American politics is being disfigured by corrosive incivility and toxic partisanship. The worst offender is President Trump, but that doesn’t mean that his opponents are free of the obligations of civilized discourse. Comedian Michelle Wolf, late-night host Samantha Bee, and actor Robert De Niro all crossed the line recently with vulgar attacks on, respectively, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Ivanka Trump and the president himself. So what about those Trump critics who are making it difficult, if not impossible, for certain administration officials to dine in public?
Last week, White House aide Stephen Miller was heckled at a Mexican restaurant by someone who shouted that he was a “a real-life fascist.” Two days later, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was accosted in another Mexican eatery by protesters shouting “End family separation!” and “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!” Then on Friday it was Sanders’ turn: Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen, a restaurant in Lexington, Va., politely asked the White House press secretary to leave because she worked for an “inhumane and unethical administration.”
These public rebukes have predictably allowed Trump’s defenders to play the victim, as they love to do. “Her actions say far more about her than about me,” Sanders tweeted indignantly about Wilkinson. “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” Her father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, weighed in with his own tweet: “Bigotry. On the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington VA. Or you can ask for the ‘Hate Plate.’ And appetizers are ‘small plates for small minds.’” Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich decried “the increasing personal nastiness toward people who work for President Trump,” which he claimed “reflects the left’s understanding that they are losing.” (Trump, for his part, accused the Red Hen of having “filthy canopies, doors and windows . . . . I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”)
The hypocrisy is galling. The administration thinks that a Colorado baker should not be forced to serve a gay couple because their wedding offends his religious beliefs, but it insists that restaurateurs should be forced to serve Trump aides whose conduct, rather than their characteristics, offend their most deeply held beliefs.
Trump defenders are in no position to decry “personal nastiness” and “bigotry” when they defend a nasty, bigoted president. Huckabee wins the hypocrisy gold medal for attacking the Red Hen just hours after posting a picture of tattooed MS-13 gang members under the nasty, bigoted headline: “Nancy Pelosi introduces her campaign committee for the take back of the House.”
This is straight out of the president’s playbook: Trump incessantly attacks both immigrants and Democrats in demagogic terms. Take this tweet from last week: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
Trump has been much criticized, and rightly so, for his dehumanizing language about immigrants (“animals,” “snakes,” “infest”), which echoes the words of ethnic cleansers from Nazi Germany to Rwanda. But also notable is his assault on the political opposition as traitors in league with criminals. The president has explicitly said that Democrats are “treasonous” and don’t “seem to love our country very much.” This is how would-be dictators stamp out opposition.
Trump’s assault on democracy also includes pandering to racists, vilifying the press, undermining the legal system, ignoring ethical norms and pathological lying. Most shocking of all, he implemented, and then reluctantly rescinded, a policy of snatching children away from their parents and locking them up in steel cages to discourage illegal immigration. This is the kind of act, which if committed by another country, would be branded a human-rights violation. Now Trump demands that immigrants be denied the protections of the law – “no Judges or Court Cases” – before deportation, as he declared in another tweet.
I can understand why such acts elicit a strong reaction when administration officials venture out in public. But that doesn’t mean restaurateurs should refuse to serve patrons whose political views they find repugnant. In Washington, especially, this could easily get out of hand: “Sorry, senator, no eggs for you this morning – not after your vote on S.R. 2148!” Even less does it mean that flash mobs should harass Cabinet members in public, as demanded by Rep. Maxine Walters (D- Calif.). Some who serve in the administration – such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein – should be applauded for trying to save the country from the president.
While I sympathize with the impulse behind what an Internet wag has dubbed the “no justice, no peas” doctrine, in the end I think it is counterproductive and reduces Trump’s critics to his low level. To save our country, we need to practice heroic self-restraint and courageous civility in the face of grievous provocation. Remember what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”