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The Civility Myth

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, walks past White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, after speaking to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Monday, June 18, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, walks past White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, after speaking to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Monday, June 18, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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Last December, right around the time when Senate Republicans were busy ramming a plutocratic wealth transfer bill through Congress — a tax reform that lavished massive rewards on the wealthy while setting the stage for massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare — a brief but elemental thought occurred to me.

What happens to these guys when they go home?

While most Americans seem to have moved on from the GOP’s tax heist moment, there was a lot of public anger mounting as Mitch McConnell and Co. hastily scribbled the bill together without any input from the Democratic minority. The ultimate poison pill within the bill -- the effective repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate — was an anxiety-stricken scenario that the American people had prevented earlier that year.

So when it became clear that the Republican tax bill was going to clear Congress and be signed into law by Donald Trump, I wondered what the members of today’s GOP Congress would face when they went on recess and blended back into civilian life. Would people shout at them on the street? Would businesses turn them away?

The forms of dissent that Trump’s child-snatching policy has inspired are bolder and more confrontational than marches, vigils and phone calls to Congress.

Today, these questions are finally being answered. But the inciting issue isn’t taxes. It’s the separation of immigrant children and parents on the southern border, and the Trump administration’s disinterest in reuniting those families. It’s mass scale child abuse carried out by the state and defended by Trump administration officials who are now finding themselves accosted when they go out in public: officials like White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was refused service at a Virginia restaurant, and secretary of homeland security Kirstjen Nielsen, who was serenaded by protesters playing recordings of screaming immigrant children outside her house.

This is a turning point. The forms of dissent that Trump’s child-snatching policy has inspired are bolder and more confrontational than marches, vigils and phone calls to Congress. These new assertive tactics are designed to make Trump administration officials feel shamed, scared and unwelcome in the civilian world. And for that reason, what happened to Sanders and Nielsen is being derided by the beltway political class as some terrible, cataclysmic erosion of “civility” in American life.

Everyone from the Washington Post’s Editorial Board to CNN’s Chris Cillizza to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has spent the last few days imploring people to be civil to Trump and his cabinet. Schumer — responding to Rep. Maxine Waters’ call for Trump officials to be confronted in public -- claimed that it’s “not American” to encourage such confrontations. In doing so, Schumer and his fellow knights of civility have shown their cards and revealed their priority here: sustaining a decorous culture in D.C. and beyond.

The Democratic Party leadership and their beltway brethren have been accused of being out of touch on all sorts of political issues. However, when it comes to civility, they might as well be cast members of "Downton Abbey."

The civility that people like Schumer strive to promote might be a lived reality in the regal halls of the Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings, but outside in America, civility has been in recession for quite some time. It’s not just the breakdown of polite rhetoric that Trump’s 2016 campaign exacerbated -- it’s also the legislation that America’s political class has written and passed: legislation that has sustained and worsened racially-stratified wealth inequality so extreme that the United Nations recently produced a brutal report about it.

...outside in America, civility has been in recession for quite some time.

A climate like that, in which so many people feel desperate and ignored, is not a climate that fosters civility. Instead, it fuels resentment, stress and rage that are almost begging to be exploited by a white nationalist grifter like Trump. And that’s why we’re now seeing government employees rip families apart at the border and stick infants in “tender care” facilities. The alleged breakdown of civility that beltway elites are talking about has already happened.

If civility was still part of America's bedrock, the Republican Party wouldn't be trying to suppress voters of color and Merrick Garland would have been able to prevent the recent Supreme Court decision that upheld Trump's Muslim travel ban.

I wonder how that premise sounds to immigrant families who just found out that you can now be arrested by ICE if you show up at an immigration office to apply for a green card.

I wonder how it comes across to all the psychiatrists who’ve examined the kids that were taken from their parents and are now exhibiting symptoms of PTSD.

I wonder how it resonates with the parents whose only recourse for finding their stolen kids is dialing a 1-800 number and waiting.

Should the men and women responsible for enforcing this systemic cruelty be granted the civility that they refuse to reciprocate? Should the burden of upholding or restoring civility in American life fall upon those who are now being denied civility by a ruling administration and party whose joint mission statement appears to “trigger the libs?”

No.

The anxious chatter we're hearing from Washington is the sound of elite decision makers squirming away from the human consequences of their actions. The politicians and pundits calling for civility don't want to face those consequences — they want us to simmer down and leave them alone. But what the political class forgets or misunderstands is that civility, in its truest form, is a two-way street.

There’s only so long that one side can demand it without giving any back.

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Miles Howard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is the author of "The Early Voters: Millennials, In Their Own Words, On the Eve of a New America." His next book will be about young people running for public office.

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