Societally it’s awful; politically it’s a gift.
The “it” in question is Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-Calif.) incitement to mob action, which bears repeating:
“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.”
And then on MSNBC she doubled down:
“The people are going to turn on them. They're going to protest. They're going to absolutely harass them until they decide that they're going to tell the President, 'No, I can't hang with you.’”
What Rep. Waters advocates is a long way from simply speech, or name calling, or even civil protest. She is calling for physically threatening, personally scary, and personally targeted mob action.
Many in the media, per pattern, are now attempting to reduce it to false equivalence – “Feud over civility in politics escalates amid Trump insults” was a Washington Post headline on Tuesday. Alternatively, others are trying the trope that President Trump’s comments in response to just such treatment are the real “threat” to “silence dissent” — never mind that the dissent has been deafening since the election.
But voters know the difference between incivility, social media screeds, and organized protests with proper protections in place for protestors and the public, on the one hand, and pop up mobs physically stalking, harassing, and intimidating the personal lives of those with whom they disagree.
That’s the language and tactics of goons, designed to chill, silence, and frighten, and intended to get out of hand, where someone does get hurt — because that is what happens when mobs feed on their own righteousness, or when the demonization and dehumanization inspires someone to become a one man angel of vengeance — think Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) or Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and the GOP baseball team.
Why would someone advocate for that?
The existential threat Trump represents has to be devastating to those whose identity and understanding of the world was tied to the status given in certain circles to the capacity to speak and write persuasively and compellingly about complicated policy matters, or to those who had mastered how things were done in Washington, and expected long sinecures in that game.
Everything they knew to be so — that each word they heard as hateful would be Trump’s end, that he couldn’t possibly win, that having won that at best he couldn’t possibly accomplish anything, and more likely would make things worse — has failed to bear out.
Worse, it has failed to come out despite their best efforts to ensure that their predictions came to pass. It is one thing to fail for want of trying, but worse to fail when you’re giving it your all.
They have two avenues — the impossibly hard one of being willing to go back and re-examine their core assumptions and their blaming of others (the Russians, the racists), and doubling down in shouting about the horrible movie they see unfolding before them, ratcheting up the rhetoric, thinking that if they just shout louder the ears won’t be so deaf.
But it won’t work — indeed it will backfire.
In work we did before the election, voters who were on the fence deeply disliked Trump for the expected reasons — they just disliked Hillary too. But Trump supporters were no admirers of Trump’s language or character — indeed, they could enumerate in far greater detail all his reported failings and areas of deep concern.
The difference was that Trump supporters thought the country was at a point of crisis. They believed what it needed was not a man of standard character who would yet again promise but not deliver — indeed particularly after Bill Clinton who cared about character? They thought that despite those flaws, Trump’s other hardened traits were required to withstand the vortex of Washington opinion, fight for them, and thereby save the country.
Now consider the context of Waters’ call, in which, per a CBS poll, only 21 percent of the country favor releasing illegal immigrant families into the country and trusting them to report back for a later hearing.
No longer is it just Trump voters, but many others who don’t favor “catch and release”, and who may not like Trump or how he does what he does, but like how things are going. They observe the shouting louder, and how that has morphed into the personal targeting of ICE and DHS and administration staff and their children, and Waters’ call to intimidation by pop-up mob.
What they perceive is a profoundly repellent track to anarchy, with which they do not want to be associated. And for many, they believe, should Maxine and #Resist prevail, that pretty soon it will be they themselves whom will be socially ok to subject to outraged protest, everywhere, over everything, at the mall, at the movies, in restaurants, in gas stations, for the heresy of their views.
You can understand Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other wiser Democrats trying to counter the Waters way. Ditto Trump, smelling how bad this is for Democrats, cheerfully exploiting it by linking the Democratic party to Maxine Waters.
But for the good of the country, let’s revisit President Obama’s words:
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Those were uttered in 2011, years before President Trump did anything to public discourse, and a prudent reminder that civil societies have standards of civility not least because those who are outraged today will be the target of outrage tomorrow. May wiser heads prevail.