Opinion

'Let's go, Brandon' and the politics of degradation

When did vulgarly insulting people become a form of politics?

Family of mine in the rural Midwest recently told me they've begun to see flags flying outside private homes bearing the message, "F--k Biden." Underneath that statement, in smaller typeface, the thought continues: "…and f--k you for voting for him."

If you're surprised that politics has descended to such depths, you haven't been paying attention.

I first noticed the shift into the politics of vulgarity and insult in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, when I occasionally began to see bumper stickers in the suburbs west of Philadelphia that read, "F--k your feelings. Donald Trump for President." Five years later, similar expressions are far more widespread, at least in some parts of the country. When I tweeted just before Christmas about what my midwestern family had told me, some of my followers confirmed seeing the flags — in the Cincinnati area, in Michigan, in eastern Ohio. (Try your own search for the flags on Google images. You'll find numerous variations. This is big business.)

And of course, such flags are just a blunter, less euphemistic version of the "Let's go, Brandon!" phenomenon. When a caller used that expression to President Joe Biden's face during a livestream on Christmas Eve, it prompted widespread cheers on the right.

This is bad, and for multiple reasons. It's bad to spew vulgarity in public spaces, whether or not it's concealed by a modestly clever slogan. But it's worse to teach other Americans, especially children, that it's acceptable to practice politics by hurling insults at those on the other side of partisan disagreements.  

Note that the text on the flag and "Let's go, Brandon!" don't assert a fact or claim that could be argued about or disputed. However much you may disagree with the assertion, it's possible on principle to marshal evidence for and against the claim that Biden is a socialist, or a crook, or that he stole the 2020 election. But that's not what these slogans are about. They are insults intended to dishonor and offend the president and the 81 million or so Americans who voted for him. That makes them inimical to reason and deliberation. They express anger, and their aim is to provoke it in return. They are roughly equivalent to telling your neighbor to go to hell.

It would be one thing if this demotic and venomous form of politics arose from parts of the rural heartland of the country and faced pushback from people in positions of authority in the Republican Party and conservative media personalities. But instead, these figures encourage it, in the hopes of riding the anger to higher ratings and electoral victories.

And what about those who should know better? The fact is that many conservative-minded pundits and analysts hesitate to condemn the rise of a form of gutter politics in which boors and bullies set the tone and are rewarded for injecting their poison into the body politic. The more high-minded ones, meanwhile, skirt the question of whether it's bad to tell the president of the United States and those who voted for him to f--k off. Instead, they attempt to steer the conversation in the direction of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Of course, they'll insist, Americans should be allowed to denounce and even insult the president!

Too bad no one is suggesting otherwise. The question isn't whether people should be jailed for raising such a flag but whether it's appropriate, or civically advisable, to do so — and also whether those who live in the vicinity of someone who displays one should express disapproval or turn a blind eye to it out of a desire to avoid a confrontation. 

Then there are those who immediately fall back to a version of the "whatabout" arguments that dominated right-wing punditry during the Trump administration. It goes like this: Oh, Trump said X? Yeah, well, what about when a progressive said this other bad thing without it raising hackles? The left is full of hypocrites deploying double standards! 

Applied to the "Let's go, Brandon!" phenomenon, the "what about" move involves claiming that Democrats said mean things about Trump for four years and so it's hypocritical of them to complain about insults directed at Joe Biden. Republicans are merely hurling back what the left threw at them for four long years.

Never mind that during four years of living, working, socializing, and traveling widely through deep-blue parts of the country from 2016 to 2020, I never once saw a "F--k Trump" flag or yard sign. I saw plenty of expression of moral disapproval of the administration, sure, but no outright insults directed at the president or those who voted for him. (Plenty of journalists and activists accused Trump and his supporters of racism, but those are assertions of fact that can be, and often have been, argued with. That makes such claims categorically different than a pure insult like "F--k Trump.")

But even if we assume insulting displays were widespread during the Trump presidency, how would that justify Republicans doing something equally debased to Biden? The only principle that could excuse it is "turnabout is fair play," which is a recipe for an endless escalation of hostilities and a constant downward spiral of intensifying recriminations.  

That's as good a summary as any of what American politics has become in 2021.

But there is and always will be another path open to us. That's the path that refuses the demonic thrill of degradation and stands ready to resist the temptation toward intensifying enmities without end, no matter how many voters are eager to surrender to it. This is the path that sees enduring value in the American polity and rejects actions that would risk its future viability on any faction's empty promise of a total political victory.

There are no permanent victories in politics — at least not in a politics that's compatible with self-government. That's why we must recoil from forms of political engagement that encourage or excuse the outright insult of our elected representatives and fellow citizens. Those people are, in civic terms, our neighbors. They aren't going anywhere. We must learn to live with, and peacefully share, rule with them.

The alternative is something far darker than a nasty slogan or insulting flag.

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