The Frail ‘Rules’ of Rhetorical Courtesy

It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of an insecure and needy leader.

Periodically civil discourse in the United States withers. The remarks of some public officials are intemperate and too many are compliant. Those of us who have been around awhile remember Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 declaration of segregation “forever:” certainly a low point in the American project.  More commonly, agitation for change motivates activists to defy the rhetorical norms of social discourse in favor of the rougher ‘music’ of personal condemnation, leaving little room for finding middle ground. There have always been moments in our history when this kind of incivility gains the upper hand: for example, in the vilification of President Lincoln by even the abolitionist press, or during the 1968 presidential campaign, when tensions over the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the assassinations of MLK and RFK brought the melting pot to a boil.

We are in another such period.  But this time the challenge to civil order has not originated from angry newspaper editors or youthful marchers in the streets of Chicago, but from the single agent of the Commander-in-Chief.  The President of the United States is a full-time social disruptor with an unhelpful penchant for trashing core values in the American canon.  Listening matters less than judging. Arguments with evidence are not worth the time.  Facts and even prior statements are disowned.  Self-promotion dominates over self-reflection.  Our best political norms emphasizing tolerance and a degree of generosity have never seemed more frail.

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president. 

If we were unprepared for how silent the Constitution and the President’s party can be in reining in a chronic norms-breaker, many Americans have been stunned by the almost daily verbal slights and discourtesies Donald Trump shows toward ordinary citizens, neighbors, trading partners, immigrants, the press, and especially the nation’s traditional allies.  It seems that women who lead our most important international partners are especially in for unhealthy doses of disrespect.  Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is our most powerful ally; Britain is our closest. It was a breathtaking violation of international norms to hear a President dressing down a British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview given within hours of meeting her face to face.  He noted in Britain’s Sun that, among other things, a rival within her own party would make a good prime minister, making a mockery of his role as her guest.  (He later offered kinder words, like a sullen teen asked to ”make an effort;” it’s a recurring pattern where Trump is forced by his handlers to issue a rhetorical corrective.)

It was just a few years ago we heard a very different message in a 2012 joint statement released jointly by Barack Obama and then Prime Minister David Cameron:

"The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by history, traditions and values we share.  But what makes our relationship special--a unique and essential asset--is that we join hands across so many endeavors.  Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance."

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president.  Not even an old Marx Brother movie can match the rude assaults dished out by the former reality show personality.  It’s as if we have been locked in a dingy bar with an insult comic who won’t leave the stage. It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of a fearful and needy leader.