Recovering civility

How can the United States recover its culture of civility and mutual respect after the bitter, unlimited toxicity of the current presidential campaign? The Trump campaign — the candidate himself — has gone in for an unbridled rhetoric of hatred, suspicion, racism, and white supremacist ideology that seems to have created a durable constituency for these hateful ideas and actions. Even more troublingly, the candidate has cast doubt on the democratic process itself and the legitimacy of our electoral institutions.

Deeply worrisome is the fact that the candidate is attempting to mobilize support purely on the basis of hatred and contempt for his opponent. He has provided virtually no sustained exposition or defense of the policy positions he advocates — anti-immigrant, anti-trade, anti-NATO, anti-Fed, anti-government. Instead, his appeals amount ultimately to no more than a call to hatred and rejection of his opponents. His repeated and unprecedented threat to jail his opponent if he is elected is simply the most extreme expression of this approach.

Most senior Republican leaders have swallowed their own principles and have accepted these political appeals — even as many observers have noted how much the current rhetoric resembles the fascism of the 1930s and the 2000s (link). If ever there was a time for principle over partisan interest, now is that time. The foundations and stability of our democracy are at stake. Republican leaders, including Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, need to stand up and denounce these fundamentally anti-democratic attacks on our electoral institutions. (Bravo to the relatively few Republican leaders who have refrained from supporting Trump for president, including Governor Snyder of Michigan, and the larger number of officials who have withdrawn their support following the release of the Access Hollywood tapes.)

If even a fraction of the voters who currently support the Trump candidacy do so with a positive endorsement of the racism and ethno-supremacy that the Trump campaign projects, then there are tens of millions of alt-right partisans in our polity (link). It is an urgent and pressing problem to find strategies for beginning to bring these people back from the brink of right wing extremism and hate.

An optimistic possibility is that the extremism currently visible at Trump rallies is just a short-term eruption, which will subside in the months following the election. Emotions will calm down, and people will return to a more normal state of mind. This doesn’t seem very likely, given the virulence of hatred, suspicion, and animosity currently on display among many of Trump’s supporters. It seems unlikely that these activists will quietly morph into tolerant and civil citizens.

Another view is that the goal is unattainable. It is very uncommon for hate-based partisans to change their attitudes and actions. So perhaps the best we can do is to minimize the likelihood that these individuals will do harm to others, and to maximize the impact and public visibility of more liberal people and movements. (The term “liberal” here isn’t grounded in left-right orientation but rather the values of open-mindedness, tolerance, mutual respect, belief in democracy, and civility. Conservatives can be liberal too in this sense.)

A related possibility is that we will have to acknowledge the presence of hate-based extremists and organizations among us and work aggressively to build up a broader (and younger) constituency for progressive and tolerant values to present a stronger voice in support of inclusion and democracy. This is not so different from the current situation in some Western European democracies today, where virulent extremist political organizations compete with more inclusive and democratic organizations.

It is urgent for law enforcement agencies to exert renewed vigilance against armed and violent attacks by the far right in the coming months. The planned attack by an extremist Kansas militia group against Muslim Somali immigrants apparently foiled by the FBI only a few days ago (link) is precisely the kind of extremist violence that seems possible and that our country needs to work hard to prevent.

Republican leaders must help. When the voters speak on November 8, leaders throughout the country need to stand up for a peaceful and democratic transition. Most Americans recognize the value of fair play, and most will recognize that this election was a fair expression of the will of the people at this time in our history. Other elections will go the other way in the future. November 8 will be a day when it is crucial to accept the legitimacy of the electoral process, and a time to move forward for the best interests of our country. And we may hope it begins to prepare for a time when the surges of racism and hatred towards others have subsided into a more civil tenor for American life.