Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent book is “The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Monday, a woman approached Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt in a DC restaurant and told him bluntly that he should resign. She introduced him to her 2-year-old son, who was on her hip, saying: “We deserve to have somebody at the EPA who actually does protect our environment, somebody who believes in climate change and takes it seriously for the benefit of all of us, including our children.”
It was awkward, to be sure. Being confronted by an angry citizen while you’re trying to eat in peace is not fun – and Pruitt left the restaurant. But if a spate of recent, similar encounters between Trump officials and the public are any indication, Pruitt got off easy.
Many, particularly from the right, but also some Democratic voices, have denounced these bold, in-your-face moments as rude, a step too far, a blow to civility, a threat to our national discourse. But many feel just the opposite – and just as strongly. In this disunited America of 2018, who is right?
Let’s examine this: The lack of civility in public discourse is, of course, worrying. In a perfect world, everyone would speak in a polite manner.
But the nation is going through one of its periodic rude times – our country right now is one where immigrant children are, unbelievably, torn from their mothers and put into detention, where gay people are treated like sub-standard citizens, and where violence on the streets is routine. We live in a world where the President of the United States can, with impunity, tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
And, in this same world, where journalists can be murdered in their office in Annapolis while hard at work reporting the news, the President has to be directly implored by the city’s mayor before he will agree to lower flags to half-staff in acknowledgment of this lethal affront, one that shakes the very pillars of our democracy.
And in this same world, a public official charged with protecting the environment for the benefit of all Americans turns out to be self-dealing, corrupt and bent on upending environmental protections.
It’s no wonder people are overriding their impulse to be civil. These are shocking and desperate times.
Last month, White House adviser Stephen Miller – long the architect of the administration’s toughest immigration policies – was called “a fascist” at a Mexican restaurant. Two days later Kirstjen Nielsen, who is our Secretary of Homeland Security, found herself confronted over child separation policies while trying to have a quiet dinner at yet another Mexican restaurant. “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace,” one of the diners shouted at her.
Sarah Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, had a similar experience in which an angry citizen went too far, in my view, denying Sanders service in a restaurant. Sanders tweeted: “Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”
And there have been others.
I know we would all prefer a civil culture, one where people spoke courteously to each other, respecting the fact that people – politicians included – might have differing opinions.
Two points need to be made here, however.
First, by framing this period of abundant anger as the bad behavior of rude liberals, Trump supporters and others are effectively squelching legitimate civil disobedience of a sort our nation has seen repeatedly through its history – when protesters (and public officials, too: recall Joe Wilson’s treatment of President Obama) from left and right have taken their anger directly to the nation’s leaders.
Second, If the Trump administration would like to be treated with civility, it should lead from the front, modeling this behavior. But the sad fact is that extreme incivility is on display regularly from the White House. The President is a name-caller by nature, lacking natural civility or respect, ultimately, for anyone’s opinion unless it is also his own. He derides refugees, immigrants, people of color, and political opponents, even within his own party.
His campaign from the outset was based on belittling all who disagreed with him, and he behaved in the most childish ways during the 2016 campaign, coming up with nicknames to mock his opponents: “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary.” His continued sneering and jeering tone has infected the whole nation, lowering the level of discourse in almost unimaginable ways.
Can one imagine, for a second, either George W. Bush or Barack Obama sinking to the levels of rhetoric we have seen from Donald Trump, even in the heat of a political debate?
No matter how you feel about decorum, it is easy to understand citizens’ impulse to take action, in whatever small ways they can. If I were to encounter President Trump in a McDonald’s, I doubt I could restrain myself. I’d tell this divisive, disrespectful man to his face: “Shame on you, Mr. President, for tearing apart our country. I respect your office but not you. You’re a disgrace.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m beyond tired of seeing our President behaving like a grade school bully. Is there no dignity left in this office?
If the Republicans threaten to take away the health care of millions of poor people, including women and children, they should be called out for their behavior. If the Trump administration wants to separate children from their mothers and fathers, they deserve public condemnation. If Scott Pruitt gives polluting corporations the keys to the EPA, Americans can’t be expected to suffer silently.
If our leaders banish those who simply seek political refuge from violence in their home countries – similarly to our Pilgrim fathers and mothers, who in the early sixteenth century sought refuge from violence in their native countries – we should question their intentions and call them out.
These are un-American activities!
It may be wrongheaded to respond to the bluster and rudeness of the Trump administration with equal bluster and rudeness. But it’s at times necessary to fight fire with fire. In the abrasive and immoral universe of the this administration, silence and acquiescence are not an option.