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.
Harry Reid, D-Nev. has no regrets about his 2012 claims that then presidential candidate Mitt Romney paid no taxes for 10 years.
The outgoing Senate Minority Leader even bragged to CNN that the comments, which had been described as McCarthyism, helped keep Romney from winning the election.
“They can call it whatever they want. Romney didn’t win did he?” Reid said during a wide-ranging interview.
So, in Reid’s world, it is perfectly acceptable to make a defamatory charge against an opponent to damage his campaign.
Mike, I agree that Trump is uncivil, but you need to open your eyes to the incivility coming from the left. After the way Romney was treated, the GOP voters said “never again.”
This reminds me of why conservative talk radio is successful and liberal talk radio isn’t. As Rush Limbaugh said many years ago, no one wants to listen to liberals whine, moan, and complain for three hours every day. People would much rather listen to someone talking about how hard work can bring them success, and how we can all make America great. The liberal anti-Trump slogan “America was never great” is simply too negative for most intelligent people.
Trump is aggressive, outspoken, uncensored and often uncivil, but I would regard that as “tactical”, not “weaponization”. As such, his incivility is, in my opinion, carefully planned and pragmatic – with very specific goals and intent. Of course, the difference of opinion may just come down to semantics. I would regard Maxine Water’s comments as more weaponization – as she is calling on the “troops” to harass and confront members of Trump’s administration. Has Trump ever done that?
As far as Reagan’s 11th commandment is concerned, well, we have talked about the state of government and tribalism today – one of the appealing things about Trump was that he really did shake things up – he called things as they were and drew out the pent up anger of the voting public. Reagan’s commandment was about party loyalty, something that I think has been doing more harm than good in this country in recent years. The Democrats have a much more firm grasp of that than the Republicans – the left looks with glee at the fractured Republican Party and their inability to present a united front. I’d actually like to see more of that on both sides – the staunch adherence to party quashes new ideas and thoughts, and leverages the “old-boy” network and quid-pro-quo.
I have to say that during the campaign I found Trump exciting and refreshing – he was saying things that really needed to be said and confronting career politicians in ways that had not been done before. It was very gratifying to hear them being called out on their lies, their hypocrisies, their party loyalty, their self-satisfaction. Of course, it is important to point out that my excitement about Trump was enabled by my belief that he would never, ever become president. When he got the nomination, I let out a very loud “Uh oh”. Be careful what you wish for.
Trump is civil when he needs to be, and he is just as roundly criticized for that as he is his incivility. In particular, I’m talking about his treatment of Kim Jong Un. Trump was civil to him when the world sat in judgement and decided that Kim was not worthy of civility – and from the look of it, progress is being made. That is, of course, very cautious optimism – especially given today’s news – but it’s more than can be said for the past.
One negotiating tactic that Trump uses very well to his advantage is that he catches his opposition completely off guard and elicits emotional, rather than calculated, reactions. While he appears as a brash, unrefined, “loose cannon”, I think that he is anything but that – it’s a persona that he puts forth that his opposition and those on the other side of the table respond to – and it works for him. I don’t think it’s to the level of a “magic sword”, but he is very good at it.
At one point in my life I was in the position of having to negotiate a contract with a company that was in a partnership with the one I was working for. I was completely out of my element – I am not a negotiator and I was unfamiliar with any kind of tactics of that kind. Nonetheless, it seemed like an easy process – it was basically the renewal of an existing contract that was, in my view, working well for both parties.
When I began the conversations with the representative from the other company, I found her to be stern, obstinate, unreasonable, and unrelenting. Her position was to completely undo and redo the contract in a way that would completely screw my company – and undermine a very good revenue stream for hers in the process. It seemed as though every compromise I offered she refused – and it seemed to me that she was enjoying the refusals simply on their own merit, and enjoying watching me squirm.
I responded exactly as she intended – with fear that I was going to lose everything (including my job), with anger at her, with emotion and with a reaction that showed that I was taking everything personally. Ultimately she relented on those points that would work in her favor and avoid completely humiliating me, and I regarded each one of her compromises as a favor.
In looking back, I know that this was the “Business” side of her – she was a skilled and adept negotiator who rose high up because she was able to get what she wanted. I would much, much rather have had her on my side, despite the fact that I despised her. That’s the way I feel about Trump. I’ve said before that when he does things like pull out of NAFTA or the Paris Accords, I believe it is just a first step that causes panic and scrambling – and forces the other side to come to him with the first round of concessions. If all he has to sacrifice is what people think of him as a person, I think he’s OK with that.
I think that behind closed doors there is some Trump in all politicians – we don’t see it because they have decided that their public persona should be more refined than that – but I think they secretly wish they could be doing what he is doing.
I’m very anxious to see how the trade wars turn out – my hunch is that Trump has got a few aces up his sleeve that will put the US on top of that one as well. Also anxious to see what happens with North Korea – this is not over by a long shot. It hasn’t even started yet.
Trump’s incivility is not a “weapon”, it is a “tactic”.
You do understand Mike’s reference to Reagan and the 11th commandment is only to make himself appear to appreciate a conservative standard bearer in the abstract? Now that history is far down stream, the winners and losers of such are somewhat set, it is safe to put on aires of being an admirer of the man. Assuming Trump serves a full 8 years, I very much expect 30-40 years from now a leftist much like Mike making the same platitudes regarding Trump. Leftists do this quite a bit when they want to appear all grown-up and stuff. Like a little kid marching around in Daddy’s shoes, it’s kinda comical. Kinda.
Phil Tanny says
Here’s a documentary about Roger Stone, a long time Republican dirty trickster going back to the Nixon administration, whose is arguably the philosophical godfather of the Trump incivility strategy.
Michael LaBossiere says
That is a great documentary; well worth watching.