How do we get the malevolent genie back in the bottle after the 2016 presidential race?
How do we restore some baseline of political decorum after what we’ve seen this year?
It’s not just Donald Trump to whom I’m referring, though he’s the worst transgressor by far. The shouting down of political speech from the hard political left and populist right, for instance, is a common occurrence now — a coordinated occurrence. Generations preceding us made a conscious decision not to go there. They appreciated how precious and tenuous civil societies are. The stability of American society is foolishly being taken for granted.
What kills me most are the little niceties that got sacrificed in American politics this year. Like handshakes before and after debates. I’ll forever be bothered that Trump and Hillary Clinton failed to shake hands before the last two debates. Some may think that trite, but those small gestures are the glue that keep societies together.
My favorite part of working in politics comes on election night, win or lose. It’s the concession call made by the candidate who falls short to the winning candidate. Those calls are very private and extraordinarily gracious at times, on both ends of the line, often coming after months of fierce rhetorical back-and-forth battle. I’ve pinched myself for 30 years at having the privilege to be in the room when concession conversations occur. There’s nothing more ennobling or more American.
Those calls sometimes are not made now.
There are larger concerns: Trump’s unbridled coarseness in the presidential debates — “Clinton has tremendous hate in her heart” — should be of particular concern to Americans who value civil stability. That style won Trump a political primary. It’s sure to be emulated. It will be framed as “telling it like it is,” when all it really is is meanness.
Trump doesn’t hold the patent on meanness or bad manners. It’s everywhere in social media. Millennials call it snarkiness, a word I had to look up 10 years ago. Today, I can be snarky, too. It’s demeaning.
Talk of Trump setting up a nationalist TV network after the presidential race is most worrisome of all. It could be the perfect vehicle to spread the conspiracy theories he worked so hard to promulgate throughout the year. His latest — the U.S. presidential election will be “rigged” — is the most dangerous to date. One shudders to think what Trump and the so-called “Alt-Right” could do with a 24-hour media platform spreading garbage like that.
I’ve been blessed to have experienced some exhilarating election night wins over the years. But my favorite memory comes from an election night loss.
It was of Joe Carvin, a 2012 Republican congressional challenger. Carvin was taking on incumbent Rep. Nita Lowey of Westchester County. What no one realized in the packed ballroom in White Plains that night was that Carvin had made a conscious decision early in the race not to go hard-negative against Lowey, a Democrat, as all of his advisers recommended. His values wouldn’t permit it, even though he knew it meant sacrificing any chance of victory.
As his friends and family members mingled expectantly a room away, there was Carvin in a corner of the hotel lobby on the phone with Lowey. I’ve never seen a man more at peace with himself. I took a bad photo of the moment on an old BlackBerry. Five years after it was taken, I’m framing it.
It will serve as a reminder of what dignity looks like.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.