Recent events have raised questions about appropriate behavior in confronting the extraordinary ugliness of the Trump presidency. First, Samantha Bee calls Ivanka Trump a “cunt.” Then Robert DeNiro shouts “Fuck Trump” to a cheering Tony awards audience. More recently Sarah Huckabee Sanders is refused service in a small restaurant whose staff chafed at serving the spokesperson for what they regard as a morally repugnant administration.
These and other similar incidents have elicited predictable cries of outrage from the right, but also significant negative reaction from the center-left of the political spectrum. The latter criticism has been based on both principled and pragmatic grounds.
The argument on principle goes along the lines that we all live in a democratic community whose core values mandate tolerance and respect for the views of those with whom we disagree. Democratic coexistence requires a minimum of civility, which is incompatible with hurling expletives at your political adversaries or refusing them elementary consideration. We mustn’t let the Trumpists bring us down to their level.
The pragmatic argument is that excessive displays of disrespect only serve to enrage and mobilize the other side. In the view of veteran liberal Rob Reiner, “You’re helping Trump by saying ‘F— Trump,’ because he can say ‘look at these people, these elitists.’ ” Do we really want to energize Trump’s base that way?
The distinction between principled and pragmatic considerations is important. Even if we think that any obscenity directed at Trump is morally justified on its own terms, I would oppose its use if it clearly helped Trump more than it hurt him.
Let’s first consider principles. I’m not going to discuss Samantha Bee because, for reasons I won’t get into right now, I think use of the word “cunt” is never justifiable. Her remark was as stupid as it was offensive, and her apology was mandatory.
What about DeNiro? On the one hand, it’s hard to blame the guy, because it is something of a strain to find polite language that adequately describes the depravity of the Trump regime. Trump is certainly contemptible, and that needs saying. “Fuck Trump” is a nice, concise way of expressing appropriate contempt. Still, I think obscenity should be avoided in serious political discussion. Obscenity tends to express disdain without conveying real content. There is merit in the idea that we don’t want to descend to their level, contributing to the further debasement of public discourse. But avoidance of obscenity needn’t entail undue restraint. You can say that Trump is a thoroughly despicable human being, as well as a dangerous jerk, without calling for his sodomization.
What about the incivility suffered by poor Sarah Sanders? I’m with the Red Hen staff. Refusing to serve the president’s mouthpiece is, indeed an expression of disrespect, but I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s effectively an exercise of free speech. Sanders is a prominent public face of the Trump regime. Why shouldn’t people use whatever means they have available to them to let her know what they think of her?
But wait! What about the norms of tolerance and respect for our political adversaries that are essential to our democratic coexistence? Doesn’t even Sanders deserve some kind of respect? I think the broad principle here is that the regime Sanders speaks for, starting with its leader, is constantly violating those norms, so to call on the resistance to observe them is to call for unilateral disarmament. Michele Goldberg put it well, as she so often does:
…[T]here’s an abusive sort of victim-blaming in demanding that progressives single-handedly uphold civility, lest the right become even more uncivil in response. As long as our rulers wage war on cosmopolitan culture, they shouldn’t feel entitled to its fruits. If they don’t want to hear from the angry citizens they’re supposed to serve, let them eat at Trump Grill.”
So much for the principles. What about the pragmatics? Does dissing Trump and his minions do more harm than good by igniting the fury of the Trump base?
I’m doubtful. For one thing, I don’t see any reason to assume that the Trump base is more readily energized than the left. Trump’s presidency has catalyzed an outburst of Democratic activism; the resistance may well draw encouragement and emotional succor from seeing that their outrage is shared by others, whether the others are celebrities or restaurant workers. It might also be a good thing for people in the middle—in neither base—to see that many of their fellow citizens find the current regime repugnant. To exercise normal restraints of tolerance and civility suggests normalcy; people need to be reminded that the Trump presidency is not normal.
But I think Frank Bruni does have a point in arguing that displays of progressive incivility give the Trump forces an excuse to change the subject. Instead of talk about children torn from their parents, the Republicans can deflect to talk about incivility. Bruni is convinced that progressive incivility tends to help the bad guys. I’m really not sure how it nets out. Sometimes it may help; other times, not.
Moderation in contempt for Trump is not a virtue, but sometimes—not always—moderation in expressing that contempt may be politically wise.