by David Greenberg · July 5, 2018
Firefighters extinguish a fire in Greenwich Village, New York, where Weather Underground members were killed where they made bombs. | AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler
History shows why Democrats shouldn’t take the low road.
This is definitely becoming a thing.
On Monday, a toddler-bearing mother confronted EPA chief Scott Pruitt at a Washington, D.C., teahouse and demanded he resign over allegations that he’s been using his office to line his pockets. And last month, inflamed by President Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families at the Mexico border, a handful of citizens took it upon themselves to ensure that certain administration officials couldn’t dine in peace. That controversy came hard on the heels of a similar flare-up weeks earlier, over whether celebrities should attack Trump and his family members with straight-up vulgarity (sparked by Robert DeNiro using the F-bomb at the Tony awards). And all these chapters merely belong to a longer-running saga about what kinds of tactics — boycotting inaugurations, stomping down invited speakers, punching out white supremacists — are suitable for protesting this president, his policies, and the dark vision of America he’s leading us into.
Although Trump critics are split about how to respond, many pundits on the left, in the wake of the dinner-denial incidents, seem to be tilting toward the view that we should unshackle ourselves from the constraints of human decency to fight back in kind. It’s easy to understand and share their wish to ostracize, shame or punish those who are complicit with the president’s agenda. Trump has led the way in discarding the norms and debasing the discourse of public life: crudely insulting political rivals and world leaders, touting vicious conspiracy theories, encouraging violence at rallies, and much more. Do he and his supporters really deserve respect, especially for policies like caging children?
Still, it’s important not to misread the Trump critics who are put off by these incidents or to deride them as “pearl clutchers,” as the reigning cliché would have it. No one is advocating that Democrats unilaterally adopt the Marquess of Queensberry Rules; and no one thinks that a press secretary’s dining opportunities matter as much as how we treat immigrants. The question is how to respond—whether to go high, in Michelle Obama’s formulation, or go low.
It’s a dilemma critics of the government have faced before, most recently in the late 1960s. In that time of turmoil, fears of creeping fascism weren’t quite as earnestly felt as they are now, but they were real and widespread. And in other ways the era was even more freighted with hatred and suspicion. In many people’s eyes, American racism, poverty and militarism had led to a national emergency, and the government’s policies — especially the prosecution of the Vietnam War — demanded extreme, even violent responses. Civil disobedience, mass demonstrations, outlandish stunts, celebrity activism, vulgar language, pornographic satire, Nazi analogies: pretty much every form of resistance we see today was deployed in the late 1960s, too — including accosting administration officials and family members when they ventured out in public.
The decade began with the civil rights movement, whose efforts brought about world-historic change. We sometimes forget that many of the acts we now celebrate as valorous instances of civil disobedience — the sit-ins to integrate Woolworths and other lunch counters, Freedom Rides to integrate interstate travel — drew fire at the time for their impertinence or incivility. But those protests don’t provide a proper parallel to the hounding of administration officials in public eateries. They have their analogues, rather, in today’s mass actions at the Capitol or the “nurse-in” at ICE’s New Jersey center — forms of confrontation that, I’d wager, none of Trump’s critics find petty or beyond the pale. In truth, the civil rights movement of the 1960s remains a model today precisely because of its Gandhian philosophy, its devotion to taking the high road, which signaled the nobility of the demonstrators’ motives and the justness of their cause and as a result won over public opinion.
Just a few years later, though, America’s political culture had changed dramatically. Despite the movement’s historic achievements. —and the success of liberals in securing scores of other major reforms — young radicals grew impatient with the pace of change, especially in Vietnam. Peaceful protests continued, but growing numbers of militants now styled themselves revolutionaries and adopted tactics to match. Groups like Weatherman preached and carried out violence, including lethal violence, which was deemed “as American as cherry pie” by H. Rap Brown, rendering ironic the name of the group he’d come to lead, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. (Brown, who now goes by Jamil Al-Amin, is currently serving a life sentence for murder.)
Most activists stopped short of planting bombs and shooting police officers. But many still blew past the boundaries of what nearly everyone considered legitimate protest. Demonstrators not only directed chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” at President Lyndon Johnson; they also accosted officials of his administration when they set out in public. In 1967, when Secretary of State Dean Rusk tried to attend a banquet of the Foreign Policy Association in New York, a radical group called Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers (often called “the Motherfuckers” for short) threw eggs, rocks and bags of cows’ blood, though Rusk slipped into the hotel unscathed. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was spat upon in an airport and called a baby killer; on a visit to Harvard, a hostile mob encircled his car and rocked it back and forth until police spirited him to safety via a tunnel. Antiwar radicals even tried to set fire to McNamara’s Colorado vacation home — twice. A few years later, after he’d left government, someone tried to throw him off the Martha’s Vineyard ferry.
The confrontations continued after Johnson yielded the presidency to Richard Nixon. Since the 1950s, liberals had regarded Nixon — as they see Trump today — as having uniquely trampled on the norms of American political culture. “Certain charges are not made; there are unwritten rules in the game of politics,” wrote Richard Strout, in The New Republic in 1958. “But the lethal young Nixon does not accept these rules. He is out for the kill and the scalp at any cost.” Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., agreed, saying Nixon was “the only major American politician in our history who came to prominence by techniques which, if generally adopted, would destroy the whole fabric of mutual confidence on which democracy rests.” The belief (not unfounded) that Nixon would stop at nothing in pursuit of victory primed his critics to spy danger in his every move.
This reputation — combined with Nixon’s own polarizing rhetoric and his failure to quickly end the Vietnam War — fed the left’s desperation. In his first years as president, violent radicalism spiked: A presidential study pointed to a national “crisis of violence,” with some 41,000 bombings or bomb threats during his first 15 months in the White House. In this context, the far left continued to directly go after members of the administration and even the first family. Various Nixonites recounted harrowing incidents in their memoirs or interviews. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a White House domestic policy aide, told Nixon in May 1970 that militants from Students for a Democratic Society had threatened to torch his Cambridge, Massachusetts, house, forcing his family to go underground. His 10-year-old son, John feared his father would be assassinated.
Julie Nixon, the president’s daughter, also paid a price. Often a target of invective — at one rally at Smith College, which she attended, a crowd of 10,000 chanted, “Fuck Julie and David Eisenhower” — she was set to graduate in the spring of 1970 when the campuses, in the wake of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, turned violent. Because of threats, the Secret Service insisted that the president not attend. Julie accepted the decision, writing to her father’s aide John Ehrlichman, “I truly think the day will be a disaster if he comes,” but the thought of her father missing the event brought her nearly to tears.
Hearing these stories, many will respond: Boo-hoo. What’s Julie missing her father at graduation compared to the strafing of Cambodia? But the point is not that Julie Nixon or Robert McNamara was done a grave injustice, any more than discomfort with the treatment of Sarah Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen means seeing them as victims. The reason to maintain standards of conduct and preserve a non-political space of human interaction is not to protect particular politicians and government officials. It’s to protect America, to uphold the political culture we value.
Trump and his followers have already shown their contempt for the practices and gestures that help us live amicably with our ideological opposites. Joining Trump in the project of trashing the unwritten rules of public conduct won’t change his policies or governing style. But it will betray our own values and make it harder, once he’s gone, to reconstitute a decent, humane politics. We have nothing to gain from the eradication of a politics-free zone, from a war of all against all that greenlights once-verboten behaviors and permeates once-private spaces.
Besides, as the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s show, the outrageous and obnoxious antics of the militant left ended up hurting their cause. The taunting of public figures isn’t well remembered, and neither will history long record June’s showdown at the Red Hen. But insofar as these actions stem from a determination to score political points by violating civil norms, they — and the repellent and violent methods of extreme protesters more generally — engender a backlash and alienate allies. By 1972, we should recall, a majority of Americans had come to oppose the Vietnam War, but greater numbers opposed the antiwar movement. Nixon cannily positioned himself as upholding law and order — a helpfully ambiguous phrase that lumped together the threats of rising crime, urban riots and rowdy left-wing activism. His invocation of the “silent majority” aimed to bring together those who were put off by the noisy, disruptive and politically extreme protests. Trump, who has openly borrowed Nixonian terms like “law and order” and “silent majority,” has already been using the confrontations with his administration’s officials to shift the discussion from his immigration policies and onto the left’s behavior.
There is a middle ground. It’s entirely possible to take a principled stand against the Trump administration while hewing to honorable methods. In November 2016, Vice President Elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” He wasn’t turned away, yelled at, or threatened. But after the show, one actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, spoke for the ensemble in thanking Pence for his presence and then expressing their fears. “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Trump, of course, still tweeted angrily that Pence was “harassed” and the mild protest was no more effective than was last month’s hounding of Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant. But Dixon and the Hamilton cast put their message across just the same, and they managed not to join Trump in a race to the bottom.
Politico · by David Greenberg · July 5, 2018