“Divisiveness” has become a major, much lamented theme in the time of Trump. The recent series in this paper decrying the lack of civil discourse encouraged the idea incivility is an issue itself, a style that can be separated from the substance of such problems as racism, immigration, mass murder, etc. That incivility is itself a threat to our democracy. This idea is comforting, making it seem that there’s a solution in just minding our manners, but it’s a distraction from the hard reality that the divisions amongst us are real and no amount of civil discourse can smooth them over.
A few days before the series appeared I had an email from a reader objecting to my referring in a column to Trump’s “ racist, xenophobic, fear-mongering, right-wing populism.” Such “name-calling,” he said, was uncivil of me. It wasn’t going to help heal the national divisiveness. He seemed disappointed, as if as a regular reader he had come to expect more of me.
I emailed back that in my understanding of “name-calling,” those four adjectives and a noun were not name-calling. What other words, I asked, would my reader use that would not be name-calling to denote a racist, xenophobic, right-wing populist? He didn’t respond, perhaps because he couldn’t think of any.
You are free to disagree that what many people think makes Trump a racist is not in fact racist. But if you think that his looking, walking and quacking like a duck makes him one, duck is the only honest word.
At first in characterizing some of Trump’s utterances, newspapers cast about for a euphemism for “lie” when it became clear to them that he was lying. It isn’t comfortable to call a sitting president a liar. But when what he said clearly contradicted a known fact, such as something he had said on the record a day or two before, and when it became clear that he made a habit of such discourse, most papers, even the staid New York Times, which still has a policy of calling everybody Mr. or Ms., pretty quickly decided that there was no more accurate or honest term for a lie than just that. That’s what the word was coined for, to denote a deliberate untruth and once you as journalist encounter what seems one, that’s the only word. (“Fib” is too cute, “Prevarication” euphemistically high-flown, “ misstatement” inaccurate when it was clearly intended, etc. )
It wasn’t nice for the Founders to call King George a tyrant and usurper, but those were the words deemed accurate and correct by those drawing up the Declaration of Independence.
What’s disturbing about the state of the nation is not that we have for some reason become forgetful of our manners, but that certain fault lines have been exposed. Trump—what he says, what he wants, what he does (and the fact that he has such an impressively large number of loyal followers)– has made it clearer than since, perhaps, the 1960s, that our country contains inherently antagonistic ideologies, values, and agendas.concerning race, immigration, our whole notion of what’s good and bad about our country. About what constitutes democracy. These differences are not bridgeable or healable by a change in language.
Genuinely civil discourse requires both sides to be willing to listen to each other, not just as simple courtesy or going through the motions, or perhaps to psychoanalyze what could be beyond such wayward thinking, but out of genuine respect for and interest in the other’s point of view. This respect is sometimes described as a willingness to learn from the other.
With many of the deep issues that trouble us such as the genuine answer for many is “No, we do not owe racism a respectful hearing. We have nothing to learn from white supremacy.” When, after Charlottesville, Trump suggested a moral equivalency between the white supremacists and those protesting them, that seeming civility was seen by many—most, is my impression—as itself evidence of his racism.