In Praise of Incivility: The Appropriate Posture in a State of Emergency

July 10, 2018   •   By Marc Cooper

Don’t it always seem to go 
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone …

— Joni Mitchell, 1970


THE DENIAL OF DINNER SERVICE to Trump’s version of Baghdad Bob, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the public heckling of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, presidential advisor Stephen Miller, and Big Tobacco shill and part-time senator Mitch McConnell and his cabinet secretary wife Elaine Chao, have provoked a viral epidemic of pearl-clutching and panty-twisting among the Good Thinking People of the Beltway.

The Big Thinkers at the Washington Post Editorial Board, among the most zealous advocates of the invasion and destruction of Iraq, chastised those who were impolite to the Trump administration officials and called upon them to “let the Trump team eat in peace” and warned that only heaven knows what dark chaos lies ahead for America if this rampant incivility multiplies

Well, these polite Posties are, by accident, half-right. Incivility to Trump administration public officials — ejecting them, heckling them, shaming them — is, in itself, an insufficient response. They deserve much worse.

Need I recall the last 18 months of public life under Trump? Well … if you insist … His public eruptions, both spoken and tweeted, are a gushing sewer pipe of insults, degradation, defamation, contempt, and direct attacks on our democratic institutions. He perpetrated one of the greatest racist frauds in recent political history by insisting for years that Barack Obama was a Kenyan. He has stigmatized first Muslims, then Mexicans, now all legal and illegal immigrants, and persecuted asylum seekers. He, along with McConnell, have done their best to wreck health care for the needy. Trump has openly disdained our legal system and due process itself. He has appointed a mixed nut cabinet of clowns and bloated and corrupt oligarchs. (Sorry, I can’t quite figure out how to characterize the bizarre Scott Pruitt, former administrator and grave digger of the EPA.)

Trump is presiding over the most corrupt swamp of a US government in our history and will be lucky if his family escapes prison time. Mostly, like autocrats and authoritarians generally, he has governed by fear, endless lies, and conspiracy theories — ranging from FBI deep state wire taps to covert Democratic support for cop killers.

Nielsen and Miller, the former a bloodless beltway bureaucrat who is just following orders, the latter a social misfit and ideological fringie from Santa Monica High School, have been directly responsible for conceiving and implementing the horrific child separation and detention camp strategy on the southern border. Something, in my humble opinion, quite impolite. The American people, by a 40 percent margin, have been sickened by the images of children torn from their parents’ arms and tossed into jail or deported. The kids, meanwhile, languish — unidentified — in the Kafkaesque maze of a DHS-HHS and soon to be Pentagon purgatory; more than 2,000 of them are still unable to be matched up with their families.

I could go on. But why bother? Officials of any administration are fair public game for derision and ridicule. That’s part of the game. Officials of this administration deserve extra care and treatment. Dare I say enhanced incivility? We need much much more incivility. Indeed, we need much more Civil Engagement, Civil Organization, and ultimately, yes, Civil Disobedience. We need citizen action. People power, if you will. In more delicate political terms, we need what is called a Streets and Suites Strategy where the American people take some direct, hands-on measures to defend the institutions of the oldest democratic republic on Earth. Or are you willing to trust the immediate future of the republic to an unctuous Chuck Schumer and a sclerotic and feckless Democratic leadership?

Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s, in his anthology Hotel America, knocks the American electorate for its passivity and its evasion of responsibilities as, at least theoretically, the ultimate sovereign of the republic. As Kirkus Reviews summarized Lapham’s book,

[T]he American people are criticized for believing politicians who promote the republic as they would a resort hotel, treating the electorate not as responsible citizens but as guests. American voters, Lapham rails, would rather be coddled than act. Lapham believes that [only] “a raucous assembly of citizens unafraid to speak their minds” prods Americans to think creatively about the future.

That reference to a resort hotel promoter was written two decades before Trump was elected.

If the time for that raucous outburst isn’t now, when will it be? Let me be clear. I am hardly in favor of randomly seeking out Trump supporters and berating them or heckling them or punching them out. I’ve got friends and even family members who support Trump. In many, if not most cases, Trump boosters are also unwitting victims, either of their own ignorance, delusion, or both — often reinforced by 40 years of abandonment by the Democratic Party. Though I have been on the left in some form or another for a half century, I have always been an ardent defender of dialogue, debate, and, yes, civil discussion with those with whom I disagree. This is, however, a two-way street. Just as I will not waste my time debating flat-Earthers, nor will I squander my energies with those who are convinced that Obama was a Kenyan Muslim, that Latinos are killers and rapists, and that a child porn ring was run out of a pizza parlor by Hillary Clinton.

Yet, in my call for escalation of raucous incivility, I am talking about specifically targeting the officials, representatives, operatives, and institutions of this administration through a combination of vigorous street protest, nonviolent disruption, civil disobedience, and strategic voting and voter registration campaigns. And that movement should be as broad-based, as inclusive, and ecumenical as possible. But, wait, doesn’t incivility and disruption alienate that 10 percent of middle of the road “undecided” voters? Maybe. But I don’t care. Because a true resistance movement would not be worried about pandering to that indecipherable breed of “undecideds,” but would rather concentrate on engaging and organizing that 50 percent or more of eligible voters — mostly the poor and marginal — who while they bear the brunt of these noxious policies, simply do not vote, let alone act. Of course, they contribute no money and therefore are soundly ignored by both parties.

Further, it seems that the notion of American exceptionalism is held not only by the military-industrial National Security Blob, but also by much too large a segment of liberals, “progressives,” and others currently outraged by Trump. Americans are notoriously parochial and inward looking as a nation, but do they know nothing of the recent history of other liberal democracies in the world? Are they fully unaware that democracy is so precious that many millions who have lived under dictatorship and authoritarian regimes were willing to sacrifice, to take some bumps on the head, to bleed, and, in some cases, to die to defend the democratic rights they recovered after darker periods in their history? Whether it be in Spain, Greece, France, Italy, or even Germany, have citizens not resorted on many occasions to marches, occupations, blockades, and even barricades to defend their basic rights and to resist erosion of their social benefits? Aren’t the students of Venezuela now fighting and dying to rid themselves of the broken and corrupt Maduro government? In the last month, 200 people, mostly students, have been killed resisting a growing dictatorship in Nicaragua. And just this spring, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Armenia, with no real opposition party on the scene, spent weeks nonviolently in the streets to successfully force the collapse of an autocratic regime, the first real revolution in a post-Soviet state. Having spent a month in Armenia just a few weeks before the uprising, I honestly think that while it was a democracy on paper, there was no real or sizable opposition party and that was, in fact, a blessing. The people of Armenia knew that if they wanted real change and democratization, they themselves would have to seize the initiative and forgo investing false hopes in some intermediary political party.

What makes American liberals think we are so different from almost every other democracy in the world? Do we think we are somehow entitled to a clean-functioning democracy just because once every two or four years we spend five minutes in a voting booth or maybe make a phone call to a senator or two? How about our responsibility to fight for that democracy? Do we never need to actually get our hands dirty to defend what we have earned? Or as in the case of our now eternal overseas wars, is that just somebody else’s job? Perhaps the booby prize of the week goes to that mummified and bottomless font of conventional wisdom David Gergen, who lamented to CNN that “the anti-war movement in Vietnam, the civil rights movement […] both of those were much more civil in tone” than the current anti-Trump atmosphere. Huh? As a frontline veteran of that antiwar movement, I seem to remember that our guiding slogan was “No Business As Usual.” Perhaps I only imagined the massive confrontations with police, the clubbings, the killing of the Black Panthers, the COINTELPRO tricks of the FBI, the arrests and the tight cuffs that cut into my wrists. I guess when we chanted, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war,” we were using the Queen’s English. Talk about a political elite detached from ground-level reality! This is your man.

When Trump was elected I took a lot of heat from friends when I said that we were not entering a fascist period. I even predicted, and still believe, that a combination of Trump’s own incompetence and corruption will be the key ingredient to his eventual downfall (though it is easy and certainly presumptuous for me to prescribe a resistance strategy from my keyboard, I am more than skeptical about its real emergence). As a journalist and writer, I had also visited and lived under real dictatorships and knew what they looked like, I was an assiduous student of European history, and I saw — and I see — no real parallels between the rise of Hitler and the election of Donald Trump (though I have no doubt he would make a great obergruppenführer if he had been born 60 years earlier).

But I believe firmly and deeply that we are currently in a State of Emergency. That’s the term I choose. Our two major parties have been shattered, albeit in different ways. Congress is a cesspool of special interests and moral invertebrates. Our judicial system and our already timid press are directly threatened. And the pending nomination of a new Supreme Court justice by Donald Trump guarantees that our national crisis will continue long beyond Trump’s tenure. For the next generation — for at least the next three decades — we will be faced by an onslaught of anti-democratic attacks. Within a year or two, abortion will most likely be illegal in some 20 states. Roe v. Wade itself is now officially on the chopping block. There will be rollbacks of voting rights, privacy laws, anti-discrimination laws, and financial and environmental regulations. Executive authority and police powers will be expanded and the Fourth Amendment will become a punching bag. These are not just dour and gloomy predictions, this is merely simple political math. And we will face these challenges no matter who sits in the White House or, for that matter, Congress.

Do you think maybe we should start preparing for all this? Or do you think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are going to make it all go away?

Some gratuitous advice from this graying professional contrarian. To liberals and progressives: Time to really engage. Safety Pins, Pink Pussy Hats, outraged retweets, reposts, and other virtue signaling are insignificant measures for the emergency we face. It’s time to sit down in front of a mirror and ask yourself, quite seriously, just what, if anything, are you willing to risk or sacrifice for the values and institutions you claim to hold dear. If you are bothered by people heckling flotsam like Stephen Miller then you probably aren’t going to be of much help. Just give some money and stay quiet. But you forfeit your right to bitch and moan. Remember, this is a democratic republic, not a hotel.

To the more radical, and mostly younger among you, might I suggest you stop obsessing over your gender and your genitals, that you refrain from hiding behind such erudite but absurd terms like “intersectionality,” that you stop policing speech thereby excluding and dividing people? Here’s a novel idea: how about meeting other citizens where they really are, and trying to include them in a movement that builds unions, community organizations, and neighborhood associations; how about redoubling your efforts to find common ground with those that fail your litmus test and calling off your hunt to smoke out this or that “privilege” among others. We have one priority now and only one: coming together to defend democracy, to build an inclusive and effective and hopefully very raucous but strategic movement in the streets and the suites to weather the current and oncoming storms. The republic is at risk, and it is up to you to defend it and save it. Everything else is a distraction.


Author and award-winning journalist Marc Cooper is a retired professor of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism.