Magann: In Defense of Civility

Oppose the Trump administration, but remember what you're fighting for.

by Matthew Magann | 7/20/18 2:15am

Democracy rests on people’s ability to respectfully disagree. When America’s democratic fabric has eroded to the point where political opponents become incorrigible enemies, the last thing it needs is more incivility. Unfortunately, incivility is the type of discourse many people seem to promote.

The brash incivility of Donald Trump’s movement is common knowledge. Consider how the president gleefully mocks opponents with accusations of having an “extraordinarily low IQ” or “dying mediocre career[s],”and one can see what incivility looks like. However, even some opponents of Trump have used incivility as a tactic as well, advocating for a crass, winner-takes-all approach to politics. Their petty vengeance against Trump supporters might win publicity, but it won’t do anything to combat Trump’s populist nationalism.

To be clear, anyone who values America should oppose the Trump administration. Just look at the past few days, when the president tore into NATO, berated the nation’s closest European allies, denied the findings of United States intelligence agencies and stood by Vladimir Putin, a foreign despot accused of undermining American democracy. He denigrates Gold Star parents, bans refugees, starts trade wars with allies, brags about sexually assaulting women; the list goes on. Trump’s influence on America is destructive, and we should by all means oppose his policies. But there’s a right way to do that, and there’s a wrong way.

The wrong way, the uncivil way, has been popular lately. It picked up in the wake of an incident at a Virginia restaurant. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary and a prominent face of the Trump administration, sat down for dinner. The owner of the restaurant asked her to leave, citing personal disagreements with the Trump administration’s policies.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an outspoken Trump critic, jumped to defend the restaurant owner’s actions. Speaking to a rally in Los Angeles, she urged the crowd: “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

The backlash was immediate, as prominent Democrats and Republicans rejected Waters’ comments. Sen. Chuck Schumer put it clearly, arguing that “no one should call for the harassment of political opponents … that’s not American.” But in the pages of op-ed sections across newspapers, a shocking number of writers defended actions similar to Waters’s.

For instance, take a recent piece published on Huffington Post, aptly titled “Fuck Civility.” It argues that the Trump administration’s policies necessitate not just disagreement, but full-fledged resistance. The author, Michelangelo Signorile, dismisses the possibility of swaying Trump supporters. “Anyone who is supporting Trump while he’s putting children in prison camps isn’t going to be swayed,” he claims, calling for radical, uncivil protests against the Trump administration. “It’s about lighting a spark under those who aren’t paying attention,” Signorile writes, “it’s not about changing the minds of Trump supporters.”

But liberals and centrists should not abandon the over 40 percent of fellow Americans who voted for Trump. I ask fellow opponents of the Trump administration: what sort of nation do we want to create? The answer, for me at least, is one that rejects the “Trumpian” nation, where political opponents exist only as foes to crush on the path to victory. I may strongly disagree with Trump supporters, but we should respect them as fellow Americans and respect the voice they have in our democracy. If we embrace incivility, we adopt Trump’s “us-versus-them” vision of politics. That divisive ideology is one of America’s biggest problems, and the last thing we should do is promote it.

Every time some celebrity yells profanities at Trump, every time an official gets kicked out of a restaurant, the chasm within our nation grows. That divided America is not the America I want to see, and I don’t think it’s too late to reverse course. Impulsive, vengeance-filled attacks hurled at the Trump administration won’t do a thing to change America for the better. They will just bring opponents down to Trump’s level, further entrenching the uncivil partisanship that Trump embodies. In opposing Trump, we would do well to remember Michelle Obama’s famous words: “When they go low, we go high.”

Go out and oppose Trump. Oppose him forcefully and argue strongly against his policies. But do not exact vengeance on his supporters. Instead, we need to present a positive vision for America — a vision of democracy and freedom for all, a vision where every American, without exception, has a place in this nation. America is a democracy, not a battleground. Political opponents are not enemies to crush. They’re fellow citizens to convince. And both sides need to accept that.