While centrists deplore incivility in America, abortion rights come under threat

by Paul Thomas / 07 July, 2018
Maxine Waters. Photo/Getty Images

Maxine Waters. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Abortion in America

In Trump’s America, bad manners are the least of it: consider, writes Paul Thomas, the overturning of Roe v Wade and the end of legal abortion.

Who would have thought it? Apparently, the defining feature of Donald Trump’s presidency isn’t the Russian connection or corruption or the demonisation of the media. It’s not the assault on the concepts of objective truth and empirical knowledge. It’s not the pandering to the paranoia of the most ignorant and bigoted elements in US society.

It’s the collapse of civility; it’s anti-Trumpers forgetting their manners.

Ungraciousness abounds. Actor Robert De Niro and comedian Samantha Bee hurled foul-mouthed derision at the President and his daughter Ivanka; White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was ejected from a restaurant just for being Sarah Huckabee Sanders; administration officials can’t go out for a Mexican without being hounded by protesters; Democrat Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a 79-year-old grandmother, for goodness’ sake, calls for a society in which Trump’s people are made to feel unwelcome wherever they go. Where will it end?

According to some commentators, not all of them on the right, this amounts to losing the plot and surrendering the moral high ground. “The ‘civility’ debate turns on whether certain expressions of anti-Trump anger are justified,” wrote the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “and, if they are, whether they are nonetheless politically counterproductive.”

Strangely, incivility isn’t an issue when it flows in the opposite direction. Shortly after assuming the presidency, Trump welcomed ageing rocker Ted Nugent into the Oval Office. Nugent had called Barack Obama a “sub-human mongrel”, Hillary Clinton a “toxic c---”, and advocated that both be lynched.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her husband Bryan, who were ejected from The Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Photo/Getty Images

Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her husband Bryan, who were ejected from The Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Photo/Getty Images

Asking someone to leave your restaurant because you don’t like their politics or the company they keep is further confirmation, not that any is needed, of the fraying of the American social fabric. However, if a Democrat had been refused service, conservatives would have insisted the restaurateur was simply exercising a fundamental freedom. Witness their support for the Colorado baker who refused, on religious grounds, to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. (The Supreme Court recently overturned the state-level ruling of unlawful discrimination.)

The Waters episode is the starkest example of how skewed the civility controversy is. She issues her call to action; Trump attacks her as an “extraordinarily low-IQ person” and falsely claims she encouraged her supporters to “harm” his; Trump’s mouthpieces at Fox News label Waters “utterly psychotic and unhinged”; and propagandist-in-chief Sean Hannity blames her rhetoric – rather than that of the President who repeatedly describes the press as “the enemy of the American people” – for the attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom that left four journalists and a sales assistant dead.

But still liberal and centrist commentators deplore the anti-Trumpers’ incivility and predict it will alienate independents whose votes may decide the November midterm elections.

It’s sensible to keep electoral consequences in mind, although you have to wonder if citizens who’ve frequently given Trump a pass over his ad hominem abuse and would vote Republican because Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant really qualify as independent. It seems like a textbook case of not seeing the wood for the trees: the right creates a distracting sideshow as it presses on with its scorched-earth approach.

The Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Photo/Getty Images

The Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Photo/Getty Images

Blocking tactics

In 2016, GOP Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked any consideration of Merrick Garland, a respected moderate jurist whom President Obama had nominated to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia, the intellectual powerhouse of the court’s conservative wing. There was no constitutional authority or political precedent for McConnell’s insistence that it should fall to the winner of the presidential election eight months later to fill the vacancy. The nomination stalled; one of President Trump’s first and most consequential acts was to nominate ultra-conservative Neil Gorsuch, who was duly confirmed.

Blocking Merrick was a mini-coup that stopped a twice-elected sitting president from exercising one of the fundamental powers of his office and a repudiation of the protocols and conventions that grease the wheels of democracy. Now we’re seeing the pay-off. In a series of 5-4 decisions, the Supreme Court has recently upheld Trump’s travel ban on certain Muslim countries, ruled that it is legal for states to undertake proactive cancellations of voter registrations, approved a Texas electoral map that critics say is tainted by intentional racial discrimination, struck down a Californian law requiring pregnancy counselling centres to notify clients of the availability of abortions and made it more difficult for workers to band together to sue employers for discrimination.

With Anthony Kennedy, an occasional swing voter, taking retirement, Trump now gets to make another Supreme Court appointment. And it could get much worse: of the four liberals on the bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 and Stephen Breyer about to turn 80. It’s conceivable, therefore, that Trump could cement a conservative majority in the court for decades to come.

There’s a distinct possibility – some would say probability – that Roe v Wade (1973), the landmark decision that effectively legalised abortion, will be overturned. Given that recriminalising abortion is the religious right’s top priority and that after the midterms there’s unlikely to be a single Republican in the House of Representatives who supports abortion rights, a major assault on Roe v Wade is inevitable.

The righting on the wall

Right-wing populism, now the dominant force in US conservatism, sees itself as making a last stand for traditional – that is, white – America. It will do whatever it takes to entrench traditional America’s power and privilege (aka Make America Great Again) before that’s swept away by an unfavourable – that is, non-white – demographic tide. The populist right is now essentially hostile towards democracy because, over time and allowed to take its natural course, democracy will deliver the outcome that’s the stuff of their worst nightmares: a coalition of minority groups forming a permanent political majority. In that context, cracking down on immigration and stacking the courts with ideological conservatives who will sanction race-based gerrymandering make perfect sense.

Whether they embrace the label or find it offensive, the deplorables voted for Trump because they saw him as their champion in this existential struggle. The notion that they can be weaned off him if only liberals would be more civil is delusional and self-defeating.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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