What happens to a democracy when justice loses its mooring as a democratic principle, and can no longer be a moral guidepost, let alone a central organizing principle of politics? What happens to rational debate, civic culture and the common good?
There is more at issue in the discourse of “incivility” than ideological obfuscation and a flight from social responsibility on the part of the dominant classes. There is the reality of Trump’s language of violence and hate, which labelling “uncivilized” will only serve to reproduce existing modes of domination and concentrated relations of power. There is also the corollary of minimizing Trump’s behavior as merely “uncivil”: When his opponents engage him using argument, evidence and informed judgment – when they hold power accountable or display a strong response to injustice – their arguments can similarly be dismissed as a species of bad manners, rude behavior or even the effect of self-preening, liberal lifestyle choices associated with middle-class cultural capital. In this discourse, matters of power, class conflict, racism and state-sponsored violence against immigrants, Muslims and minorities of color simply disappear. If Trump’s bitter railing against elites is mere “rudeness,” then on what grounds can legitimate anger against oppression be expressed and expect to be taken seriously?
Removed from the injuries of class, racism and sexism, among other issues, the discourse of incivility reduces politics to the realm of the personal and affective, while canceling out broader political issues such as the underlying conditions that might produce anger, or the dire effects of misguided resentment, or a passion grounded in the capacity to reason. Trump is reduced in this case to a rude clown rather than a dangerous authoritarian who now happens to be in control of the most powerful nation on the planet.
As Benjamin DeMott has similarly pointed out, the discourse of incivility does not raise the crucial question of why American society is tipping over into the dark politics of authoritarianism. On the contrary, the question now asked is “Why has civility declined?” Tied to the privatized orbits of neoliberalism, this is a discourse that trades chiefly in promoting good manners, the virtues of moral uplift and praiseworthy character, all the while refusing to raise private troubles to the level of public issues. The elitist call to civility also risks collapsing the important difference between just anger and malevolent rancor, dismissing both as instances of faulty character and bad manners.
America has become a country motivated less by indignation, which can be used to address the underlying social, political and economic causes of social discontent, than by a galloping culture of individualized resentment, which personalizes problems and tends to seek vengeance on those individuals and groups viewed as a threat to American society. One can argue further that the call to civility and condemnation of incivility in public life no longer register favorably among individuals and groups who are less interested in mimicking the discourse and manners of the ruling elite than in expressing their resentment as the struggle for power, however rude such expressions might appear to the mainstream media and rich and powerful. Rather than an expression of a historic, if not dangerous, politics of unchecked personal resentment (as seen among many Trump supporters), a legitimate politics of outrage and anger is desperately needed.