Maxine Waters infamously called for the public harassment of Trump cabinet members resulting in general outrage on the right and condemnation from the left’s establishment. Her call raises moral and practical questions about weaponizing incivility for political purposes.
This weaponization is obviously nothing new—it presumably dates to the origin of politics and is a standard tool in Trump’s political toolkit. He used it with great effect to win the nomination of the party, violating Reagan’s famous 11th commandment. He also campaigned very effectively with this weapon, relentlessly violating basic norms of civility all the way to the oval office. While establishment Republicans initially condemned this approach, the protests about incivility on the right have largely fallen silent—except when directed at the incivility of the left. This shows that, at least in Trump’s hands, incivility is a very effective political tool. As such, Trump made a prudent choice when “deciding” to not change his behavior. Since the American left has only recently tried weaponizing incivility, it is too early to gauge its effectiveness for them. However, it is possible to speculate on this matter. I will begin with a metaphor.
According to legend, only King Arthur can draw Excalibur from the stone and wield it. While weaponized incivility is rather different from an exalted blade, the basic principle might still apply: only certain people can draw forth and properly wield incivility as a weapon. While others can attempt this, they might find that the weapon is cursed in their hands and bloodies them, rather than their foes.
Trump is, obviously enough, the King Arthur of incivility—he can draw it forth and hack his foes to pieces with its corrosive edge. He can do this for two basic reasons. First, Trump seems to be essentially immune to the usual side effects of incivility. This might be because it is part of his essential nature, it might be because he has established himself as a TV character that simply acts this way. So, just as most expect and accept poor choices from Homer Simpson, most also expect and accept incivility from Trump. Second, his base seems to really like his sort of incivility, even when he targets people they normally respect, such as war heroes and the parents of dead soldiers. His aggressive attacks make him appear strong and the efforts of the left to counter him typically make it seem that they are explaining. And, as Reagan said, if someone is explaining to the right, then they are seen as losing. While the left condemns his incivility, this merely strengthens the love of his base and pushes most other conservatives to defend him, since they think he is part of their political tribe. So, incivility is a magic sword for Trump.
While there might be a liberal counterpart to Trump somewhere, they have yet to emerge. As noted above, when Maxine Waters tried to weaponize incivility, she was attacked from the right and the left. All the known liberal politicians seem to lack the qualities of Trump that allow him to wield incivility so effectively—if they were to try, they would simply cut off their own limbs, metaphorically speaking. It is not clear that a liberal could have Trump’s relevant qualities, but this is an empirical matter.
While some on the left would see incivility as a show of strength that would appeal to the lizard parts of their brains and their monkey tribalism, most of the left would seem likely to respond negatively to incivility. Perhaps this would be because they really do have the qualities that the right delights in attributing to them as character flaws: sensitivity, empathy, niceness, and “political correctness.” To use a metaphor, even if a champion emerged on the left who could wield the sword of incivility, the sensitive liberals would be horrified by this. While some on the right might see such a champion as showing a respectable strength (that is, not being a sweet and sensitive snowflake), they would be more likely to condemn such behavior because it would be aimed at them. That is, your sword wielding champion is a hero, the other side’s is a villain. As such, it would probably be a poor tactic for the current left to try to weaponize incivility; it seems to be a tool best left to Trump. In the next essay, I’ll explore the ethics of the matter.