The left-leaning commentariat didn’t hesitate to backstop the restaurant owner who asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her establishment on Friday. The issue is democracy, not civility, wrote New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. Civility has only marginal value in the current political moment, argued Tom Scocca for The Washington Post. When Trump supporters say they care about civility, suggested Vox’s Matt Yglesias, they don’t really mean it. Liberals are in fighting trim, and they’re spoiling for a showdown with the president’s minions.
But that’s a bad strategy. Abandoning civility and escalating the outrage cycle — running Cabinet secretaries out of D.C. eateries and members of Congress calling for public confrontation of administration officials — isn’t going to work for Democrats.
Rather, a world in which President Trump has managed to identify civility with weakness and nuance with fecklessness, is tailor-made for his most dedicated supporters and his enablers in the GOP. Rhetorical excess — describing the press as an “enemy of the American people,” bluntly warning Harley-Davidson that it will be “taxed like never before!” and calling senators, even in his own party, names like “Liddle’ Bob Corker” — is the president’s preferred game. If Democrats try to play their own version of it, that will only redound to the benefit of Trump and the Republican Party.
To note this is to invite the inevitable argument about who started it: Liberals point, with some justification, to former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich and the aggressive methods he used to demonize opponents. Conservatives, with similar justification, will argue that Gingrich was a byproduct of a nasty cycle of political tit-for-tat that started with a Democratic Senate voting down Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Robert Bork, in 1987. Liberals will respond that Bork did Richard Nixon’s bidding during the infamous 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” and so on, until we all plow backward through a history of political vitriol in search of the author of our Original Sin of incivility.
This is a mostly pointless exercise, not least since so many Americans are either too young or too politically disengaged to know much about our history of political infighting before the early 21st century. In the high-speed Twitter age, the Bork battle is as distant a memory as the Teapot Dome scandal. The problem right now is that Trump and his followers are setting up a fight that Democrats and other anti-Trump partisans can’t win.
Superheating the debate — “triggering the libs” in the gleeful parlance of Trump adviser Stephen Miller — really only works in one direction in American politics, and for some fairly obvious reasons.
For one, the dominance of liberal themes and personalities in popular culture has allowed the Republican base to continue thinking of itself as an embattled minority, even as they’ve captured most political offices in the country. They remain primed to fight the nebulous “establishment,” even though the party they voted for controls the White House and both houses of Congress. GOP leaders and conservative media manipulate these voters by stoking a narrative of grievance and victimhood among them, even if, by any reasonable measure, their party is the establishment. This constant state of perceived injury and deprivation requires regular injections of panic and anger, which the conservative outlets who serve Trump are happy to provide.
Worse, the most faithful Trump supporters have been rendered almost incapable of rational thought about complicated issues. If you think that’s overstatement, watch Fox News’s prime-time lineup, which is clearly designed to leave viewers less informed, not more informed, by the end of each evening. As longtime, former Fox News commentator Ralph Peters lamented after departing the network, Fox “preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.” They prefer shouting and sloganeering because it short-circuits the cognitive dissonance that would bring most people to their senses.
To see this in action, watch Trump surrogates on other network news programs. Their goal is not to argue in favor of Trump’s policies. It is to suck the oxygen out of every segment, drown out every other panelist, and repeat mindless talking points so that viewers only hear the chant of grievance and never get around to absorbing any meaningful dissection of the subject at hand. Normal human beings find this annoying and exasperating — that’s why the Trump surrogates do it. It drags their counterparts into an aimless shouting match, or frustrates them into silence and disengagement.
No version of this approach — neither shout-downs nor shunnings — will work for Democrats, because while conservatives want to limit government action, liberals want to expand the role of government, and by default, obstruction is easier than legislation.
More vexing for liberals (and for a fair number of conservatives) is that Trump supporters don’t really care about policy because the president doesn’t, either. On any given matter, they’ll change their minds at the drop of a hat, and debating them is like flailing in a quicksand of incoherence. That’s why there’s no way for liberals to match Trump’s defenders in tone or style: When someone is filling the air with a fusillade of monotonous denials and often outright lies, there is no equivalent way to respond. You cannot shame Sanders out of her outlandish tendency to gaslight, because that’s exactly what she’s there to do.
As we saw in 2016, opponents, from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), just weren’t equipped for Trump’s sustained psychological warfare. He trashes everything thrown at him as irrelevant or boring, then punctuates it with an insult du jour. Debating him is like arguing with an air-raid siren. If Democrats now try to stoop to that level, rhetorically tar-and-feathering Trump’s staff wherever they pop up in Washington, it will backfire for one simple reason: No one is as committed to incivility as Trump, and no one enjoys these antics more than his base.
As a matter of political strategy, it’s important to bear in mind that the GOP won the last presidential election by generating raw anger to mine every last angry white vote they could find. Whenever they move into more extreme territory, they’re not risking very much; rather, they’re trying to squeeze just a few more drops from that very sour lemon.
But anger is not a universal antidote for election problems. Democrats, by contrast, do best by convincing their fellow Americans that they are not, in fact, rabid totalitarians. (And do not, for a moment, think that this is not an image with some power; it is a concern I feel keenly as a #NeverTrump conservative who deeply distrusts the far left wing of the Democratic Party.) When Democrats call for haranguing public servants, as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) did this week, they give power to the argument that both sides, given the chance, would be equally oppressive. It should be no surprise that Trump has already fundraised off the Sanders incident, emphasizing, in particular Waters’s tirade. GOP strategists know good video when they see it.
What, then, to do? As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin noted recently, “there is a vast gray area between chasing Trump aides down the street with pitchforks and pretending as though nothing they have done in public life warrants scorn.” She doesn’t think politely asking Sanders to leave the Red Hen was out of bounds. Maybe, maybe not. But it drags Democrats into a brawl they have no chance of winning.
A better approach would be demanding that the media stop giving voice to Trump defenders who exist in the public sphere only to be Trump defenders. No outlet should forego an opportunity to interview a White House official like Kellyanne Conway, no matter how tedious she is, because she is, in fact, a senior member of the government that serves the president. But do we ever need to see talking heads such as Paris Dennard or Ben Ferguson on television again? Is there no point at which we can say that people who argue in bad faith are not welcome in the studio or in our living rooms?
Likewise, we need not shout at our neighbors who supported Trump, but we can refuse to engage with them about politics if they are clearly not interested in anything but venting. Too many Trump supporters, in public as well as in private, are interested only in trying to draw a foul, to bait the other person into descending into the murk. A polite refusal speaks more than shouting in their face.
Shame can work, but only when paired with an insistence on virtue. This, to take one example, is how Judge Roy Moore was defeated in heavily Trump-supporting Alabama.
But ratcheting up the stakes, including efforts to drum Trump’s most visible lieutenants out of polite society, will only convince his base that they are, in fact, besieged by liberals and that only Trump can protect them. That’s how Trump’s enablers will keep drawing us into a vortex that suffocates our moral sense, and why the real political courage and steadfastness — the real “resistance” — is to refuse to drink with them from that poisoned chalice, no matter how tempting the offer.