President Donald Trump said the right things after five people were shot by a gunman at a GOP baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, last week. Emphasizing America’s shared heritage, he called on Democrats and Republicans to join hands across their differences. By the next day, he was back to his old ways, smearing anyone who opposes him.
That creates a challenge for anyone who wants to mend fences in our hyper-partisan political landscape. How do you create civility and unity when you’ve got such a divisive figure in the White House?
It won’t be easy. But Republicans will need to call out Trump every time he breaches our frayed norms of courtesy and decency. And Democrats will have to refrain from calling him names, lest their overheated rhetoric echoes Trump himself.
In his first statement after Wednesday’s shooting, Trump was truly presidential. “We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good,” he said.
His remark set a tone of bipartisanship among members of Congress, who tripped over themselves in declaring allegiance to each other. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Speaker Paul Ryan said. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi struck a similar chord, noting that she prays for Democrats and Republicans every Sunday.
And the catcher for the GOP’s baseball team, Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, said he’d simply had enough of partisan rancor. “The way we talk to each other has to change,” he said. “The political hate has to change.”
But within a day, Trump had returned to the politics that Davis denounced. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history . . .,” he tweeted Thursday, regarding the Russia probe. He also blasted “Crooked H,” claiming that Hillary Clinton destroyed phones “with a hammer” to evade investigators in her email scandal.
And nary a peep from Republicans in Congress, who sat on their hands about Trump even as they rose to their feet in a show of bipartisan unity. But if they want a new political civility, they’re going to have to speak up when Trump violates it.
By the same token, though, Democrats are going to have to tone down some of the language they use against him. Consider Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who won the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary just a day before the shootings. A physician, he ran ads describing Trump as a “narcissistic maniac.” Or take Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who on TV earlier this year called Trump’s Cabinet “a bunch of scumbags.”
That makes for great clickbait, but it hardly promotes the kind of civility Democrats touted after the shooting.
Nor does the snark that emits from some media personalities, who have almost exceeded Trump’s own penchant for name-calling. Shortly before Trump was elected, writers for Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal” cable show released a list of more than 40 names she had called Trump on the air, including “George Wallace in a wig” and “Casino Mussolini.”
Of course, there’s a place for satire in politics. But my fellow Democrats can’t have it both ways, any more than Trump’s GOP apologists can. If they want a more civil politics, they must resolve to live it.
So, I’ve got a resolution of my own: I’m going to criticize what Trump does rather than who he is. So I’ll blast his senseless health care package, but I won’t call him stupid. And while I’ll denounce every falsehood he tells, I won’t call him a liar.
Labels don’t enhance our political discourse, they constrict it. Trump loves them, of course: loser, lightweight, moron, dummy. But the rest of us don’t have to imitate him.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”