As Donald Trump throws infant immigrants into concentration camps, the pundit class has engaged in a debate over a pressing issue: should we shame members of his administration in public?
This weekend, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service and asked to leave the Red Hen, a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Although Lexington is seated in the conservative Rockbridge County, which voted for Trump in 2016 and held onto its Republican representative amidst the Virginia blue wave last year, the city is mostly Democratic. Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson felt uncomfortable with Sanders’ presence, as she felt the press secretary enabled Trump’s intolerance and bigotry. She also had another matter to consider: many of her wait staff identified as LGBTQ, and resented the press secretary’s support of Trump’s transgender military ban, in addition to his immigration policies. This being a democracy, Wilkinson asked her staff if she should ask Sanders to leave, and they voted yes, so she graciously deferred to them. As she explained later:
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation…I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
Wilkinson’s actions against Sanders were not the only instances of public harassment against Trump officials over the past few weeks – Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House aide Stephen Miller have both been heckled in Mexican restaurants – but it was the one that got the most buzz, as everyone weighed in on it, including Donald Trump himself:
The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2018
But while Trump’s reaction is to be expected, it was the hand-wringing from liberals that really rankled, as these tweets from David Axelrod and Soledad O’Brien show:
Well–I think it's a short path from refusing service to people for their political beliefs, to refusing service to people bc you disagree with them generally, to 'because they're black" or "because they're gay". If you're open to serve you're open to serve (in my opinion). 1/
— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) June 25, 2018
Kind of amazed and appalled by the number of folks on Left who applauded the expulsion of @PressSec and her family from a restaurant.
This, in the end, is a triumph for @realDonaldTrump vision of America:
Now we’re divided by red plates & blue plates!#sad
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) June 24, 2018
What’s more, The Washington Post editorial board defended the rights of Sanders and other Trump workers to eat in peace, writing:
“Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment. How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?
“Down that road lies a world in which only the most zealous sign up for public service. That benefits no one.”
With respect to O’Brien, Axelrod, and the Post, they’ve got this all wrong. The “civility” they preach is a high-minded relic of a bygone age when the left and right could actually be reasonable with each other (although I doubt whether such an age ever truly existed.) Ever since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Republicans have slowly degraded the concept of civility by lurching ever rightward. Donald Trump merely served as the conduit to strip away the dog whistles and bring American’s latent prejudice to the surface, referring to immigrants as “animals” and splitting apart their families for no reason other than to do harm. These people cannot be reasoned with in a civil manner. The only way they will understand how wrong they are is through public shaming.
It’s also tiring to keep asking liberals over and over again to be the “civil” ones in this scenario. With respect to Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high” doesn’t work right now, since the right is never going to meet us halfway on this. They can no longer be reasoned with, and whenever we call them out on it, they demand that we start acting rationally again, an act of victim-blaming that helps nobody. Scott Walker asked for this a few months ago when Democrats dominated the Wisconsin primary elections, but he’s a Koch-funded, union-destroying, Planned-Parenthood-hating trainwreck of a governor – and he thinks we’re the ones being uncivil.
Some liberals have tried to counter this by arguing that Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights marchers got what they wanted by being civil, but that misunderstands the radical nature of the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, it may have been nonviolent, but it didn’t succeed only for that reason. In the first half of the 20th century, the debate over civil rights had been split into two camps: the Booker T. Washington side, which said integration would only come through the development of black prosperity, and the W.E.B. Du Bois side, which advocated political action. The differences between the two men could fill whole books, and it’s wrong to dismiss Washington as out of touch (as Du Bois himself said in this interview before his death), but it’s clear that Dr. King and his allies were more influenced by Du Bois. For black men and women to sit in the Whites-Only sections of buses and restaurants and demand equal treatment was a radical break from what was considered “the norm,” and, by the standard of the time, uncivil.
Yesterday, Representative Maxine Waters, who grew up under Jim Crow laws, gave a speech arguing for the shaming of people like Sanders and Miller, using words that would have made King and Rosa Parks proud:
“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up, and if you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere… Mr. President, we will see you every day, every hour of the day, every where that we are to let you know you can’t get away with this.”
We have to start acting like it’s already Germany in 1935, or Montgomery in 1955. Racism and evil will always exist, but it can slither back to the margins of society if we listen to women like Maxine Waters and call out those who practice it when we see them.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.