, or even broke anything. The confrontation was all clearly within the nonviolent political tradition of boycott, protest, civil disobedience, and so forth.
If there is any main wellspring of "incivility" (an extremely ill-defined word, but setting that aside), it comes from the monstrously evil actions of the Trump regime. This administration — which is full to bursting with criminals and con artists stuffing their pockets with public money — put forth a policy of snatching the children of asylum seekers and putting them in concentration camps. It is obviously motivated by a racial panic over demographic change making white people no longer the majority. Anti-immigrant hardliners like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) are not remotely subtle about this. Here he is approvingly quoting an infamous neo-Nazi making that exact point:
President Trump himself is 10 times more uncivil than any DSA protester. He's a man who has boasted about sexual assault on tape, who threatens to jail his political opponents, who lies with practically every breath, who makes a mockery of deliberative democracy, and who is more publicly coarse and rude than any president since Andrew Johnson. And because he is the most powerful person on Earth, that incivility is 10,000 times more influential than any lefty protester on Earth.
I can see why this moment in history is upsetting to people who strongly value a politics of moderation and respectful dialogue. But when the party in power is doing evil, terrible things, there is going to be a political reaction. For people whose families are being ripped apart, or their water poisoned, or their health insurance snatched away, politics is not a parlor game. If electoral pathways are currently not available — because the next election is some months hence, or the legislature has been rigged through gerrymandering and voter ID laws, or people simply have no congressional representation at all — that political force is going to flow another way. It's ridiculous to expect otherwise.
Worse, this civility fretting is tactically feckless. For someone legitimately concerned about political incivility, the far right would rationally get about 90 percent of the attention. But civility worriers have internalized the fact that the right could not possibly care less what they think or say (unless it is to laugh in their faces for being prissy and easily bullied). It feels pointless to hit Trump for being an indecent monster, because it basically is. Nobody will ever convince the hard right of anything; if we want to stop them they must be politically defeated.
So instead, the left gets half or more of the attention. Discourse anxiety caused by the president of the United States being a disgusting oaf gets transplanted onto a handful of powerless college students and peaceful protesters. The only accomplishment is to sow disunity and bitter arguments among the opposition to Trump.
Finally, it should be remembered that civility in itself is routinely used to disguise grotesque crimes. During the run-up to the Iraq invasion, or during the Vietnam War, protesters' supposed anger and unconventional appearance was used as a priori proof that antiwar views were wrong. The simple fact of senseless wars causing hundreds of thousands of pointless deaths somehow didn't qualify as uncivil in the same fashion.
Indeed, even allowing a civil debate on very odious opinions can create an unwarranted bias in their favor ("Should the Jews be gassed? Views differ"). D.C. is crawling with absolute monsters like Henry Kissinger who by rights should have been tried at the Hague decades ago. The world might be a much better place if powerful people experienced severe social ostracization in the nation's capital when they committed or enabled terrible crimes.