Democrats and Republicans alike were climbing over each other to condemn Rep. Maxine Waters’ comments this week on harassing Trump administration officials. Rather than address the situation at hand, they’ve chosen to repeat the rote elements of a high school civics course. Be nice and play by the rules.
Democrats fretting about civility are clinging to a dead mother. Their opponents see them as vermin to be destroyed, and view “norms” as one more battlefield casualty on the way to their goals. Under the wrong circumstances, standing on civility can get you killed. These are the wrong circumstances.
Here’s the core of what Waters said:
For these members of his [Trump’s] Cabinet who remain and try to defend him, they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, to be able to stop at a gas station, to be able to shop at a department store. The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them until they tell the President: ‘No, I can’t hang with you,’
That sounds pretty confrontational if this is 1988 and we’re arguing over the appropriate level of taxes on capital gains for dividends, or which forms of steel should be included in a trade deal. This isn’t 1988 and your political opponents don’t give a damn about norms, decency, or even the rule of law. For an introduction to where you are right now, here’s an excerpt from an article that was making the rounds on Republican sites a week ago:
Close your eyes and imagine holding someone’s scalp in your hands. I don’t mean cradling his skull as you thousand-yard-stare at his lifeless face. I mean a real scalp, Indian-style, of some enemy you just killed on the battlefield; somebody you hated and who hated you back.
This grim work of masturbatory violence may be unusually macabre, but its theme has been standard fare on the right for more than a decade. It was written by former Republican Congressional candidate, Jesse Kelly. It was published in the supposedly thinky confines of The Federalist, in a piece titled “America is Over, but I Won’t See it Go Without an Epic Fight.” In it, he encourages conservatives to prepare for not only violence, but savagery, to meet their holy objectives.
You probably didn’t hear about that piece, because rhetoric in that vein has become so unremarkable on the right as to go unnoticed. While Nancy Pelosi clutches her pearls over a restaurant’s mistreatment of Trump’s Minister of Information, Republicans are debating the political merits of scalping. This isn’t new, and it didn’t begin with Donald Trump.
When McCain lost in 2008, there were no adults left in charge of the GOP and the “whacko-birds” ruled the roost. Neo-Confederates in the Tea Party unleashed a wave of violent, hostile rhetoric, slicing through the fragile cords of political civility. Norms that had restrained extremist abuses for generations were shredded. Most Democrats and Republicans have yet to acknowledge this post-Tea Party reality – that the Republican Party, led by its Dixiecrat wing, is close to achieving General Lee’s unfinished work.
During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, Tea Party activists destroyed public forums, shouting down participants with incoherent rants gleaned from conspiracy websites. Republican leaders either stood aloof, or egged them on. Protestors showed up to the offices of Missouri Rep. Russ Carnahan with a coffin. Then a coffin was left in his yard. Death threats against Democrats were common. Florida Democrat Ginny Brown-Waite received this gem:
Just wanna let you know I have 27 people that are going to make sure that this bitch does not live to see her next term. Goodbye.
Democrat Jim Clyburn received a noose via fax, along with his death threats. The always classy Palin weighed in with a new slogan for the midterm elections, “Never Retreat, instead RELOAD.” Along with the cute catchphrase she published a list a target districts marked with crosshairs.
Under one of those crosshairs was Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona. A man shot up one of her constituent events, killing several bystanders and severely wounding Rep. Giffords. Palin and the Tea Party never flinched.
A Republican nominee for Senate in Nevada in 2010 promised to use “2nd Amendment remedies” to get rid of Senator Harry Reid. A Republican Congressman shouted down the President during the State of the Union.
In 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy led an armed rebellion against the federal government. Republicans supported him. Sean Hannity featured him repeatedly on his show. By the time Donald Trump showed up promising to pay the legal fees of his thugs, the country was numb to right wing political violence. When former Congressman and talk show entrepreneur Joe Walsh threatened an armed revolt against Obama it barely registered. It’s tough to keep track of all the death threats issued by Republican star Ted Nugent. It just didn’t matter.
Finally, the Republican Senate Majority Leader blocked the President from filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Without so much as a fig leaf of legitimate authority, his vigilante action changed the composition of the high court.
Amid so much violent rhetoric, a speech given in 2016 by Governor of Kentucky and Tea Party darling, Matt Bevin, slipped under the radar. Do not presume to address Rep. Waters’ comments without placing them in the context of Bevin’s warning. In a ranting, improvised speech he described what would be necessary for conservatives if they lost the 2016 election:
“Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we, through our apathy and our indifference, have given away. Don’t let it happen.”
On the same day that the press was eviscerating Sen. Clinton for daring to call Trump supporters ‘deplorables,’ a Governor was laying out his plans to murder you if Clinton won. For some reason, decent people have been unable to comprehend this development and adapt their political tactics. It is almost too late.
Civility is a contract in which the parties agree to bind their own behavior to a set of agreed norms. It fosters an atmosphere of trust within which the democratic process can play out. There is no civility without a partner. Republicans abandoned this contract long ago, weaponizing their opponents’ assumptions of civility into a form of leverage.
Democrats and their allies in the resistance have already lost much, but they enjoy some strategic advantages. Trump lost the 2016 election, earning roughly the same percentage of the vote as McCain or Dukakis. Trump himself is a loathsome human being with no coherent objectives beyond self-enrichment. Even in pursuit of his party’s central priorities he loses focus, commits needless errors, and undermines himself. His administration has struggled to attract collaborators, leaving large swathes of administration and executive branch positions unfilled.
While holding a majority among the electorate, anti-Trump forces enjoy an overwhelming superiority in the marketplace. In confrontation after confrontation, corporate and commercial America has lined up with the resistance against the White House. Trump’s supporters are not only few in number, they are tiny in their commercial, cultural, and capital impact. Trump lost every major urban area in the nation, including Southern cities like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Charlotte. Trump even lost Salt Lake City. The overall GDP contribution of his support base is trivial. Republicans lack the legitimacy or raw strength to wield the power they have stolen.
In this moment, hold what you have. Commerce is king in the US, and the resistance dominates the marketplace. Use that leverage to stir a rebellion. There is still time to repudiate this monster through the political process, but only through a massive show of public will, a convincing warning of what we can deploy in a fight. Rep. Waters is absolutely right.
What the owners of the Red Hen did in refusing commerce to collaborators should be a model. It was peaceful. It was civil. It was just and it was fair. Make it hard for the neutral, the disengaged, or the cynical to align themselves with the Trump administration or the Republican Party. Deny them the ability to operate normally before their reach broadens. Make it difficult for them to function in any and every forum, and make it impossible for “nice” neutral people to support them without costs they are unwilling to sustain. It may not stop Republicans, but it will limit how much power they can accumulate ahead of a conflict.
Governor Bevin’s threats have been borne out by a president who threatens his opponents dehumanizes his favorite scapegoats. As a former Republican who watched these forces rise in my own party let me tell you from experience – the right will not allow a post-Trump era to dawn without being defeated by raw, superior power. These guys are not playing politics, they are on a mission from God, answering only to what they see as a higher, more important law. Demonstrating superior force publicly, peacefully, right now, could save a lot of lives. Wake up.