It was a quip that stole headlines on an important day in American politics: “We’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherf-----.”
Newly sworn-in Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) made the comment Thursday, hours after Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was sworn in as House speaker and the Democrats retook control of the chamber.
The fallout was predictable. Partisan conservatives, with their patented lack of self-awareness, shame or credibility, sought to use the video to paint all incoming Democrats as uncivil and focused on retribution. Tlaib’s progressive defenders explained that profanity was okay, or that it should be ignored for the greater good, or that it’s politically useful.
In other words, some on the left defended Tlaib using the same arguments that they’ve blasted Republicans for in the Trump era. They are wrong, of course, just as those who have explained away President Trump’s corrosive impact on our political culture have been wrong.
This kind of rhetoric is harmful to Democratic policy and political objectives, and to our political culture.
Tlaib’s defenders have confronted her critics with a question: Why aren’t you equally bothered by the injustices of the Trump administration? Tlaib’s rhetoric, they claim, reflects hardened, justice-fueled righteous anger on behalf of the disenfranchised. This kind of rhetoric is the only adequate, serious response to this administration, right?
But watch the tape.
Spoken at a reception hosted by the progressive group MoveOn, Tlaib’s comment was not a sober commitment made to a crowd of the downtrodden that reflected someone shaken to their core. This was a lighthearted mic-drop line. (Watch the video: The line was met not with serious expressions of purpose, but with laughter, hoots and hollers.) It had the same effect on that crowd as you could see in Trump’s crowds when he would say “lock her up,” or any other of his inanities that had value not because of their substance, but because they allowed people to revel in their shared contempt.
Commentator Kirsten Powers pointed out that Tlaib’s comment was made at a private event and not intended for the public, and I do think that distinction is important. However, Tlaib herself hasn’t taken that position. Instead, she has doubled down on the statement, writing a tweet with the hashtag #unapologeticallyMe.
Then there are the specifics of her comment about impeachment.
The remarks were problematic because they were removed from any assessment of the grounds on which Trump should be impeached and seemed to be motivated by pure political disagreement. If an effective case for impeachment is going to be made, it will happen because Democrats will be able to say to their Republican colleagues and the American people that the evidence leads to that result. They need to be able to tell citizens that, separate from all of Trump’s awful policies, he has committed “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Impeachment is not an applause line; it’s a verdict.
Democrats need to understand that, to the extent cursing and incivility works for Donald Trump, it is because many of the policies he promotes flow from vulgarity, indecency and a nihilistic paranoia about government and human beings. It is no coincidence that the man who called on his crowds to “knock the crap” out of a protester is unmoved by the moral implications of a policy of family separation at the border. It is no surprise that a man who can flippantly accuse his political opponents of crimes is wishy-washy on the killing of a journalist. Trumpian rhetoric can’t just be retooled for the common good.
Political rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum; it actually shapes who we are as people and the kinds of policies our politics can produce. Someone like Donald Trump is comfortable with political rhetoric that is full of contempt and anger, because he has no interest in politics that are about lifting people up and about people doing big things together. Democrats who think they can use the rhetoric of contempt to bring people together will find that they’ve played into Trump’s hands. Democrats who think incivility is somehow going to open the doors of civic participation to those who have been shut out will be mistaken.
It is becoming increasingly common to hear some on the left and the right argue against civility. Some even say it is the luxury of the privileged, and that it is only those who have everything they need from our politics who can afford to act civilly. But look around you. When you think of who is most uncivil in our politics, is it those with the least power, those who are most vulnerable? No. Civility does not just reflect a recognition of dignity, it is dignifying. It is the unjust who thrive off incivility.
In the face of great injustice, civility may seem impractical, even offensive. Yes, civility has been misused by those in power. Unjust people will use anything at their disposal to stave off justice. Yet we should be careful before we discard it. We might find that, once civility is discarded, it is very difficult to reinstitute it.
On Thursday, I shared in the joy and appreciation millions of Americans felt as our new Congress was sworn in. It was a reminder of the best of our politics and potentially a harbinger of what our politics could be: Americans from all walks of life coming together, motivated by a commitment to public service, to find a shared path forward in our increasingly pluralistic nation. I rejoice at the thought of millions of Muslim girls now having two role models in Congress who share their faith.
But as I saw the video of Tlaib’s remarks, I thought about the message those girls would receive, the message we would all receive about what our politics are and what is praiseworthy. How would their parents, who believe profanity is improper for religious reasons or other standards, explain to their child why their role model was making news in this way? Is this what it takes to make it in our politics today? Is this kind of rhetoric required to be heard? To be elected? In a democracy, elected officials reflect and shape who we are because their position declares that they are us.
This video should not define the freshman lawmaker’s career. I hope her tenure in Congress is successful. Certainly, other politicians, our president first among them, have said worse, and dignified rhetoric means little if it merely serves to obscure undignified policies. If the choice had to be between a congresswoman who swears in statements but supports just policies and a politician who says nice words but pursues policies that violate human dignity and promote injustice, I’d choose the former every time.
But this is not about Rashida Tlaib, and it cannot be about Donald Trump. Our standards for politics can’t be set by politicians alone, or by the strategic rationalizations we think our politics demands.
Michael Wear is chief strategist of The AND Campaign and author of “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned In the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.” He worked in the White House’s faith-based office during President Barack Obama’s first term and directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.