On Sunday night, President Donald Trump was booed by a crowd of sports fans at the fifth game of the World Series at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. It was supposed to be a triumphant day for the president, after his announcement that US forces had assassinated ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (“He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Trump said. According to the Pentagon, these details are unverified.) But instead of greeting him with a hero’s welcome, the crowd reacted with disgust upon his appearance on the stadium Jumbotron. “Lock him up!” they shouted.
Crowds shouting in stadiums are not usually newsworthy. Even booing a president is nothing new; Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have all been on the receiving end of jeers at baseball games in the past. This time, though, pundits and politicians took particular note of it. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough was full of indignation, tweeting, “If you think that democracy is strengthened by calling for the arrest of political opponents, you’re as ignorant and illiberal as Trump himself. Delete your account and read some civics.”
Delaware senator and Joe Biden surrogate Chris Coons spoke to CNN about the incident, putting the point in more measured terms:
I have a hard time with the idea of a crowd on a globally televised sporting event chanting “lock him up” about our president. I frankly think the office of the president deserves respect, even when the actions of our president at times don’t. I certainly hope that we won't hear “lock him up” chants at Democratic rallies or at our convention. I think that's one of the most regrettable, even at times despicable, actions by candidate Trump when he was running for president in 2016.
Coons concluded that the whole thing reminded him “of things that happen in countries where rule of law is unknown or unestablished.”
But it shouldn’t. It happens everywhere. Coons appears to have never witnessed a session of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, in which Members of Parliament themselves carry on like football hooligans. This kind of behavior has been in full swing recently, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson being taken to task regarding his clumsy machinations over the Brexit deal. This week, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn took to the dais and recited a list of Johnson’s failures, which most recently included a request to the European Union for three more months of deliberation. “He said he would never ask for an extension,” Corbyn said. “He said he’d rather die in a ditch. Another broken promise.”
It’s not just the political opposition targeting Johnson in this way. In what has become a steady stream of viral videos, British citizens either encountering or talking about Johnson treat the office of the prime minister with no respect at all. “Please leave my town,” said one man in Yorkshire upon meeting Johnson. One of Johnson’s London constituents described him as a “filthy piece of toerag.” And yet he’s getting off easy, given that far-right Brexit supporter Nigel Farage has been greeted with a milkshake hurled in his direction.
These are all impolite things to do, and they are especially frowned on in politics. This has its roots in monarchical governance; in courtly Europe, etiquette developed as a way to convey and reinforce social status. Vestiges remain in the treatment of royalty — no British MP would jeer at the Queen. But in America, these codes of conduct are ostensibly divorced from those hierarchies. In her original 1922 edition of Etiquette, Emily Post remarked on this distinction:
Best Society abroad is always the oldest aristocracy; composed not so much of persons of title, which may be new, as of those families and communities which have for the longest period of time known highest cultivation. Our own Best Society is represented by social groups which have had, since this is America, widest rather than longest association with old world cultivation. Cultivation is always the basic attribute of Best Society, much as we hear in this country of an “Aristocracy of wealth.”
Historically, good manners were meant to show your class location; owners of property adopted a set of rules for behavior to protect their social standing. But today, even we rabble are expected to follow the rules, without access to the privileges they were created to accompany. The very rich can purchase this kind of treatment, in luxury interiors insulated from the general public. The sanctity of this kind of hierarchical service relationship is what made it so offensive, even to many liberals, that Trump administration officials Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen had their dinners disrupted last year, or that Vice President Mike Pence was singled out at a performance of the supposedly consensus-creating musical Hamilton shortly after he and Trump were elected.
Much of the response to the World Series incident has been to argue that Trump got what he deserved. He is culpable for actual crimes, say some commentators, which makes the chant justified. But that presumes that people of his social status should be treated with courtesy by default. The opposite should be true — if powerful people are going to go about controlling society in destructive ways, they shouldn't have the luxury of hurt feelings or perceived slights. Maybe it’s time we left manners to the rich — the rest of us can pick up a milkshake.