The political press and the establishment class have been alarmed and confused by a restaurant owner’s refusal to serve White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders this past weekend. Wasn’t this a betrayal of the basic norms that hold society together? Won’t it just offend and energize President Trump’s base going into the 2018 midterms? Doesn’t targeting Sanders — or Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who fled a Mexican restaurant last week after being confronted by chanting protesters — just mimic Trump’s own regrettable efforts to undermine civility?
A better question for the pundits, which might help clear things up for them, is this: What makes you think this is any of your business?
Children, some still in diapers, have been seized from their parents by the government and locked in cages, with no clear way to reunite them with their families afterward. That situation might seem more urgent, in itself, than the question of how people chose to react to the government seizing children and locking them in cages. Yet here we are, caught up in this fuss over — manners? Civility?
What happened at the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., was not a contest between political parties, or between designated proxies of political parties. It was a private citizen telling a presidential administration official to go away, out of disgust with the fact that the administration is seizing children from their parents and locking them in cages and barring transgender people from military service. Likewise, the protesters who yelled at Nielsen were not aiming to be part of a normal political process, but to respond to extraordinary events with extraordinary actions.
The self-appointed civility police, the voices of respectable political journalism, are unable to understand this. To the extent that they grasp that there is a crisis, the crisis is that somehow, regrettably, the nation has stopped engaging in politics as usual — and so the answer must be to insist that everyone work together and act as if things are normal, which will restore the old standards of behavior. Be deferential and polite, trust our institutions and wait for a better democratic republic to take shape around you.
As practical advice to professional politicians, this is ahistoric and almost certainly wishful thinking. Barack Obama sits silently and courteously in self-imposed exile, having spent eight years preaching consensus and comity while his party lost control of the entire federal government and most of the states.
But as advice to individual Americans, living their own lives at this moment in history, it is even more worthless. A restaurant owner is responsible for her own dining room, not for the potential outcome of the midterm elections, let alone for some hypothetical trajectory of public opinion that might affect the outcome of the midterms. Dissecting the political effects of one act of conscience at the Red Hen restaurant is like sending hurricane hunter planes chasing after butterflies flapping their wings.
Yet the planes are aloft. In the name of holding someone — anyone, whoever is handy — to a higher standard, the discussion has inverted the events, until the restaurant owner becomes a powerful institution and the White House press secretary becomes a regular person punished for expressing herself. Sanders is paid with our tax dollars to lie to us about abuses being done in our name. It is fine for an ordinary citizen, given the chance, to tell her in return (politely, even!) that she is not welcome.
Now, with the proportions all reversed, we have Sanders using her official Twitter account to criticize the restaurant, by name, to her 3 million followers. Threats are coming in. People threw eggs at and sent death threats to a different Red Hen restaurant. Civility!
The eruption was easy to predict. Civility may not be entirely useless, but it has a remarkably short range before it backfires. If it has value at all, it’s as a standard to set for your own conduct, not to order others around with.
One of the telling features of this political moment is that the president — the lying, slandering, raging, insulting president — constantly whines about how nastily and unfairly other people treat him. It justifies everything. When analysts warn against sinking to Trump’s level, they are missing that point: Complaining about bad manners is, itself, Trump’s level. Trump would desperately rather talk about his staff being mistreated than about children in cages. To fret about it along with him, to echo the notion that some fundamental rule was violated by not serving Sanders a fancy dinner, is to take an active part in his performance of victimhood.
No appeal to decency can ever bring Trump and the Trumpists around. It is not possible to mollify a political cult that runs on outrage, and it’s not worth trying. People are moved to protest what they’re witnessing, and even in the most high-minded of times, there is no form of protest polite enough to be acceptable to the people and institutions being protested. That’s why it’s a protest. Kneeling silently is enough to get a successful quarterback blackballed from the NFL and denounced by the president.
The people who narrate our current events have a strange shared fantasy that there is some other, nicer way. They invoke the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as if King had been known in his time for his deference to his opponents’ feelings, rather than being denounced as an agitator. As if King, moreover, had been a Democratic Party operative, out to enhance his team’s chances of winning, rather than a member of a movement willing to break the party’s existing coalition for the sake of dragging it closer to justice.
Children are sleeping under foil blankets in federal captivity. It is not any person’s duty to make life more comfortable for the White House press secretary, or for the head of Homeland Security, or for any of the other officials who conceived, carried out and defended the policy of tearing apart families. It is not a private citizen’s job to ask whether their revulsion and outrage have been correctly calibrated to fit party goals for the next two cycles, on the theory that the highest human calling is to be a successful campaign strategist. If pundits are worried about the relationship between manners and brutality, instead of asking whether people ought to be so rude to the administration, they might ask what they’ve accomplished by being polite.