The media’s “civility” game helps Trump
The Red Hen reaction shows how Trump benefits from backward media accountability
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, VA, this past weekend because the owner was unwilling to serve a senior Trump administration official who defends (among other things) the cruel and inhumane separation of migrant families and internment of immigrant children. This act of protest -- the most recent example of a senior Trump official being heckled or protested over the family-separation policy -- galvanized certain pundits who voiced a moral objection to what they viewed as a grave injustice: “uncivil” behavior by ordinary people toward perpetrators of a despicable government policy.
This ridiculous crusade was led by the Washington Post editorial board, which published a profoundly silly piece urging all of America to “Let the Trump team eat in peace.” Per the Post:
OVER THE WEEKEND there was a fair bit of argument about the decision by a small restaurant in Lexington, Va., not to serve dinner to President Trump’s press secretary. It wasn’t the first time recently that strong political feelings have spilled into what used to be considered the private sphere. We understand the strength of the feelings, but we don’t think the spilling is a healthy development.
I agree completely with The Week’s Ryan Cooper, who writes that this reaction is counterproductive and morally backward: “If there is any main wellspring of ‘incivility’ … it comes from the monstrously evil actions of the Trump regime.” Diverting the focus from the evils of the White House to the “uncivil” protest actions they inspire does the evildoers a tremendous favor.
The civility game does nothing but privilege the people whose views and actions are horrific. When the president does contemptible, anti-democratic things like ordering the separation of migrant mothers from infants and demanding that due process be eliminated, he and his lackeys follow a poisonous process in which the White House enthusiastically demonizes its adversaries -- Democrats, immigrants, journalists, anyone who objects to toddler internment -- while rigorously and woundedly demanding that everyone else follow the rules of polite discourse. The idea is that the president and his cronies deserve respect and deference no matter what they say or do simply because of the offices they hold.
This cynical posturing gets helped along by journalists and pundits who acknowledge that the president’s policies and beliefs are abhorrent but nonetheless self-righteously cluck their tongues at the “incivility” of the White House’s critics. The Washington Post editorial board writes that the Red Hen’s defenders are correct on the merits when they say that the child internment scandal is “no ordinary policy dispute” and that President Donald Trump “has ordered terrible violations of human rights at the border.” But even in the face of what the paper recognizes as a uniquely appalling violation of rights and norms, the Post still takes a swipe at those who are “justifying incivility” and asks us to imagine a world in which abortion rights advocates are harassed for their (constitutionally protected) views -- something that happens literally all the time and too often has deadly consequences.
This vapid argument was perfectly crystallized in a chiding tweet from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius:
“However troubling her views.” Her “troubling" views are the story! The despicable arguments and actions of the administration are driving this public backlash against senior officials. But elite members of the media are busily doing the White House a favor by prioritizing “civility” over accountability -- forget about the fact that she’s the mouthpiece for an administration perpetrating a deliberate evil against a vulnerable population; this senior government official deserves respect and steak tartare.
The endurance of this worldview in the face of broadly recognized illegal and immoral behavior does not portend well for the immediate post-Trump era. The end of Trump’s administration should be met with a vigorous and thorough accounting of all its misdeeds and criminality. Standing athwart that effort will be a coalition of bad-faith Republicans, badly misguided pundits, and calculatedly centrist Democrats who will argue that any attempt to investigate Trump abuses will be too “political” and contrary to the more important task of “healing” or “bringing Americans together” or some other nonsense. That was the mindset that helped shield the people responsible for the George W. Bush-era torture program from any sort of official accountability; in 2009, the same David Ignatius snidely dismissed people who backed “retrospective investigations of wrongdoing by the CIA” as “liberal score-settlers.”
The Trump administration’s aberrant and illegal behaviors are driven in part by the faith that the political and media establishment will be too cowardly and too self-absorbed to impose any real accountability. Given that official Washington can’t stomach an act of “uncivil” protest by a local eatery, it’s hard to argue that the White House’s faith is misplaced.