In Donald Trump’s America, good manners cost something after all, finds Robert Philpot
Irony has been on lifesupport in the United States since a billionaire who allegedly made his money screwing his contractors and profiting from cheap overseas labour successfully posed as a friend of the American worker.
But its condition weakened markedly this week when, in the wake of Donald Trump’s press secretary being refused service in a Virginia restaurant, the conservatives exploded into apoplectic rage at the ‘death of civility’ in American politics.
‘The increasing personal nastiness toward people who work for President Trump reflects the left’s understanding that they are losing. Nastiness reflects desperation, not strength,’ declared Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives and the man perhaps most responsible for pioneering the politics of personal destruction in America.
‘Bigotry. On the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington VA. Or you can ask for the “Hate Plate”. And appetizers are “small plates for small minds”,’ wailed Mike Huckabee over his daughter’s truncated night out; the one-time presidential candidate clearly unaware how hollow those words sound from a man who built his political career on the back of rampant homophobia.
The decline of civility in politics is a serious matter.
We see it in Britain where politicians receive death threats from those who disagree with the votes they cast and are labelled treacherous for not following the diktats of the tabloid press; judges are branded ‘enemies of the people’ for attempting to uphold the rights of parliament; and journalists require bodyguards at party conferences thanks to the threat posed by cult-like activists, whose brains have been addled by the social media bubble they inhabit.
It is not necessary to believe, as the American diplomat Richard Haas claimed, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ treatment violated ‘the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’ (she doesn’t appear to have been driven from the restaurant by fire hoses, threatened with dogs or beaten with a night stick) to question whether refusing her a meal does much to advance the notion that it is possible for people to disagree without being disagreeable to one another.
There is also something about businesses deciding which customers they will or will not entertain on their premises which should make us feel somewhat uneasy – even if Republicans loudly applauded a baker who refused to to serve the former US vice-president, Joe Biden, in 2012, and staunchly defend the religious sensibilities of those who will not make wedding cakes for gay couples.
As The Times columnist Oliver Kamm suggested: ‘Institutions whose business is to serve food and drink aren’t private citizens issuing invitations to their friends and relations. They operate under the social contract of a liberal society. People can have multiple allegiances of politics, religion, national origin or anything else that matters to them, but all these affiliations are superseded by common citizenship under the rule of law.’
But such arguments do not entirely recognise the fact that senior members of the Trump administration are not just advocating and implementing policies with which many Americans disagree in the manner that always happens in a democracy where one side wins and another loses. Rather, they are aiding and abetting a man whose behaviour and actions have repeatedly violated democratic norms and whose politics are those of the far right.
Nothing illustrates that better than Trump’s child separation policy, the vile language the president uses to discuss immigration, and the manner in which members of his administration appear to find snatching young children from their parents a laughing matter.
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative commentator for the Washington Post, rightly noted that ‘the notion of shunning or excluding or heckling can devolve into philosophical hair-splitting as to whether someone has engaged in normal public service or whether they’ve strayed outside the bounds of decent behaviour’. But, in this case, she argued, ‘it is not altogether a bad thing to show those who think they’re exempt from personal responsibility that their actions bring scorn, exclusion and rejection’.
So let us not lose too much sleep over Sanders missing her dinner, young Trump staffers in Washington struggling to get dates, or the myriad other cruelties which the president’s little helpers daily endure.
Instead, spare some pity for the young boy separated from his father at the US border who was rushed to hospital this week because he was about to jump out of the second-storey window of the home where he was sent after being forcibly taken from his family.
Doomed to repeat it
Iain Duncan Smith’s grasp of history has always been slightly shaky. The former Tory leader could not even quite get straight details of his own education. It is, perhaps, understandable then that he chose the Daily Mail to launch the latest salvo in the Brexiteers’ increasingly unhinged war on British business. The business lobby, he wrote this week, were wrong about the Nazis, so why should anyone take their concerns about Brexit seriously? But Duncan Smith’s charge that the Federation of British Industries, the forerunner of the Confederation of British Industry, supported appeasement might have had a little more credibility had it not appeared in the pages of a newspaper which welcomed the Nazis’ victory in March 1933, applauded the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, and famously cheered Hitler’s fifth column in Britain, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.
Fast and furious?
A major breakthrough for gender equality in the Middle East occurred this week: Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive cars for the first time. Not too much has changed though – the Saudi authorities have underlined their new-found feminist credentials by locking up leading women’s rights activists on trumped up charges and smearing them in the press.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot
Photo: by VOA News [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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