Holder, once President Barack Obama’s attorney general, did a wee retreat from his “kick them” statement, saying it was not, of course, a call for violence. Of course not. Holder is not stupid. Shortly after birth, it seems, he became a Superior Court judge, then he served as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and then as deputy attorney general during the Bill Clinton administration. In addition, that mysterious entity that the storied New York Times columnist Russell Baker called “The Great Mentioner” has mentioned Holder as a possible presidential candidate. I thought I should mention that.
I should also mention that Michael Avenatti, so impatient with the Great Mentioner that he has mentioned himself, uttered a similar sentiment: “When they go low, I say hit back harder.” Even Hillary Clinton joined in. “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for,” she said. Actually, you can. You just don’t have to be a patsy.
The trouble with these statements is that here and there are people who don’t need encouragement to act uncivilly or even violently. Already, there has been an upsurge in confrontation that has made for ugly television. The confrontation two women had with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — “Look at me,” one of them ordered — was difficult to watch and was used by pro-Brett M. Kavanaugh senators to their advantage. So, too, was the hounding of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in a D.C. restaurant. I admit it takes some effort to feel sorry for Cruz, but even he is entitled to a sense of security.
You might disagree. But recent political history strongly suggests that bad manners make for bad tactics. Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California twice by running against student demonstrators at the University of California at Berkeley. Reagan, who is invariably lauded as a gentleman, called the campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.” The demonstrations did little to change America, but they eventually made Reagan president of the United States.
Similarly, Richard M. Nixon used the anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam era to pummel George McGovern. Nixon ran, both shamelessly and ironically, on a law-and-order platform that worked wonders with some of the same white working-class voters who now are in a swoon over Trump. The Democrats’ fondness for the marginalized — hardly an evil trait, by the way — ran into a rebuttal with Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg’s important book, “The Real Majority” (1970). It argued not only that elections are won in the center but also that the party needed to look beyond economic issues and toward the social issues that disturb ordinary Americans. Take that, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Nixon’s call for law and order was hardly innovative. Throughout the 20th century, right-wing movements made headway urging an end to (left-wing) demonstrations and coupling this with an attack on modernity — secularism, homosexuality and the usual list of prejudices. They all recognized that most voters feel uneasy with social change and absolutely abhor anything that portends violence or the lack of civility. It makes them feel unsafe and suggests, as does graffiti on a subway car, that worse will follow.
The urge to deal with Trump on his own terms is understandable but shortsighted. Not even Avenatti, who hardly lacks self-confidence and would surely suffer horribly if deprived of media attention, can match Trump when it comes to sheer narcissistic aggression. The president’s genius is reading his opponents’ “tell” — their inner weakness. He destroyed his GOP rivals with insults that were, really, encapsulations of what was perceived but not yet stated: Jeb Bush’s passivity, Marco Rubio’s youth and so on. As he showed on his reality show, “The Apprentice,” the president — like any predator — is adept at finding weakness and moving in for the kill. His show was a companion to “Animal Planet.”
“Going low” is not, like proper meds, going to restore Trump voters to sanity. It will, however, only further debase American politics and validate Trump. Politics is not beanbag — whatever that is — and a little larceny is not only permitted but required. But an uncivil society is a dangerous place with possibly horrendous consequences. Beware. The Civil War had nothing to do with manners, but it’s a warning nonetheless.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.