Five months into President Trump’s first term, The Times’ editorial board warned that a “drumbeat of hatred, incivility and intolerance threatens our political system in ways big and small.”
What a difference a year doesn’t make.
Last week angry protesters confronted Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a Washington restaurant, then reconvened a few mornings later outside her home. On Friday night, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in central Virginia asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to hit the road in mid-appetizer because the staff objected to Trump’s policies and Sanders’ defense of them. The next day, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) called on people to harass top administration officials wherever they’re encountered.
True to form, Trump tweeted back Monday that the Red Hen had “filthy canopies, doors and windows” and that Waters was an “extraordinarily low-IQ person.”
These are extraordinary times, and we’re led by an extraordinarily bad president. But if the goal is to change his extraordinarily bad policies — as it should be — ratcheting up the anger and the personal attacks to meet him on his own ground really doesn’t help. All it does is shift the public’s attention from the real issues to the political sideshow.
Confronting an administration official in a department store doesn’t make the case for change any more than chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a rally.
There’s no question that this president’s demagoguery, mendacity and name-calling have contributed to the ugly tone of today’s debates. From “Crooked Hillary” and “Lock her up” on the campaign trail to today’s talk about how immigrants “infest” the country when they stay here illegally, Trump has pushed the standard of discourse down further than any American president in modern history. And in perhaps his most amazing feat, he has convinced his supporters that people who point out his demonstrable errors and obvious lies are biased and mendacious themselves.
Granted, Trump is as much a symptom as he is a cause of America’s distemper; in fact, this slide into vituperation began earlier, when Obama was called the most divisive president ever by the right and when George W. Bush was called a fascist and a war criminal by the left. But Trump has fanned the flames of partisan resentment and confrontation to the point where the very functioning of our institutions is in question.
Perhaps the worst aspect of all this is how much facts, communication and compromise have been devalued in this hyper-partisan era. Research studied by the Rand Corp. found political polarization at historically high levels by many measures. The gulf is so deep that many people no longer listen to each other’s arguments and readily embrace opinions as a substitute for facts. Rather than accept the difficult compromises needed to move forward with the other side of the ideological divide, they’re content to retreat into the comfort of their own tribes.
Our elected representatives do the same, and as a result, the political wounds fester while little progress is made on thorny issues like immigration, healthcare, poverty and the federal deficit. Meanwhile, the president tries to force lawmakers’ hand by undermining in outrageous ways the laws he can’t change even with a GOP-controlled Congress — for example, by unilaterally ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program despite broad public support, by separating children who cross the border illegally from their parents, and by trying to expand the work requirements in safety-net programs.
It’s easy to see why some of Trump’s critics believe it’s time to abandon the norms of political debate and protest. To them, what the president has been saying and doing is so far outside those norms, and so disrespectful of the shared values that have made the system work, that his presidency can’t be given the business-as-usual treatment.
But refusing to serve a meal to a White House spokesman or confronting an administration official in a department store doesn’t make the case for change any more than chanting “Lock her up” at a rally.
The better solution is to defend American institutions and the rule of law, to meet untruths with facts, to answer ravings with rationality in the public sphere. The courts must be given the opportunity to defend the Constitution, and thoughtful lawmakers from both parties must speak out against and work to change hateful policies. The system can still work. When the administration went all-in on separating migrant parents from their children, the public rose up, and Trump backed down.
The ultimate test for those who demand change isn’t how miserable they can make the lives of Trump appointees or how far they can remove themselves from the taint they see in Washington. It’s whether they participate in the political process — and especially, whether they vote.
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