Civility in the Age of Trump

Fake news. Alternative facts. Fictitious terrorism. Conspiracy theories about paid protestors. We are suddenly in a time of indifference to truth, and many are pointing the finger at President Trump, a man who has demonstrated a total disregard for reality if it interferes with his own plans and preferences. But Trump is just the inevitable result of Republicans’ long slide into alt-reality. During Trump’s campaign, many Republicans were depicted as shocked and appalled by Trump’s abuses, but on closer inspection it is clear that they embrace the fundamentals of Trumpism: deny, distract, and delegitimize the opposition by whatever means available. Plant conspiracies and reverse the burden of proof. Best of all, project these abusive intentions onto others. Insist that it’s really Democrats or “the media” or even your own constituents who are the ones really doing these things. It’s been a Republican strategy for a long time. Remember when Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” years ago? It was in reference to this kind of spin. 

Just this week congressman Jason Chaffetz, from my home state of Utah, faced hostile constituents at a town hall meeting. He deflected most questions and offered canned non-specific responses, which further upset the crowd. His response was to de-legitimize, alleging (without any evidence) that they were “paid agitators from out of state”. When questioned by the local media (who are usually reliably conservative), Chaffetz attempted to reverse the burden of proof, saying “do some reporting,” as though “the media” has some responsibility to prove his fantasies for him. Then he projected his own bad faith onto his constituents, accusing them collectively of “bullying and intimidation,” somehow forgetting his own rise to prominence as part of the rowdy Tea Party movement that unseated the previous Republican establishment. In short, Chaffetz exploits the rudimentary tools of Trumpism. He’s made it clear that he answers to no one — not the reliable Republican voters in his district who support him no matter what he does, and certainly not the Democratic voters who will never support him. He’s in it for himself, he does what he wants and he basically tells us so.

Last week Marco Rubio delivered a rousing speech to the US Senate on the subject of civility. It did not make a huge splash in the news, but was steadily spread and shared by liberals and conservatives alike. Rubio’ call for civilized debate resonated with many who are aghast at our current state of discourse. There’s just one problem: his speech was delivered with an Orwellian intent to defend the pathological distortions of the Trump administration and his cabinet appointments. I’m of the opinion that there is no civility in lies, and it is a false civility that shields a lie while censoring the truth

Rubio’s speech was made just after Elizabeth Warren was removed from the Senate floor, aimed at her. Her crime was to read aloud letters by Corretta Scott King and Ted Kennedy attesting to the character of a cabinet nominee, Jeff Sessions.  Senate Republicans exploited a rule on civility — a senator may not “impugne” the character of another senator — and since the cabinet nominee happens to be a senator, no one is allowed to question his character. But since the whole point of senate hearings is to asserts the qualifications and character of cabinet nominees, this rule forces Democrats to sit silently while Republicans rubber-stamp the nomination, all in the name of “civility.” The rule, applied in this context, is a distortion, a lie. And Rubio wallowed in it while pretending to follow the high road.

I’m an academic working in the hard sciences, and we have a clear process for dealing with deliberate lies and distortion: the offender gets to walk the plank (professionally speaking). There is no need for civility; once a person is proven to have committed fraud, they should be whisked out of their career so fast that it leaves no time for any discourse, civil or otherwise. But recent events have shown that politics is startlingly different. Trump is a pathological liar who wants everyone to know he is lying. He wants us to know he doesn’t answer to us, he doesn’t need to concern himself with what’s true or false. He’s above truth, above us. That is perhaps the single greatest abuse of power in a republic — for an elected official to demonstrate no accountability to the citizens, to deny us an honest reporting of basic government functions.

Getting back to  Jason Chaffetz: he is perceived as having a unique responsibility to check presidential abuse. I lived in Chaffetz’s district for much of my life (I’m now in an adjacent district). Before the election, Chaffetz promised to be “like a kid in a candy store” investigating conflicts of interest and any misdeeds done by Trump and his administration. But post-election Chaffetz has turned out to be more of a cheerleading lapdog. For his own part, Chaffetz is busy pursuing his own fringe ideology, trying to abolish federal agencies like the Dept of Education, propositions which have the support of less than 20% of the general public. That’s an extraordinary abuse of a representative office: pushing the limits of one’s personal fringe ideology against massive public disapproval. So what’s the moral difference between Chaffetz and Trump? I don’t see one.

And what about the remaining Republican senators and representatives? What moral high ground can they take after so forcefully collaborating with a president who disregards his accountability to the American people? After rubber-stamping cabinet approvals for unqualified and questionable appointees? After crying obstruction when the record shows — to anyone interested in simply looking things up — that Trump’s appointments are proceeding faster than previous administrations.  Rubio’s call for civility is a slander against civility itself. It’s time for all of us to call a spade a spade, and to concern ourselves more with the substance of discussion than with the superficial facade of civility.   

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