Since he announced his campaign for high office in 2015, President Donald Trump has waged a relentless battle against the dignity of American institutions, from the legal system to Congress, while tearing down, often viciously, any individual who might stand in his way.
The erosion of civility has not been restricted to the White House. In the wake of revelations of the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, protesters drove Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen from her dinner at a restaurant in Washington.
Then, over the weekend, Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia. The proprietor of the Red Hen described taking the action reluctantly, in the belief that it was morally necessary to stand against an “inhumane and unethical” administration.
Democratic pluralism has always required a set of behaviors as well as a set of laws. We count on laws to safeguard individual rights, but it’s more often behavior that protects individual dignity. We bestow respect on neighbors, including political opponents, not only to honor their humanity, but to honor and preserve our shared republic, which will cease to function if comity and compromise run dry.
No doubt Trump is the main threat to that vision. But his elevation of the worst of American politics requires that the rest of us try harder to prevent its triumph.
Even in these intemperate times, there are plenty of role models in the right places. Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska have spoken out against base presidential insults. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi this week chided Rep. Maxine Waters for stepping over the line in an attack on administration officials.
A commitment to civility doesn’t deny the high stakes of the moment.