Trump officials have recently been on the receiving end of less than pleasant dining experiences. Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen and White House Advisor Stephen Miller were heckled at Washington Mexican restaurants and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia last week. After days of bleak news revealing parent-child separation at the border, the heckling was cathartic and utterly harmless; everyday people taking a stand against an appalling politic.
Then, at an immigration rally on June 24, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters applauded the recent public condemnation of Trump officials and encouraged more action: “If you see anybody from the 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,” said Waters. She added, “We’ve got to get the children connected to their parents, their children are suffering.”
That’s when the shit hit the fan: Meghan McCain went into a not-all-Trump-employees Twitter rage. Right wing nobodies salivated over another opportunity to cry foul against one of their loudest critics. The National Review said Waters’s speech was a “call for violence,” a claim echoed by Speaker of the House Leader Paul Ryan. And President Trump hopped on Twitter to call Waters a “low IQ person” and ended his tweet on a vaguely sinister note: “Be careful what you wish for Max!”
But Democratic leadership—centrists and so-called progressives—got in on the action too, denouncing Waters and the direct action of everyday citizens. In the process, they managed to make themselves look as unequipped as ever to effectively take a stand against Trumpism.
If loud, public confrontations are hard for some to stomach, they may consider the DSA protestors who bombarded Nielsen obnoxious. For those who don’t like name-calling, Miller being called a “fascist” might come across as nasty. And if refusal of service based on one’s political alliances seems unfair, what happened to Sanders looks terrible. But all of these incidents were non-violent confrontations made with marginalized people in mind. This wasn’t punching down, it was punching up. These encounters weren’t pleasant for Sanders, Nielson, or Miller, but it’s difficult to prioritize the feelings of White House staffers when they’re actively defending policy that separates migrant children from their families.
If you talk to Democratic leadership, however you’d have thought someone was assaulted, and that Waters was rallying for more carnage.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded to a CNN article about Waters in a tweet:
In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again. Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable. As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for “civility” during a speech on the Senate floor:
Many of us disagree with the policies of the current administration. In a country as large and diverse as ours, politics has always been a noisy, raucous affair. Probably even more so today. That’s okay! We all have to remember to treat our fellow Americans—all of our fellow Americans—with the kind of civility and respect we expect to be afforded to us. I strongly disagree with those who advocate harassing folks if they don’t agree with you. If you disagree with someone or something, stand up! Make your voice heard. Explain why you think they’re wrong, and why you’re right. Make the argument. Protest, peacefully. If you disagree with a politician, organize your fellow citizens to action. Vote them out of office. But no one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right, that’s not American.
He added that while President Trump resorts to bullying and meanness, his opponents should resist the urge to “fight fire with fire.”
But the president’s tactics and behavior should never be emulated. It should be repudiated by organized, well-informed, and passionate advocacy. As Michelle Obama, a person who represents the same kind of fineness that we’ve always had in America—complete contrast to the coarseness of this president—said, “When they go low, we go high.”
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker also chimed in. When MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Booker to comment on Waters’ approach, he invoked his policy of “radical love” and name dropped King and Ghandi:
If I saw an administrator out and about, there’s nothing wrong with confronting that person. But not to lead with love and to do it in a way that is more reflective of the values we are trying to reject in our country is not acceptable to me.
Former Obama advisor David Axelrod tweeted:
“Couldn’t disagree more with @MaxineWaters. Disgusted with this admin’s policies? Organize, donate, volunteer, VOTE! Rousting Cabinet members from restaurants is an empty and, ultimately, counter-productive gesture that won’t change a thing.”
Obama’s Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan also felt the need to weigh in on Twitter.
My personal opinion: No matter how much we dislike or disagree with someone, we should not deny them the chance to have a meal. The history in our country of denying people access to restaurants, to water fountains and even bathrooms is too raw, too real. We can’t keep dividing.
It continued. The Washington Post published a column entitled “Let Them Eat In Peace,” on Sunday, a drippy call for going high when they go low. Over at CNN, presidential advisor and commentator David Gergen claimed that anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights protesters were more civil than today’s protestors on the left. Bush State Department alumni and Trump critic Richard Haass was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and said that Sarah Huckabee Sanders being refused service at a restaurant “violates the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Evoking imagery like that of sit-ins at lunch counters in the 1960s is particularly ghoulish, as nothing these Trump officials experienced even remotely compares to the violence that black customers endured at segregated restaurants. Here’s what that actually looked like:
Considering the power play at hand when black anti-segregationists were on the receiving end of racial slurs, had drinks poured on their heads, were sprayed with insecticide, and were violently kicked out of restaurants based on the color of their skin, these comparisons are ludicrous.
The words of Martin Luther King Jr. are usually poorly used, so much so that even invoking his wisdom onto a given situation can become a limp cliche. But it’s hard to witness the collective hand wringing from Democratic leadership and their allies and and their call for civility without considering King’s word on the white moderate in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The modus operandi of King’s white moderate is the playbook of Democratic Party and centrist, Democrat friendly media establishments: Play nice; invoke the importance of civility to those who have none; don’t make too much noise, and distance yourself from those who do.
Who is this for?
A cursory glance at Twitter and anecdotal discussions with friends don’t represent the full spectrum of Americans who are depending on the Democratic Party (reluctantly or otherwise) to right some of the Trump administration’s wrongs. But it feels safe to deduce that if these calls for “civility” were meant for the Democrats’ base, they seem to be falling on frustrated ears. “Be nice to administrative collaborators and and conspirators of a sickening child separation domestic policy” is a demoralizing hill for Democrats to die on.
Constituents aren’t calling for powerful Democrats to support some kind of campaign of bloodlust, but they are tired of Democrats being spineless and more concerned with maintaining decorum than seeking justice. As a (good) Washington Post op-ed by former Gizmodo Media Group Special Projects Desk Deputy Editor Tom Scocca published Tuesday made plain, “fretting about ‘civility’ is a luxury for pundits.” It’s also the luxury of elected officials who can easily suggest that frustrated constituents just calm down and vote when their careers and schmoozy relationships with Republican counterparts on the hill depend on it. These are the “white moderates” MLK warned us about.
There’s something absurdly out of touch about party leaders, 2020 hopefuls, and pundits taking the time to dampen the harmless catharsis of seeing those who are paid to defend Trumps most shameful policy decisions being shamed in non-violent acts of direct action. It’s tone policing a constituency that is sick of the atrocities this administration gets away with, wagging the finger at those who don’t feel morally compromised by tales of powerful administration officials being mildly inconvenienced at restaurants.
The condescension and ahistorical comparisons won’t galvanize voters to the polls this fall. And if the Democrats continue to encourage their base to quell the peaceful, righteous anger of their base, they deserve to lose.
Correction: An earlier version of this article described Paul Ryan as the House Minority Leader. He’s the Speaker of the House.