The refusal of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, to serve Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family has once again brought the simmer of American politics to a scalding boil.
Many commentators argue that being mean to members of the Trump administration or trying to excommunicate them from the public sphere somehow plays into the hands of the right. It's an argument made mostly by centrists who you might think of as Normalists — those who believe that in spite of this administration's many egregious affronts to civic decency, the Constitution, and the spirit of American democracy, its individual agents must be treated just like any other prominent figure from any other administration.
Thus, Corey Lewandowski, a violent, mendacious sociopath, and Sean Spicer, a man who proudly and indisputably tossed propaganda at the press corps for months, can both be given gigs at Harvard's Institute of Politics. In the Normalist view of the political universe, there is apparently little short of mass murder, violent insurrection, or perhaps certain kinds of civil crime that would merit expulsion from public life.
This critique is doubly wrong. It elides the seriousness of the Trump administration's transgressions, but it also presumes, falsely, that there is anything "the left" could do about this dynamic anyway, civilly or otherwise.
The impossibility of meeting the right's civility demands was made clear to me last week, when I was unexpectedly invited to appear on Fox News at Night, during the 11 p.m. news hour. After days of asking exactly what it was I'd be talking about, a producer finally told me on the day of: I'd be discussing the D.C. Mexican restaurant protest against DHS Secretary Kirsjten Nielsen and the death threat made against the children of GOP Rep. Brian Mast (Florida) by an area man.
On Thursday night, still in the sleepless haze of caring for a newborn, I waited for Fox to send a car to my house and whisk me to downtown Chicago, where two employees were holding down a remote studio in an otherwise empty skyscraper just across the river from Trump Tower. I had a solid hour to kill. In the green room of this lonely spire, I force-fed myself some Fox News, which at that moment happened to be The Ingraham Angle. In one now-infamous exchange, contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy claimed, "I spoke to some African-Americans who say, 'Gosh, the conditions of the detention centers are better than some of the projects that I grew up in.'"
That was bad enough. But Ingraham later did a short segment that made it breathtakingly clear how the left cannot outflank the right's outrage politics by being nicer.
"A new low for the left," Ingraham intoned somberly. She then interviewed the owner of Uncle Loui's Cafe in Duluth, Minnesota, which had hosted an episode of the most important television program in America: Fox & Friends, which the president mainlines every morning and whose rhetoric he parrots religiously. The café owner's beleaguered son, who barely got a word in edgewise, was trotted out on the show. Even after some prodding, though, Ingraham couldn't really get him to relate anything particularly concerning. The sum total of the American left's "new low" was apparently some hostile comments on the restaurant's Facebook page, and a handful of patrons declaring that they were finished eating there forever.
There was no organized campaign to destroy Uncle Loui's Café. Actually, nothing much seems to have befallen these nice people at all. But Fox News can't have that. It covers the left like it is some kind of Borg-like hive-mind, whose every move is plotted and orchestrated by distant elites determined to humiliate and condescend to white people in the "heartland." In my very short time on Fox News at Night with Shannon Bream (who was relentlessly pleasant to me, both on and off air), I was asked whether recent evidence of incivility proves that the left is "desperate." The prompt could have been anything — a random campus protest, a mistaken tweet from a New Yorker writer, an impolite protest against Trump administration officials. It didn't matter. Any outrage would do.
The point is this: The right's outrage politics need no sustenance. It's like a virus, and you are the host. If the Red Hen restaurant didn't exist, Fox News would find something else, for without a constant supply of minor slights and puffed-up grievances to convey to their aging white viewers, what exactly would happen on this network 24 hours a day? The mission of Fox News and its ilk is to scour this enormous country every day for something that will keep its viewers in a constant state of spittle-flecked fury.
Wherever you fall on Red Hengate, this all really should prompt some hard questions. If you think that Sarah Huckabee Sanders should not be shunned in public based on what she and her colleagues have done in office thus far, where would you draw the line? There has to be a line, right? Surely even the most committed Normalists would admit that there is something that the Trump administration could do to warrant the kind of peaceful but unpleasant snubbing and harassment that is being delivered to its apparatchiks right now by a handful of private citizens and activists.
Are we not there yet? "Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" is literally one of the crimes in the U.N.'s genocide convention. Even if the context is different (the family separation policy is not plausibly an attempt to eliminate a group "in whole or in part") the Trump administration's border policy is an appalling and morally repugnant practice that should stain the reputations of its architects for the rest of time. If this is not sufficient to justify the banishment, from polite society or the occasional restaurant, of everyone who works for this government, what is? Would we still be having this debate if Muslim-Americans were put in internment camps? What if the president started holding events highlighting the crimes of legal immigrants? What if he canceled the 2018 elections? What do you think Fox News would say?
The answer is obvious — they would clap along, and redirect your attention elsewhere. They would talk about Barack Obama's drone strike policy. They would say that FDR did it too and that they saw his portrait on some liberal's wall. Trump's support among Republicans would tick up to 91 percent, and the Normalists at The Washington Post would still insist that the press secretary of this now-fascist regime should have the right to eat wherever she wants. This insistence on civility, weirdly, flies completely in the face of everything that many members of this group have written about the seriousness of Trump's challenge to constitutional democracy. Either they don't believe the threat is that grave, or they aren't willing to follow their warnings to their logical conclusions, which is that perhaps not everyone is obligated to let the people who are dismantling democracy in front of our eyes snarf risotto in total peace.
All of this is a deeply engrained cultural and political instinct. The idea that famous public figures are beyond reproach is a lesson drawn by our elites from the last 40 years of American history. In America, everyone from Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North to Bush-era torture-philosopher John Yoo gets rehabilitated eventually. At the beginning of each administration, we agree to engage in a kind of collective mind-erasure, waving wands of forgiveness at even obvious criminals. Some are pardoned officially, while others can count on the healing power of time's relentless passage. So North gets to run the NRA, and Yoo gets his life as a Berkeley law professor, and they all get to dine unmolested at the restaurants of their choice.
As a culture we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that some people are so monstrous that they should not be invited on television or into our good graces. The Trump administration is full of people who (hopefully!) will be regarded by future scholars as the witting servants of a last-gasp, nasty white supremacy, whose crimes are probably not yet even fully understood. Its supporters are utterly unreachable, and they will be whipped into a rage regardless of what you or I or the owners of the Red Hen restaurant decide to do. Personally, I'd like to be able to tell my kids that when the arch-villain of their history books walked into my restaurant way back in the day, I at least gave her a piece of my mind.