Political Rudeness

Political rudeness occurs when people in the political arena (and that includes the press) do something that is embarrassing because it violates the customs of politics insofar as those customs are essential to carrying on democratic politics, and so is different from the rudeness that occurs in everyday life whereby people who are rude violate customs of etiquette, such as by making a pass at a friend’s wife, or not tipping the waiter, which allow ordinary social life to be stable and mutually satisfying. An example of political rudeness is Eisenhower showing up late at the White House to pick up Truman to go to the Eisenhower Inauguration. Truman properly interpreted that as an insult to the Presidency while Eisenhower simply saw it as an expression of his distaste for a person he thought to be a political hack, while seeing himself as a noble figure, forgetting that he had been ever so political when he refused to defend General of the Armies George Marshall, the man who made him, on the campaign trail just months before, when Joe McCarthy had called Marshall “a disgrace to his uniform”. Who was the person up to his eyebrows in politics?

Donald Trump’s castigation of his primary opponents on the debate stage is not to be regarded as political rudeness, but just part of the give and take of politics. Trump dominated the stage by finding pet and cruel characterizations for each of his opponents. Jeb was tired; Marco was little; Carly was not all that pretty. But that just showed them all up to be weaklings, and so not appropriate candidates for President. Why couldn’t they come up with comebacks? It just went to show that there wasn’t much to them. Politics isn’t softball. Hillary is right in saying maybe she should have stepped back during their second debate in 2016 and told the Donald he was a creep and should stop stalking her. That might have won her the election. That would have been personal rudeness but not political rudeness, three examples of which have occurred in the past week, all over the political spectrum, and it is worth considering them for what they tell about how politics works today. On the other hand, Trump chastising his aides and cabinet members in public without firing them is political rudeness because it is an embarrassing admission that Trump does not control his own White House, and constantly yelling at aides is political rudeness because the President, whatever else, is supposed to be the calm at the center of the storm, and most Presidents measure up to being that rather than embarrassments to the office.

Instances of political rudeness in the past few weeks have occurred all over the political spectrum. One was the New York Times harping on the fact that Melania Trump wore very high heels to visit flood ravaged Texas. Well, she always wears very high heels and she was not likely to go into the muck of flooded houses. So what’s the problem? The woman was always a clotheshorse; that was her profession. Why criticize her for being always well turned out? It is a cheap shot at her husband. Leave the woman alone. She has to live with him. I remember the same sort of criticism of Lyndon Johnson who was laughed at in these East Coast quarters because he mashed his peas with a spoon. What we couldn’t get then and still don’t get is how he could be so savvy about Civil Rights and so wrong on the Vietnam War. Turning to the real issues of an Administration brings dignity both to the office and the commentator.

Another, more serious, violation of political decorum, are bloggers who out Nazis on the Internet on the basis of the pictures of them in Charleston that were provided by the press. This may seem a very noble thing to do, to bring to public attention just who these shameful people are so that their friends and employers can be appropriately offended by the vipers in their midst. But I remember when Southern States were demanding the membership lists of the NAACP so that the members could be harassed. In a democracy, the argument went then and should go now, protesters are protected by the First Amendment and that also means not having their private lives invaded. Otherwise there is a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech. It is not that people can’t be criticized but not everywhere in their lives. You don’t have to go into a store that brandishes a swastika, but that is about it. I don’t ask the owner of a Lebanese restaurant where he stands on the Arab Israeli conflict. I just enjoy his food. Even a Nazi is entitled, in America, to earn a living, even if he can get arrested if he goes violent at a demonstration. I even think that it is politically rude to picket the home of a politician who is, after all, a public figure. Picket his office but let him go home in peace. Americans are the people who understand the limits of political discourse. To violate those limits is rude, and everybody senses that is the case even if some people insist on transgressing those boundaries so as to make a political point about just how bad a politician is.

There is a third example of political rudeness that falls on Conservatives rather than on Liberals. Members of the Texas Congressional Delegation quite properly want to secure funds to help with flood relief but they have not been sufficiently apologetic, to my mind, in explaining why they voted against relief funds in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The best they can do is say there was a lot of pork in that bill, that there was funding unrelated to the hurricane. The Times demonstrated that wasn’t true. So the Texas people couldn’t bring themselves to say that their vote was a lapse or an oversight when the fact is that the Texans had no desire to give money to the Northeast. Not much of a surprise, even though the semblance of national commity would require, at the least, that we overcome regional interests just for a moment in the face of national disaster and so pull for one another on those occasions, even though we remain, as we were before the Civil War, a nation of disparate regions. Texans supported New Yorkers after 9/11, but it didn’t last long, and so federal funds went for the defense of the Mall of America and landmarks down South, when for ten years New York City remained the front line of the war on terror. They hate us down there. I might remark that the New York Times has given very complete coverage of Hurricane Harvey and noone up here has suggested Texas not get all the money it wants. Southerners think that Northeasterners and Pacific Rim Americans are condescending to them, which is correct because Hillary was right to think that many Trump followers were “deplorable” and “irredeemable”: they had vile political thoughts and were not going to give them up. And that is just the way it is.

Something else is troubling these days, though it is not a matter of political rudeness because it is not embarrassing but simply shows how bad this Administration is. Liberals like me trust to the generals, to Kelly and Mattis and McMasters, to keep the President in line and so not do something really stupid in foreign policy out of just malice and foolhardiness. That is very different from the usual Liberal approach, which is that generals have to be kept in line by talented politicians so that they do not get us into wars we don't need and to take a bigger picture on the political dynamics of a war than do the generals. FDR and Obama did that, even if Johnson for a while fell for Westmoreland’s idea that the Vietnam War could be won and pretty quickly at that. Now Liberals bunker down and hope that battle tested warriors will apply their wisdom so as to keep the nation on an even keel. It is very sad that we have to rely on these backup devices.