I blame the Obamas. The current epidemic of preciousness about “uncivil” responses to the Trump administration started when Michelle said “when they go low, we go high” and warmed the hearts of a million liberals who were sure that no one would vote for Donald Trump. Never; not for a man so vulgar, so crass, so positively trashy. A man who had spent the time on the campaign trail attacking minorities, insulting women and mocking the disabled was so comfortably low that the Democrats were not only going to win, but win with the grace and class of the Obamas as their tail-wind.
But Trump won. And he did so precisely because he was low. He won and continues to be popular with his base because he is low. More a lightning rod for spite than a politician, his very success is predicated on how much he can insult others, be they other heads of state or NFL players, and how far he can persecute non-US citizens, be it Muslims or border-crossing migrants.
And yet still people insist that “going high” will somehow one day, out of attrition by politeness, vanquish Trump, and the argument will be won. And so the “go high” pearl-clutchers came out again to deliver their bromides when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied service and asked to leave at a restaurant this week.
This is apparently a “slippery slope”. You hear that a lot. That responding to Trump’s scorched-earth tactics by denying service, mockery or profanity is a “slippery slope”. To what exactly? Is asking people to leave restaurants a gateway to genocide? Is pushing the envelope a little on a comedy routine specifically held to mock the Washington establishment a trigger to mass riots?
The slippery slope argument itself is, well, a slippery slope. It delegitimises the right to object to the actions of a government that has no policies or values but is ruling via thuggery. It blurs the lines between dissent and insurrection. As if every action of a private citizen taking a political stand outside the ballot box is eroding some basic tenet of civilisation.
“What next?” people ask. Well, hopefully more of the same. Hopefully members of the Trump regime who think separating children from their parents, sometimes forever, when they illegally cross the border, will be kicked out of restaurants and cursed and mocked until the urgency of the situation is appropriately reflected in the streets and airwaves of a country where many have not caught up. Because catching up is hard. The entire plan of resistance to Trump at the moment seems to be pleading that the left keep its room in order while the whole house is in flames.
Whatnextism is in some way also a form of coping mechanism. If things are still in the realm of discussion then they are still in the realm of the manageable. It is through this self-protective impulse that history reveals itself to us. The delay in resisting the creep of the abnormal that in the archives seems like active complicity begins to look through the lens of the present more like mass denialism and protectionism of the status quo. A misplaced sense of trust in the mechanisms of the state deepens the complacency. Add a dash of exceptionalism and you have a recipe for a faith in an American system that has already been hijacked.
This sort of “America will prevail” nonsense always seems to emanate from a certain type of liberal. Educated affluent folk who are not unfamiliar with “Which West Wing Character Are You” tests. The only thing worse than American exceptionalism is liberals’ American exceptionalism. It combines a belief in an inevitable happy ending with a certainty that it will be them to deliver it.
And so when a restaurant owner ejects Sarah Sanders or Stephen Miller, what the liberals are really saying is “don’t short circuit the system with your pesky exercising of your civil rights, there’s elections for that, and if those don’t work, then we have a plan.” But there is no plan apart from “trust us”, which didn’t go so well last time round. And fixating on the “what if it were you being refused/mocked/insulted” line is a tell. To relate to the subject of the objection rather than the objection itself is an indication that you see yourself as part of a decision-making class separate to the masses – a class that needs the Wall of Honour to remain erect because what if, at some point in the future, you fall foul of the restaurant workers who don’t understand all the hard and unpopular decisions you have to make?
“We should be better than them” is another defence. Again, this is the concern of those who are participating in some moral beauty contest, rather than living on Earth with the rest of the detained and the persecuted. Those who think that the most important thing is to be notionally good, rather than to be practically effective reflect the fatal strain in the Democratic Party that alienated African Americans and minorities by taking them for granted, and played their part in Trump’s victory. No one should listen to them.
It’s also just not a very smart tactic. To keep fetishising “good” behaviour plays into the hands of the right, who roll out a “so much for the tolerant left” false equivalence argument if anyone so much as raises their voice in an argument. Both sides are not playing by the same rules.
Michelle Obama’s own words are being used against Democrats who are beginning to realise that a change of tactics is now necessary. When Democratic representative Maxine Waters said “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up” so that “we can get the children back to their parents”, CNN’s Chris Cillizza called it her “go low” strategy.
This doesn’t mean that everyone should succumb to their basest instincts and mimic Trump, but as far as I can see, no one really is. People are simply refusing to normalise, to allow into polite society human rights abusers. It is just the glimmer of another path that is not the stale, narcissistic dead-end one of false equivalence.
Those who are not conflating grace with quietism are the ones who are really standing up for American values as imagined by the civility patrol. They are drawing the lines, and have the clarity of mind to know that by the time things are history reel bad, it is too late.