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No Country of Civil Men

Being nice keeps bloated Democrats in place and lets Republicans off the hook

The great hallelujah chorus of official liberal consensus has met the moral emergency of the Trump era with a bold message: Be nice. Be deferential. And if you must protest the multifront Trumpian assault on due process, basic government accountability, and virtually every other institution of our civic life, for God’s sake, be civil.

The civility hymnal has gotten a monthlong workout ever since DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was hounded out of a D.C. Mexican restaurant and White House Communications Director Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied service at the Red Hen restaurant in the Virginia exurbs. (Future historians of 2018’s great civility divide will doubtless commemorate Sanders’s denial-of-service contretemps as the Fort Sumter moment in the conflict, while also noting for good measure that Red Hen’s home city of Lexington shares the name of one of the first battles of the American Revolution.) Over and over again, Democratic leaders and the pundits who love them have decorously called for the unwashed Trump-shaming masses to stand down in the name of sweet, sweet civility. What, after all, is the wanton destruction of immigrant families in the service of a long series of agitprop lies and the forced detention of children in abandoned Walmarts next to the inalienable right of the political class enforcing and defending such policies to enjoy an overpriced meal in peace?

This brief interval of violent excess has long functioned as a didactic campfire story to keep Democratic politics well within the boundaries of well-funded official politesse. 

The latest heroic policer of protest tones is historian David Greenberg, who has taken to the pages of Politico’s weekly magazine to outline what should and should not count as polite dissent in the Trump age. In the great centrist-liberal tradition, Greenberg seeks to enforce deferential message discipline for Team #Resistance by flogging a handful of scarifying anecdotes about unhinged New Left protests in the late sixties and early seventies. This brief interval of violent excess has long functioned as a didactic campfire story to keep Democratic politics well within the boundaries of well-funded official politesse; it was indeed, the founding mission of the Democratic Leadership Council to scrub Democratic politics of any faint whiff of confrontational protest, so that the party could at last get on with the serious business of electing soberly free-trading, union-averse, school-privatizing “New Democrats.” (You know, the domestic policy platform that worked so flawlessly for the Dems in the 2016 presidential campaign.) So cue Greenberg’s rote rehearsal of New Left sins:

The outrageous and obnoxious antics of the militant left ended up hurting their cause. The taunting of public figures isn’t well remembered, and neither will history long record June’s showdown at the Red Hen. But insofar as these actions stem from a determination to score political points by violating civil norms, they—and the repellent and violent methods of extreme protesters more generally—engender a backlash and alienate allies. By 1972, we should recall, a majority of Americans had come to oppose the Vietnam War, but greater numbers opposed the antiwar movement. Nixon cannily positioned himself as upholding law and order—a helpfully ambiguous phrase that lumped together the threats of rising crime, urban riots and rowdy left-wing activism. His invocation of the “silent majority” aimed to bring together those who were put off by the noisy, disruptive and politically extreme protests. Trump, who has openly borrowed Nixonian terms like “law and order” and “silent majority,” has already been using the confrontations with his administration’s officials to shift the discussion from his immigration policies and onto the left’s behavior.

But apart from the genuinely militant (if also reliably inept) antics of the “Days of Rage”-era Weathermen, one is hard-pressed to see the New Left’s heyday as such a foul, sans-culottish reign of terror. The most frenetically publicized episodes of antiwar protesters’ alleged incivility, such as spitting on returning Vietnam vets, have been exposed as urban legends. Yes, it’s true, as Greenberg notes, that antiwar protesters would chant impolite things like “Hey, hey, LBJ / How many kids did you kill today” and that militant splinter groups like Up Against the Wall Motherfucker sought to disrupt the public appearances of White House officials with garbage and showers of cow’s blood—but honestly, were you expecting a group bearing that particular name to circulate petitions and strongly worded congressional resolutions?

And yes, it’s true that Nixon narrowly won the presidency in part by demagoging the “law and order” theme. But it’s also true that this leitmotif was part of the ’68 Nixon campaign’s broader Southern strategy, which sought to exploit racist resistance to the Civil Rights revolution in the South and the Sunbelt. (In this regard, the third-party candidacy of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace was a far more consequential factor in Nixon’s election than the unraveling of SDS protests ever could have been.)

What’s more, for the Nixon analogy to hold half a century later, Greenberg and his fellow Niceniks would have to show that public opinion was indeed being nudged toward a new backlash in the wake of the direct-action protests on the immigration front. In fact, the reverse dynamic appears to be taking hold, with a new Pew poll indicating, for the first time on record, a majority of Americans want to see existing rates of immigration increased.

OK, so maybe protests are coinciding with a genuine shift in public opinion on the lead issue in question. But what of our sacrosanct vision of civic cooperation sans politics—that glorious Tocquevillian legacy of voluntary associations making America better just because Americans are so damn good? Here’s Greenberg’s sermonette on this score:

The reason to maintain standards of conduct and preserve a non-political space of human interaction is not to protect particular politicians and government officials. It’s to protect America, to uphold the political culture we value.

Trump and his followers have already shown their contempt for the practices and gestures that help us live amicably with our ideological opposites. Joining Trump in the project of trashing the unwritten rules of public conduct won’t change his policies or governing style. But it will betray our own values and make it harder, once he’s gone, to reconstitute a decent, humane politics. We have nothing to gain from the eradication of a politics-free zone, from a war of all against all that greenlights once-verboten behaviors and permeates once-private spaces.

Stirring, no? It’s also unadulterated horseshit, as a historian such as Greenberg should know. “The political culture we value” has always placed a premium on rude public confrontation, as historian Joann Freedman’s astute 2002 study of the social mores of politics in the Early Republic, Affairs of Honor, has shown in bracing detail. In the generation after the republic’s founding, all aspects of American culture were politicized and personalized—which meant in turn that scandal, gossip, and violent confrontation were the common currency of political debate. In this political world, “print combatants often adopted the language of the duel”—and the specter of violent political confrontation was hailed as a sign of abiding personal and civic virtue:

To early national politicians, duels were demonstrations of manner, not marksmanship; they were intricate games of dare and counterdare, ritualized displays of bravery, military prowess, and—above all—willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s honor. A man’s response to the threat of gunplay bore far more meaning than the exchange of fire itself.

Very much by contrast, Greenberg’s deferential bourgeois conception of “the culture we value” is really a safe space for our pundit class. It’s also worth recalling, in this light, that the alleged trespasses against polite “standards of conduct” and the sacred preservation of “a non-political space of human interaction” that Greenberg is cataloguing here are a far cry from dueling fodder. The Red Hen’s owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, instead of loutishly sending off Huckabee Sanders in a hail of cow’s blood, actually surveyed her own staff on how to handle the prospect of serving a professional liar and gleeful press baiter in their midst. Wilkinson also gave Huckabee Sanders and her staff complementary cheese plates before politely explaining the reasons they wouldn’t be served. What a first-order defilement of “decent, humane” politics! How on earth can our America be protected and “our values” be redeemed in the face of such rampaging barbarism?

Similarly, when Scott Pruitt—far and away the most corrupt single cabinet member in modern American history—got a tongue lashing from a D.C.-area school teacher, the upbraider in question read out a series of Pruitt’s disastrous policy reversals and self-dealing exploits from prepared notes while holding a toddler on her hip. Surely this is indeed the spiritual heir to Up Against the Wall Motherfucker! (In another awkwardly timed development for Greenberg’s argument, Pruitt tendered his resignation just days after his scolding session, demonstrating yet again that the tactic of confronting Trump toadies with their public records in their off hours elicited no measurable uptick in public sympathy for them, and may well, in Pruitt’s case, have helped smooth the path for his exit.)

More telling still is the—wait for it—“middle ground” model of protest that the tongue-clucking Greenberg can see his way clear to approve of. That, gentle reader, was back in the early days of the Trump White House, when Brandon Victor Dixon, a cast member of Hamilton, briefly stepped out of character to chide Mike Pence for traducing our diverse republic and its noble immigrant traditions. What made this protest civil and honorable, Greenberg argues, is that Dixon thanked the vice-president for attending Broadway’s deeply confused celebration of one of our least democratic founders. “We truly hope,” Dixon sonorously announced to the erstwhile shock-jock bigot now commanding the trappings of state power, “that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

By Greenberg’s own preferred metric of backlash-provocation, Dixon’s appeal to the better angels of Mike Pence’s nature was clearly a miserable failure: Trump’s administration is more devoted than ever to transforming virtually every arm of our executive branch into a bastion of white supremacy and moneyed corruption—waving the standard of backlash politics in the abject service of the continued rule of the one percent.

Yet as is always the case with our civility policers, the public displays of protest that win their coveted approval are much more a reflection of social mood and elite consensus than any vulgar quest for measurable policy results. And here, of course, the setting says everything: a $2,000-a-ticket Broadway extravaganza rehabilitating the civic reputation of a bona-fide American autocrat. This is the high civic culture that the David Greenbergs of the world see imperiled by public confrontations with the Trump administration’s corps of on-the-make racist apparatchiks.

To which one would just add a small historical disclaimer—our recently minted liberal saint Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel, fought over the results of the 1800 presidential election (so much, it seems, for the myth that our founder promoted decorous intra-ideological comity in designated spheres of private repose, quarantined from ugly political confrontation). That’s something to ponder, genteel liberal tone policers, over a cheese plate to be shared with the loyal child-caging opposition.