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Oh, the Civility!

It’s hard to know just what stage of the Kübler-Ross cycle of facing up to hard facts our media elite are currently mired in as the prospect of Donald Trump’s ascension to the GOP presidential ticket comes ever nearer—but it’s clearly a long way from acceptance. As Trump rolled confidently toward a double-digit win in South Carolina’s GOP primary and then another in the Nevada caucus, our respectable punditry has stepped forward to intone, in striking unison, that the man is simply too uncivil to be trusted with maximum executive power.

Admittedly, it’s not a case that lacks for evidence. Much of Trump’s popular appeal hinges on the illicit thrill of a powerful, well-known man saying what, in polite settings, is unsayable—whether it’s his libel of Mexican nationals as rapists and dopers, of Muslims generally as likely terrorists, or of the Pope as a quisling enabler of these and countless other enemies of the Great America.

Notably, though, what’s lately exercised our commentariat isn’t so much the old news that the GOP front-runner is a raving bigot. No, it’s that he’s particularly uncouth-to-belligerent in his posturing against them, the caretakers of the tone of the discourse. And in making this self-interested case, our punditocracy reveals a great deal about itself.

Consider the recent flood of Trump-themed commentary in my own hometown paper, the Washington Post. Online media scribe Callum Borchers used the occasion of an especially vulgar anti-media outburst among supporters at a Trump rally in Atlanta to decry these trespasses against decency and civic deference as a positive “danger” to the functioning of our body politic. After NBC’s “Today” reporter Katy Tur reported on Twitter that one Trump backer near the press pen shouted “You’re a bitch!” at her, while another let his middle fingers do the talking, both Megyn Kelly of Fox News and Tur’s NBC colleague Chuck Todd called for the Trump campaign to dial down the press-baiting rhetoric. Borchers made the same case by appealing to the press’s central role in purveying reasoned deliberation in otherwise overheated fusillades of campaign-sanctioned anger, misleading talking points, and other political half-truths. Trump, Borchers complained, “has created an environment in which it is difficult and uncomfortable to do critical journalism, which—love it or hate it—is an important piece of our democracy.” Cue the parade of horribles:

There’s always the possibility that someone in the crowd will take things too far—like, physically—and people will get hurt. It’s all too easy to imagine. But the long-term risk is that media producers and consumers become so desensitized to this kind of hostility that it permanently lowers the standard of civil discourse. For now, Trump is generally considered a unicorn—a candidate who gets away with things no one else could. But what if he isn’t? What if he’s a preview of a political future in which facts and respect don’t matter, a future in which voters have nothing but scorn for the journalists trying to help them make informed decisions?

To which many an American media consumer, of virtually any ideological coloration, might justly reply to Callum (or Todd or Kelly): “What future, pal?” And may likely complain further that the most momentous disregard for facts and respectful civic deliberations stems not from the citizenry, but from the sober guardians of polite discourse now so worked up over being treated rudely.

The media wants to be treated, much like our lawyers and hedge funders, as a group that merits unquestioned deference in our top-heavy political economy.

Now, of course, verbal harassment and vulgar gestures are genuinely upsetting features of political rallies, and deserve calling out to the organizers of such gatherings. But the prim demand that our media class merits a sort of preferential exemption from displays of mass political passion on the basis of the status they possess doesn’t seem especially healthy for a democracy, either. For one thing, the whole notion that American political conflict is a decorous weighing of factual content against crudely deformed rhetoric—and the allied conviction that journalists are particularly skilled in this refined art—is a risible fiction. There’s a long and distinguished tradition of rabble-rousing, character assassination, and fabulizing in American electioneering, stretching at least back to the founding of our first party system, and finding lush expression in everything from the slander-ridden Jeffersonian-Federalist dustups of the early 1800s to the scandal-mongering of our own brave new media millennium. And our first political press, which was made up of party organs exultantly lobbing foul libel upon libel toward their ideological foes, certainly did nothing to break up the proceedings with an authoritative collective voice steeped in sweet impartial reasoning. 

What’s more, the decorous plaints of Borchers and others overlook the direct sense in which the media has abetted all of Trump’s bigoted displays targeting other vast swathes of our population who do not happen to possess press credentials. Lest you think that this is just a sour-grapes outburst on the part of an ill-tempered leftist, consider that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—the big daddy of the Republican Revolution, and himself an enthusiastic berater of the liberal press—took to Fox News (his off-and-on employer, for the record) to explain how the right-wing media colossus had created the Trump movement by permitting the orange-hued hatemonger to fulminate freely with unlimited airtime. And for enterprising media consumers seeking balanced Trump coverage on Fox’s putatively liberal rival cable net, MSNBC, well, I have five very discouraging words for you: Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski

Such antics, across the political spectrum, are amply deserving of uncivil scorn. And all this is to say nothing, of course, of the Trumpist shows of bigotry and intolerance that media figures such as Megyn Kelly have adopted as their own personal brand-extension strategies.

But the Borchers sermon, as I say, was but one of the notable Trump-themed appeals to civility to crop up the Post’s always-instructive pages. Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter who monitors the faith-civility beat in an op-ed section teeming with hacks formerly in the employ of Republican White Houses, stepped forward recently to decry Trump’s “politics of the middle finger.” Sit back, citizens, for another pious oration on your ritual need to honor the serene wonder of our institutions of power. Trump’s “approach to politics,” you see: 

has not normally been associated with conservatism, which teaches prudence, proportion and respect for institutions, even if they require reform. . . . Even as there is much to improve about our country, there is much to love. And there is much to fear in faces that would appear eager and exhilarated when lighted by the bonfire of American institutions. 

But Trumpism is more than unhinged mockery of our sainted institutions; its real sinister magic is to legitimize an “ethical leap” away from the noble, true, and civil:

It assumes that practices we know are wrong in our private lives—contempt, mockery, cruelty, prejudice—are somehow justified in our political lives. It requires us to embrace views and tactics that we would never teach our children—but do, in fact, teach them through an ethically degraded politics. Imagine your teenage son (or daughter, for that matter) calling a woman a “fat pig,” a “dog,” or “disgusting.” Imagine your children labeling someone he or she knows as a “loser,” “moron,” or “dummy.”

Indeed. Or imagine them dubbing Adam Clymer of the New York Timesa major league asshole,” sullying the institution of the CIA (and the safety of its operatives) by engineering a damaging leak from the intelligence community for short-term political gain, stealing a presidential election with elaborate bids to disenfranchise black and poor constituencies—or discharging U.S. attorneys who were conducting corruption probes into well-connected political allies. Just think of little Michael Junior (or Michaela, as the case may be) orchestrating a bogus, manipulative casus belli for the illegal invasion of a foreign power, and plastering it wall-to-wall in the column inches, camera footage, and pixel reserves of a credulous media. And it surely would be a grotesque failure of ethical pedagogy to school either child in a brazenly unconstitutional and immoral executive policy of torture and detention of “enemy combatants” as de facto nonpersons, neither charged with a crime or afforded basic legal rights during their illegal confinement. That’s why Michael Gerson was known as the Bush White House’s ethics martyr, wailing into the wilderness, week after coruscating week, “Save our institutions, for the Good Lord’s sake. And if not them, then just think of the lost American little ones!”

Hah, just kidding. Meanwhile, on the WaPo op-ed shop’s notional non-right side of the aisle, Richard Cohen can likewise be espied wringing his hackish hands over the genuinely awful episode in which Trump mocked the disability of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski. Cohen is right to single out that repulsive moment on the Trump stump as a key expression of the candidate’s unfeeling and bullying nature. But what’s instructive here is that Cohen nonsensically allows that Trump’s other assaults on entire non-American, non-white, non-Christian populations, which threaten the continued existence of our religiously plural, multicultural democracy, can be given an indulgent pundit pass:

Trump’s other outrages arguably had an element of political calculation to them. The stuff about Mexicans, about immigrants in general, and about Muslims was popular among his supporters. It’s not that I think these insults were disingenuous—the man’s bigotry was evident when he insistently questioned whether Barack Obama was a natural-born American—but they applied to large groups, momentarily unpopular, and no single person either had to bear a stigma or feel the hurt.

As with the decorous calls for enhanced civility toward the press, this disclaimer inadvertently speaks volumes about the bubble of privilege our pundit class already inhabits. To airily allow that no individuals are hurt by the insinuations that ordinary hard-working Mexican immigrants are sex criminals, or by the all but formal declaration that Muslim immigrants, by definition, are a permanent threat to public safety and American values, showcases the outlook of someone who’s never been on the receiving end of such fundamental denials of one’s humanity at anything approaching firsthand experience. Making virtually any single person feel the sting a pariah status is precisely the point of such hate-filled outbursts. It’s also why Trump has enthusiastically egged his crowds on to attack, dispel, and harass protesters at his rallies who are drawing attention to the consequences of just this sort of individual hurt.

This all bears noting at some length because Cohen (a quite practiced racist in his own right) supplies a rather breathtaking account of why the Kovaleski attack was, for him, the Trump outrage that prompted him to “draw the line.” For Kovaleski, a former Post colleague of Cohen’s, has overcome his disability with true meritocratic élan:

My guess is that [Kovaleski] could have done anything he wanted. He’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and talented enough to have worked at two of the best American newspapers. He could have been a lawyer or an accountant or a hedge-fund honcho—you name it. What I’m saying is that he could have made a pretty good living sitting behind a desk and not, on a daily basis, confronting people who are unprepared for his appearance.

Now, it does not in any sense detract from the true heroism of Kovaleski’s conquest of his medical condition to note that this is an exceedingly bizarre show of unwitting privilege on Cohen’s part. Why is it necessary, after all, to stipulate that Kovaleski is not merely a reporter surmounting a disability, but also a well-educated, duly-credentialed member of a professional class who could have just as easily captained a hedge fund as the GOP primary coverage of the New York Times? Would he somehow be less heroic if he’d matriculated at a state university, and sported a CV that would mesh more plainly with the job requirements of an HVAC technician or a health-care worker? 

It may well be that this is just another in a long line of daft Richard Cohen non sequiturs. But laid alongside the testimony of Brothers Gerson and Borchers, Cohen’s class-baiting defense of his colleague’s honor starts to look like a singularly broad and bottomless plea for the media to be treated, much like our lawyers and hedge funders, as a group that merits unquestioned deference in our top-heavy political economy. This looks to me, on balance, to be a threat to honest public discourse that’s more serious than the genuinely unhinged bluster that Trump trains at the media. Reporting itself tends to work best when it’s least civil—when it pointedly reminds us all that our institutions have been hollowed out by plutocratic lawlessness, and that the public weal is ill served by pretending otherwise. As matters stand, though, the press is much more exercised over transgressions of etiquette such as Trump very nearly calling Ted Cruz a “pussy” than Trump saying in, virtually the very next breath, that he’d bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse” in an administration of human-rights defying impunity. As long as this is the decorous, civility-upholding status quo in the American political press, you’ll forgive me for saying that it can fuck right off.