Almost 18 months into the objectively unique presidency of Donald Trump and frustration is spilling into the restaurants and public spaces where members of his administration gather with the rest of us. Some are being yelled at and some are being asked to leave due to the policies that they have worked to put into place. On the left, many feel that this is the natural evolution of a moment in American history where families are being pulled apart at the border and hard-won protections are being whittled away. On the right, the stance is that this loss of civility is itself worthy of outrage. And then, there are people from both parties and the middle-ground who think that this is a sign that our future discourse is damned.
Uproxx’s Alyssa Fikse and Jason Tabrys have differing opinions on the question of civility vs incivility (but maybe not for the reasons you think) and they’ve followed the news from Sarah Sanders’ ousting at The Red Hen to Rep. Maxine Waters’ push for more confrontation and President Trump’s responses to both. In this piece, they try their best to explore this contentious moment, the possible charges of a double standard, and whether hope can spring from this latest partisan battle.
Alyssa: There are a lot of facts to consider when you examine the incident from an objective point of view. First of all, the owner of The Red Hen didn’t turn it into a huge ordeal. After discussing Sanders’ presence with her staff (which includes immigrants and members of the gay community), she politely requested that Sanders leave, comped her a cheese plate, and didn’t make a scene. Honestly, the incident wouldn’t really be newsworthy if Sanders hadn’t escalated it by calling out a private citizen from a government Twitter account. While you may not agree with the principal, the actions of the Red Hen are pretty much a textbook example of peaceful protest.
Jason: I actually don’t know that I disagree with their actions, but that does bring to mind questions about double standards. Because I know we both feel strongly that people shouldn’t be denied service due to their sexuality, race, or gender. A lot of people are trying to poke holes in arguments in favor of this kind of peaceful protest by bringing that up. Is the difference between a private citizen and a government official enough to justify the appearance of a double standard?
Alyssa: I think it’s a very complex issue, but here’s how I look at it: The gay couple that gets turned away from a bakery isn’t trying to strip the baker of their rights. They just want a wedding cake. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the administration that she serves is working to strip people of their rights, people like the ones who work at The Red Hen. This wasn’t just someone being mad at someone else about personal politics. This was standing up to an individual who they believe enforces dangerous policies and seeks to further marginalize the vulnerable.
With an administration that is actively working to harm children, minorities, and women, I don’t particularly care if she gets to finish her salad. It has been a pattern with this administration to encourage terrible behavior from their base, and yet expect the utmost of civility from their opponents. The second that the left gets “uncivil,” the discourse shifts from the real issues to this so-called moral failing.
Jason: The stock response is, “What if this happened to an Obama administration official during his administration?” And what if it was around something that would be troublesome to people on the left, like collateral damage deaths due to drone strikes. And I think the answer is that this is a very unique moment in American history and politics. Which feels like a cop out because we all think every moment is a unique moment in American history and we all think we’re the righteous heroes of these stories. But while you could say that Obama’s policies poked conservatives in the chest while pulling this country to the left, this feels like something more. Something where there is little consideration being given to social norms, established laws, or public consensus on a lot of issues. There is no reach across the aisle this time around. There’s just a wild sprint toward the President’s far-right base and the cold shoulder if you’re not a part of that club.
That’s particularly troubling when you remember that a lot of people feel like a pivot to the middle was owed because this President was not elected with a majority of support or any kind of real landslide mandate to obliterate the status quo. So, I get the desire to respond in the way that The Red Hen staff did. But I also worry about the “Hell, yeah!” reception this kind of thing is getting. People are looking for victories right now. This feels like karma, it feels like justice, but the effect on the administration is going to be ultra minimal. I mean, do you think this single act will alter Sarah Sanders’ mindset or push her toward questioning the actions of this administration?
Alyssa: If we operated under the idea of whether or not things will change Trump’s mind or rhetoric, we might as well just pack it in and stay home. He doesn’t care, his administration doesn’t care, his base doesn’t care. But how can we do less? If protesting the abuse of children is a bridge too far, we’ve already lost. Admittedly, the most important thing that someone who recoils in horror at the policies being enforced can do is to go vote. Vote them out in November. But I also believe that America is built upon the foundation of speaking truth to power, which is what this is. They’re ripping children from their parents, locking them in cages (a practice that admittedly predates this administration) lying about it, and blaming the Democrats. They’re threatening to completely throw out the rule of law. We can’t just do nothing in the name of civility.
Jason: I don’t think people are doing nothing. We’ve seen a great surge in activism. People are protesting peacefully and they’re being heard. I think that’s a great contrast between what this administration is doing and how people are reacting. And it’s also organized and orderly and not wholly confrontational and all about venting on one specific person. It’s about the larger issues in a larger, more appropriate forum. A concern I have is that there’s a dividing line being drawn where if you’re not willing to scream at someone on the buffet line at the Sizzler, you’re complicit in their dirty deeds. I don’t think that’s so. I like what Sen. Corey Booker said on MSNBC: “If I saw an administrator out and about there is nothing wrong with confronting that person, but not to lead with love and to do it in a way that is more reflective of the values that we are trying to reject in our country is unacceptable to me.”
Point being: I am uncomfortable with this administration changing yet another thing about us. Pushing us to scream at people in public is ill-suited to being a litmus test for caring.
Alyssa: Listen, the gold standard of civil political discourse was Michelle Obama’s “if they go low, we go high.” While that is a beautiful and noble sentiment, what did that get us? An administration that is hellbent on othering people and dismantling the constitution in ways that suit their needs and promote their agendas. Each new day brings a fresh wave of horrors that erode the America that I love. Maybe this was always happening, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. But I am now, and a lot of people are now. When our president is marching out “Angel Families” to further perpetuate his notion that immigrants are somehow less than human and therefore do not deserve our help or compassion, civility isn’t the ultimate anymore. Signing the pictures of people who have died is just the cherry on the shit sundae. If Mike Huckabee can tweet out racist memes and our President can threaten a sitting member of Congress with physical violence, I don’t think speaking quietly is going to do the trick.
Jason: But the “what does this get us?” question is still out there. This all feels like it falls in line with what Trump has done in direct contrast to “if they go low, we go high.” He goes low, so low and he drags everyone down with him into the mud so that it becomes hard to see a difference if you’re squinting from afar. And there are nearly 100 million eligible voters who abstained in 2016 who are doing exactly that, squinting at this wildness from far away. They don’t pay attention to the day to day and they don’t align with one side or the other, necessarily (and maybe inexplicably). They’re apathetic or indifferent or the shrugging masses, but they’re still out there and maybe some of them could be swayed to vote in 2018 and 2020. But will they vote if politics looks even more like a barroom brawl? Maybe that’s a cold response to this moment, but I’m really only interested in solutions that win elections because it’s the only way to change anything.
Alyssa: I’m going to be honest: if you’re still in the “Hillary and Trump are equally bad” camp, I don’t think there’s anything that will change your mind at this point. I understand not wanting to stoop to Trump’s level, but I don’t believe that calling people out and actively working to harm others are equivalent. At all. If you’re still undecided after the past two years, “being civil” isn’t going to be the deciding factor.
Jason: You may be right. Talk about courting indie voters may be akin to chasing unicorns but who gets won over by getting in someone’s face and telling them you think they’re evil? Who does that serve? I guess that’s the thing I can’t locate. And all of this is, of course, epically depressing, because if there are no minds left to change and it’s just a metaphorical (I hope) slugfest between the left and the right and everyone else is sort of just stuck dealing with the chaos and damage then what are we supposed to do?
Alyssa: I don’t think this is just screaming, though. I look at what happened at The Red Hen as something akin to NFL players kneeling. No one was harmed, the point was made. I think actions like this will have a bigger impact than you’re giving credit. While the politicians may twist it to suit their purposes, to me, this kind of thing proves that there are normal, everyday people who aren’t going to be complacent. In the face of an administration that just wants us to roll over and take it, it makes a huge difference to see people reject that.
Jason: Again, I’m energized by people who resist en masse while marching for good, but these singular actions just don’t feel the same. They feel onanistic and like a cheap high that I worry will fade away quickly. I hope I’m wrong about the impact, I’m worried about the slippery slope and I hope we don’t lose our souls navigating the murky depths of this apparent new normal.