Shunning is now back in fashion. Are the stocks and pillory next? As our nation’s political discourse takes on the tone of a religious schism, Trump supporters and opponents can no longer break bread under the same roof. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia (see Controversy), while hecklers shouted “Shame!” at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and “Fascist!” at senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who were both dining in Mexican restaurants. (For Miller, it’s Mexican food, sí! Mexicans, no!) On the left, these acts of uncivil disobedience have prompted an internal debate over whether shaming and shunning Trumpists is strategically wise, given that it feeds the persecution narrative the president so expertly exploits. Among the shunned, there is wounded shock at such “unacceptable” rudeness. Apparently, only the president is entitled to hurl personal insults, shatter norms of decency, and threaten adversaries with violence and imprisonment.
Where is this going? I’m old enough to remember some ugly periods in recent history, including the Vietnam War, the fateful year of 1968, and Watergate. Sage historians tell us that our resilient institutions and our American creed can survive this era too. But I must confess to moments of real alarm. Our politics is becoming radicalized, amid an adamant belief on both sides that we are engaged in a life-and-death struggle for the soul of the nation, and that virtually anything is justified. Fantasies of violent vengeance are being openly expressed. “The reason we have norms in the first place,” Jonathan Last points out in TheWeeklyStandard.com, “is because there is always an undercurrent of violence in politics.” The point of civil society and democracy, he says, is “to push that undercurrent way down deep.” Now the norms are being discarded. The contempt between the rival tribes is reaching a boil. A crisis that will sorely test America’s founding ideals, I fear, is coming.