For three years, Donald Trump has dominated America’s cultural conversation. In that time, he has accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers over the border, mocked a disabled reporter’s handicap, encouraged his crowds to physically assault protesters, and labeled journalists the “enemy of the people.” As President, he has done all he can to shred America’s life-saving social safety net, banned Muslims from entering America, and held migrant children hostage in cages. Now, Trump and his enablers are asking for one thing: civility.
The calls for peace come after a series of incidents involving Trump Administration officials in public spaces. Amid the political fallout from Trump’s family separation policy, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, because of her collaboration with an “inhumane and unethical” administration. Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s family separation policy, was heckled as a fascist while dining at a Mexican restaurant. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kiersten Nielsen, who lied repeatedly about the family separation policy, has been met with protests in public and at her own home. Politico even ran a feature on young Trump Administration staffers who can’t find dates because of their work.
Conservatives argue that these incidents demonstrate the left’s intolerance of political disagreement. Worse than that, they accuse the left of openly endorsing violence against the right. The most popular target of conservative angst is Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who recently encouraged protests against Trump Administration officials who are out in public, saying, “You get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called on Waters to apologize, saying, “When we, in this democracy, are suggesting that because we disagree with people on political views, on policy views, on philosophical views, that we should resort to violence and harassment and intimidation that’s dangerous for our society, dangerous for our democracy, and she should apologize and there’s just no place for that in our public discourse.” Waters never called for violence or physical assault.
Ryan and the far right willfully ignore the reality of modern America. The Republican Party is not a normal political party with principled disagreements. It is a fascist machine with no regard for human rights or the truth. They are in the business of hurting people – especially nonwhite, non-Christian, non-citizen, LGBTQ people. Calling for civility in response to such an adversary is like holding a boxing match where one fighter has to talk the other out of hitting him.
To take only the most recent outrage, the Trump Administration enacted a policy deliberately designed to destroy Central American families seeking asylum in the United States. Those who support and enforce that policy have more than a simple difference of opinion with those who oppose it. One side denies the fundamental humanity and existence rights of the other. Such people deserve no expectation of a peaceful meal, and especially are not entitled to the services of those they oppress.
Since the rise of Trump, the work of German historian Hannah Arendt has enjoyed renewed relevance. Arendt argued that the lies of the Nazis were not actually meant to convince anyone of a falsehood; they were meant to convey an intention. Fact-checking Nazi propaganda was mostly ineffective, because its purpose was never to win a fair argument. Its purpose was to incite supporters, but more importantly, it was to numb ordinary Germans into indifference at the atrocities going on around them.
Trump repeatedly calls out the press as “fake news,” echoing the popular Nazi phrase, “lügenpresse.” It doesn’t matter that the media, for all its myriad faults, tells the truth far more often than Trump. His relentless attacks are intended to rile his base and muddy the waters so that enough Americans won’t know who to believe. By mainstreaming that hostility to the press, Trump also allows the more fringe, white supremacist elements of his base to go even further.
Earlier this week, The Observer reported that Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right columnist and rabid Trump supporter, sent text messages to reporters reading, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Yiannopoulos then posted a screenshot of his texts to his Instagram with the caption, “Where is the lie?” On Thursday, a gunman strolled into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and killed at least five people. The shooting appears to be unrelated, but it’s sickening to know that Yiannopoulos got his wish.
Examples abound of conservatives inciting and committing violence. During campaign rallies, Trump regularly called for violence against protesters. Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte actually bodyslammed a reporter in 2017, an act of violence that was celebrated ecstatically by far-right propaganda outlet Breitbart. Last year in Charlottesville, during a white supremacist demonstration, an alt-right Trump supporter drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing activist Heather Heyer; Trump argued there were “very fine people” on both sides. Street-level acts of violence and bigotry are being emboldened by Trump all over the country.
Far-right violence and incitement goes way beyond the left’s incivility. After her calls for public protests against White House officials, Trump rather ominously warned Congresswoman Waters, “Be careful what you wish for.” Waters has since had to cancel an event because, she claims, “Individuals threatened to shoot, lynch, or cause me serious bodily harm.” Outside the Red Hen restaurant, which politely asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, a small contingent of dedicated Trump supporters have handed out KKK business cards, waved a Confederate flag, and held a sign reading, “LGBT – Let God Burn Them.”
Americans should always strive to maintain civility amongst our friends, coworkers, and neighbors, regardless of politics. But the far right isn’t interested in a reasoned debate on Trump’s brutal, dehumanizing, violent policies. Anyone who supports Trump with full knowledge of his actions and policies is a moral derelict, at the least. And anyone who actually works for Trump is willfully bringing America toward a fascist collapse. The appropriate response to Trump’s enablers isn’t violence, but it isn’t civility, either.