In the wake of the Trump administration-created border crisis in which unauthorized migrants seeking asylum were detained and separated from their children, there has been a surge of anger directed at administration officials and other public figures who defend President Donald Trump.
Over the weekend, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her fellow diners were asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. In a more confrontational scene, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was run out of a restaurant in Washington by protesters yelling “Shame!” and then targeted by demonstrators at her home. At a rally in Los Angeles, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a fiery leader of the anti-Trump resistance, encouraged her followers to “absolutely harass” Trump Cabinet officials in public places.
In an already hypertoxic political environment, this is a dangerous turn.
In social media debates, those urging against escalation of hostilities have been derided as appeasers. “We’re really having a debate on whether we have to be civil to people who tear babies & children away from their parents, leading to incalculable trauma? [Expletive] civility,” tweeted Jeet Heer, editor-in-chief of The New Republic.
The problem with such reasoning, of course, is that it opens the door to harassment of public officials and public figures for a wide range of reasons. America is a big and polarized country. A sizable portion of the population, for instance, passionately believes that abortion is equivalent to child murder. What happens if right-to-life activists decide that their cause is more important than peaceful coexistence with fellow Americans, and that it’s absurd to debate whether to be civil to people who (as they see it) rip babies apart in the womb?
Plenty of other issues could be seen as urgent enough to justify throwing out basic civility. Why not go after public officials who are portrayed as soft on rapists or sympathetic to suspected Islamist terrorists? Why stop at officials and spare, say, journalists accused of promoting evil causes or “fake news”?
The issue is not that shaming Trump administration officials is too mean. For what it’s worth, I believe the Lexington restaurant owner was perfectly within her rights to turn away Sanders. It’s that confrontations can easily descend into violence. In her remarks at the rally, Waters declared, “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them!” What she is advocating probably amounts to criminal harassment — but it could quickly turn into something much worse, especially if Trump supporters show up to defend their own.
Meanwhile, some left-wing Twitter posters who mock calls for civility defend riots. And there are commentators both on the right (columnist Kurt Schlichter) and on the left (Brooklyn-based writer David Klion) who openly fantasize about violence toward political enemies.
To be sure, pro-Trump politicians such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich deserve only derision when they lecture people on civility and respect. But Trump critics should beware of joining the race to the bottom. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) were right to condemn Waters’ remark.
“Civility” need not mean politeness: One can have vigorous protests and harsh words without crossing the line into harassment. Sometimes, extreme action is necessary; but in 2018 America, we still have normal avenues of political action from demonstrating to voting.
The least we can do is dial down the language of war.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.