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The irony of Washington’s ‘civility’ debate: Trump already proved that incivility works

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes whether calls for “civility” will help or hurt Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Had Donald Trump ended his presidential campaign after his first answer to his first question in the first Republican primary debate, he may have fared just as well. It encompassed most of what was to follow, and it encapsulates what was then and is now his appeal to his most fervent supporters.

“Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks,” moderator Megyn Kelly said. “You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump replied.

One can’t mention the current debate over “civility” in American politics without highlighting the role that President Trump’s approach to the political dialogue plays. Every piece about whether that restaurant in Virginia should have served White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders or about Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen being accosted at a D.C. restaurant necessarily includes an aside about the coarseness of Trump’s spoken and tweeted accusations. What’s often overlooked, though, is that this is, in the vernacular of Silicon Valley, a feature, not a bug. Trump’s incivility — defended in that first “politically correct” comment — is why he is president and why he is as popular among his base as he is.

Last summer, the Pew Research Center asked Trump supporters what they liked most about his presidency — his approach to the job and personality, or his policies and personal values. More than half of those who approved of Trump said it was the former that they liked most: his brashness and willingness to break things in Washington. For every person that identified his policies as what they liked most, four said they liked his approach.

A CBS-YouGov poll released this month that was more to the point: Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans said they mostly liked “how Trump is upsetting the elites and establishment.” There are certainly ways in which Trump is “upsetting” the establishment, leveraging the meaning of “upset” that focuses on knocking things over. But Trump is also more immediately “upsetting the elites” in the way that those protesters at that Mexican restaurant in the District hoped to upset Nielsen — emotionally.

Trump promised to be an irritant to the people in power. That was a key part of his sales pitch. He would say the things that no one else would, call out the sacred cows in Washington and within his own party. That it was pitched as no-nonsense truth-telling but has mostly been about tangential grievances is beside the point.

There was an article at the conservative site Ace of Spades shortly after Trump’s inauguration that captured the sentiment.

“I want him to take attacks personally and deal out payback,” it read. “I know I won’t be the target, you will be.”

If Trump’s petty and vindictive, he’s petty and vindictive to people whom his base hates, and many of them are perfectly fine with that, at a minimum. It’s not the sort of civility that people expect from Washington — but that’s exactly what many of his supporters wanted. They wanted incivility and embrace it.

That idea extends elsewhere, too.

The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters, in an interview with Slate, defended a recent column in which he suggested that Trump’s battle with the establishment (and its pushback) was strengthening his support even among those who backed him only warily. Asked why Trump’s anti-immigrant efforts weren’t generally cited as rationales for people’s support of Trump, Peters suggested that they were, indirectly.

“What you will hear oftentimes is: ‘He says what I can’t say. He is politically incorrect,’ ” Peters said. “And certainly, for some people, that racial edge there is a real motivating factor in their support for him.”

Trump’s initial invocation of “political correctness” was to disparage those who would suggest that he shouldn’t make remarks disparaging women. Part of the pushback against the “elites” is certainly pushback against shifts in American culture that have made it unacceptable to say things that are sexist or racist.

In civil society, you don’t say that Mexicans are rapists or hint that immigrants are terrorists or drug dealers. Trump doesn’t adhere to that rule — and leverages that rule as a way to demonstrably stand apart from civil society. It was only when “the establishment” — in the form of senior Republican officials and several major corporations — took a public position against his campaign-announcement comments about immigrants from Mexico that Trump vaulted into the lead in the Republican field in 2015. Trump wouldn’t follow traditional rules about how to be generous and accepting of people from other countries or the minority, and a large group of white Americans exhaled with relief.

It’s this that is the hollowness at the core of the revived debate over civility. Civility worked in politics because people adhered to it, often because they thought that failing to adhere to it would cost them votes. Trump ran toward incivility, embraced it as “Trump being Trump” — and is now president. He is the gigantic asterisk that hangs over Washington’s insistence on the need for political civility.

He is also a gigantic target. Which is more likely to be treated as an effective argument for a Democrat seeking political office: “We should treat our political opponents with respect” or “an eye for an eye”? Democrats loathe Trump even more than Republicans love him, and a willingness to throw up any possible obstacle regardless of politeness will almost certainly hold a broad appeal. Who is a more viable 2020 Democratic nominee at this point, a candidate who pledges to bring a new consensus to Washington or a candidate who pledges to “lock him up”? It’s often argued this would be a disadvantage to that candidate, joining Trump in the mud, but it’s not really clear why it would be a substantially less viable political angle for a Democrat than for Trump.

What defenders of civility in Washington want is a reversion to the pre-Trump (and, really, pre-polarization) norm. Sure. And Luddites want a reversion to a time before industrialization. Maybe agrarian society was better, but it’s not clear how it might suddenly reemerge.