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Is the nation treading too close to violence?

President Donald Trump addresses the Nevada Republican Party

President Donald Trump addresses the Nevada Republican Party Convention June 23 in Las Vegas. Credit: AP / L.E. Baskow

Over the past three years, President Donald Trump has said that immigrants “infest” our country, that some Mexican nationals coming here illegally are rapists, and that reporters are the “enemy of the people.” He has criticized war hero Arizona Sen. John McCain for getting captured and used the term “son of a bitch” to describe NFL players.

On Wednesday at a rally, the president called Rep. Joe Crowley “slovenly” and said the Queens Democrat “got his ass kicked” in his primary.

Trump has used his Twitter account to lob insults like “flunky,” “boring,” and “stupid,” not to mention “dopey,” “dumb,” “a dope” and “dumb dope.”

Regarding actual calls to violence, he has said of protesters, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” and, “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

And that’s a partial list just of what’s public. Behind the scenes, the president of the United States reportedly said various nations are “shithole countries,” and he was caught on tape talking about grabbing women “by the pussy.”

Ask yourself: Is this civility?

Any conversation about tone in politics in 2018, such as the one we’ve been having since some Trump administration officials had their dinners disrupted by people protesting the then-use of a zero-tolerance policy at the border, must start with the president’s words. He didn’t invent coarse discourse, and ugliness has long been alive here. But his platform has spread it.

And Trump’s unprecedented ugly words often underscore his determination to destroy many of the norms that undergird our national conversation. He has attacked the independence of the judiciary and undermined the FBI. His imposition of new immigration policies has created chaos at airports and borders, changing America’s image as a beacon for refugees and immigrants. He has damaged international alliances and praised dictators. There is a fear that this destruction of norms is a prelude to or even the beginning of a lasting change to the country’s social conventions, if not its principles.

What should be the response?

Heckling Trump officials

Some Americans, especially younger more progressives ones, have recently been answering that question with defiant actions, given the asymmetric balance of power between them and Trump. They say extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures, and heckled administration officials and surrogates at restaurants and at a movie theater.

Recently, a Virginia eatery asked White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. Protesters brought the sounds of crying immigrant kids to the homes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. This spate follows recent distasteful anti-Trump acts, like comedian Kathy Griffin’s photo of a bloody decapitated Trump head.

Some on the left have celebrated and even encouraged this, sometimes trending into Trump-style territory. California Rep. Maxine Waters, for example, said of admininstration officials, “You push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore anywhere.” She later received threats, too.

Certainly most Americans right and left would rather a world where, as former first lady Michelle Obama once said, “When they go low, we go high.”

But it’s hard to argue that protest is alien to a nation built on the Boston Tea Party. In 1863, young men in New York City rioted, refusing to fight in the Civil War and angry that the wealthy avoided service. The civil rights movement was philosophically nonviolent, but it was confrontational.

Many Americans are woefully disheartened about the president’s behavior and its effect. The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has only fired up the left further, as it argues that obstruction is a responsibility given the rights at stake. Those Americans should remember that voting is the most effective answer.

Traditions must hold strong

In the meantime, we seem to be entering a chaotic and disturbing period in American politics, and it’s reasonable to be worried about what that means for the next few years.

Serious civic strife has sometimes led to unacceptable violence: Heather Heyer was killed at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year; four students in Ohio were killed in 1970 by National Guard members brought in to quell demonstrations about the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. And some individuals, like the shooter who killed five police officers in Dallas in 2016, have seized on ideological causes. An intemperate climate can inflame those who are unstable and see violence as way to settle their grievances. Such a vendetta allegedly sparked the killing of five people in a Maryland newsroom on Thursday.

These are ominous times. Angry protesters harassing officials is not pleasant, and it might be a precursor of a dangerous mob — evoking truly destructive historical moments.

The clear and shining line that must not be crossed as we enter this period is one separating us from violence, which has only ever created misery. American traditions and institutions must hold strong to be the checks on power that they have often shown themselves to be. We must continue on both sides to navigate the most productive ways to protest. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the lack of decorum in our politics is the main issue at this moment. It’s a manifestation of the bitter divide in this nation, and a reflection of the derisive atmosphere created by the president himself.