After a long week of sincerely pleading with President Donald Trump to reunite migrant children with their parents, the brave men and women of our country’s newspapers and cable news shows deserved an opportunity to pull out some old-fashioned low-stakes contrarianism. Fortunately for them, the new hot-button issue is whether employees of the reigning administration should be able to enjoy a meal in public without their constituents loudly reminding them of their own shittiness. Such an event hits on the commentariat’s two favorite topics: casual dining and the role of civility in political discourse. They simply cannot get enough of these discussions, and the rest of us will likely have to endure New York Times op-eds and CNN roundtables about restaurant etiquette for at least another week. All of it is unbearable, but we cannot let the cascade of takes exhaust us into thinking the genesis for this news cycle, members of the Trump cabinet being humiliated in public, does not own. It owns.
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
There have been several restaurant episodes in the past month for self-appointed arbiters of civility to sink their teeth into. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who became the public face of the Trump administration’s policy of separating mothers from their babies at the U.S.-Mexico border after she defended it in a press conference last week, was heckled during an ill-advised trip to a Mexican restaurant, as was adviser Stephen Miller. And Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was enjoying a cheese board at a restaurant in Lexington, VA last Friday when the owner asked her to leave, an indignity she immediately chronicled on her official government Twitter account.
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 23, 2018
These confrontations prompted a level of concern from the D.C. media class that we typically only see when someone questions John McCain’s flying ability or dares to disrespect Charles Murray. Ari Fleischer, former Press Secretary under George W. Bush, tweeted “Do the fools who threw Sarah out, and the people who cheer them on, really want us to be that kind of country?” Matthew Dowd, chief political analyst for ABC News, tweeted that “If a hateful person makes you hate, they win. If a bully makes you bully, they win. If a vulgar person makes you vulgar, they win. Let us meet hate with love. Let us meet bullying with an embrace. Let us meet vulgarity with civility. This is how our country and world win.” (Counterpoint: November 8, 2016.)
If a hateful person makes you hate, they win. If a bully makes you bully, they win. If a vulgar person makes you vulgar, they win. Let us meet hate with love. Let us meet bullying with an embrace. Let us meet vulgarity with civility. This is how our country and world win.— Matthew Dowd (@matthewjdowd) June 25, 2018
The editorial board of The Washington Post also felt that these mundane restaurant stories about evil people getting lightly scolded were evidence of a disturbing pattern. In the unsigned editorial “Let the Trump team eat in peace,” published June 24, they argue that these confrontations, however well-intentioned, will open a Pandora’s Box of rudeness. “Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many [conservative] Americans might find their own special moment,” they wrote, somehow forgetting about the recent upswing in far-right violence and literally everything Trump has said and done.
Puzzlingly, columnists in mainstream newspapers — who are typically the first group to raise alarm whenever Trump violates a norm or deviates from standards of decency set by George Washington — are also fond of the idea that the president and his cohorts are holding back their worst impulses as part of an unspoken non-aggression pact with Democrats. If liberals decide to yell at Sarah Huckabee Sanders in public, it will give Trump and his notoriously demure supporters the excuse they were waiting for to act like assholes. This is absurd on its face, as are the hypotheticals it begets: “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?” It is not, in fact, very hard to imagine that. Abortion providers and patients are routinely hassled by protesters all over the country, and as recently as 2015 a right-wing zealot killed three and injured nine at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. The Post editorial board is either completely unfamiliar with the history of anti-abortion violence, or believes that conservatives are a few bad restaurant experiences away from launching a violent insurrection.
This is absolutely insane - and extremely dangerous. My father in law works in the administration, does this mean when we go out to dinner we should be ambushed?!? Don’t ever again give me any of the “when they go low, we go high” lip service. https://t.co/UF1feYT0Pm— Meghan McCain (@MeghanMcCain) June 24, 2018
The subtext of these nonsense arguments is obvious: the political media class relishes the ability to forget that their actions and affiliations have real-world consequences, and these new developments pose a threat to their cross-ideological schmoozing. It is no coincidence that many of the people most concerned about these new developments in restaurantpolitik are engaged in an effort to carve out a niche between the two major parties.
Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain, is one of these people. As a co-host of The View, she last week criticized the policy of separating families at the border. On the other hand, her husband Ben Domenech, whose father works for the Secretary of the Interior, co-founded The Federalist, a Breitbart-lite news outlet whose coverage of the border debate has been decidedly pro-Trump. (Some sample headlines from the past week: “3 Benefits Of A Border Wall That No One Is Talking About,” “No, Americans Who Want Border Security Aren’t Anti-Immigrant,” and “Trump’s Immigration Policies Are Actually Pretty Popular.”) That someone might notice this discrepancy between her cosmopolitan public persona and her actual affiliations is cause to make McCain a bit twitchy, and she showed her hand on Twitter: “My father-in-law works in the administration, does this mean when we go out to dinner we should be ambushed?!?” At least she, unlike many media figures, had the integrity to drop the facade of high-minded morning-television moralism and admit that her true worry is that she might be called on her own rank hypocrisy.
California Rep. Maxine Waters ushered in the second act of this awful media storyline in a speech on Saturday: “...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,” she said. This created an opening for Democrats to tsk-tsk their own base for being too enthusiastic, a strategy that has literally never worked. “No one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That's not right. That's not American,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on Monday. “Bullying Trump supporters or those who work for him makes the likes of Waters no better than Trump himself,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who somehow continues to provide more evidence that he is the dumbest man alive, wrote.
These concessions, of course, did not stop the right-wing outrage factory from twisting Waters’ call for nonviolent protest into a call for outright political violence. As always, like a dog presented with the opportunity to eat his own shit, Trump contributed a frenzied, oddly-capitalized tweet. “Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an extraordinarily low IQ person, has become, together with Nancy Pelosi, the Face of the Democrat Party. She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement. Be careful what you wish for Max!”
Again, the idea that shouting “shame” at a Trump cabinet member in public will violate an unspoken truce between liberals and conservatives is completely ahistorical; the best evidence for this is that Trump, a hugely stupid man, believes this truce to exist. The president has apparently forgotten that he repeatedly called for his political opponents to be “locked up” and has incited his crowds to violence; recall the February 2016 incident in which he encouraged his supporters to “knock the crap” out of protestors and promised to pay their legal fees. Even before that, Obama, a man who spent his career abiding by his wife’s “when they go low, we go high” mantra, was heckled by Tea Party representatives on the floor of Congress. This kind of boorish behavior greatly pleases the GOP base, and avoiding it on principle opens incumbents up to far-right primary challengers. This incentive to eschew civility has existed for at least a decade, and it will continue to exist regardless of how Democrats choose to behave.
Commentators who made a big deal of mourning the loss of political norms destroyed by Trump during the election have rationalized them back into existence, like a phantom limb, because they cannot understand the political reality of the late 2010s any other way. For better or for worse, norms, civility and decency are no longer part of American politics, and no amount of nostalgia for the old ways will bring them back.