In almost every opinion on the restaurant that famously refused to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders, there is a too-neat congruence between the moral argument and the meta-political argument. If you think it’s right and just and admirable to deprive a Trump administration mouthpiece of an evening out in polite society, you probably also think that this sort of direct action is the vital spark that the left needs to mobilise and defeat Trumpism outright.
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 23, 2018
On the other hand, if you think that the restaurant owner committed an obnoxious breach of the basic bipartisan civility that prevents our empire from becoming 1990s Yugoslavia, you probably think that what she did was basically an in-kind donation to the Trump re-election effort as well.
It should be possible, though, to mix and match — to feel a certain sympathy or admiration for the restaurateur’s non serviam, but also to believe that its wider application by the Resistance wouldn’t do anti-Trump forces any good.
To be clear, I don’t particularly want to live in a world of conservative and liberal restaurants, where I’m frog-marched out of my local artisanal coffee shop because the owner hates my column and doesn’t want his baristas to sully their hands by serving me. But I do want to live in a country where people feel comfortable exercising moral convictions in the way they run their businesses — whether they’re Christian bakers and florists or the Red Hen’s progressive proprietor. I definitely can think of a few public figures I’d like to “86” if they entered my (sadly hypothetical) brewpub. And if I were making a list of Trump administration officials who deserve to feel the sting of public censure, the office of the press secretary is actually a reasonable place to start.
That’s because Sanders, while no doubt a good mother and kind person in the private aspects of her life, occupies a job that is inseparable from the aspect of the Trump presidency that even people who agree with some of his policymaking should find deplorable — the communicative aspect, the rhetorical aspect, the aspect that deals with public truth and falsehood.
Other members of this administration are implicated in Trump’s unique mix of mendacity and demagoguery, but many of them occupy jobs that actually need doing, where they can reasonably (well, some days, at least) see themselves as checks on their boss’ worst tendencies, hard at work serving the country rather than the man. But the country doesn’t need a talented person, or really any person at all, to stand up and spin the president’s Twitter rants and moonshine-laced speeches. Even in most forthright administrations the press secretary position tends to be an apparatchik’s office, all dodge and spin and obfuscation. In this one it’s considerably more culpable than that, and while Sanders may be mildly less ridiculous than Sean Spicer, it would be good for both the country and her immortal soul if she felt more social pressure to resign.
Human psychology being what is, however, the experience of being shamed is likely to only strengthen Sanders’ commitment to her job. And the problem for the people cheering on the restaurateur and saying, with Maxine Waters and a slice of left-wing Twitter, that you ain’t seen nothing yet is that the same goes for voters generally. One can find the individual decision not to cook a meal for a Trumpista defensible or even admirable, but a general surge of activist harassment of Trump officials at restaurants or movie theatres or wherever is likely to only harden the president’s support, while delivering little tangible benefit to the cause of removing him from office.
This is not because there exists some God of Civility who automatically punishes movements that stray from some set of David Gergen-approved rules of polite debate. An effective protest politics is often necessarily impolite, necessarily confrontational, necessarily willing to risk backlash from “whoa, slow down” moderate types in order to clarify the stakes.
But to mitigate the effects of backlash, an effective protest politics also needs to make sure the acts of protest are clearly linked to the evil being protesting, and that they set up scenarios where the person being protested, not the protester, comes out looking bad.
Thus in the civil rights era, the sites of protest — lunch counters, city buses — were carefully chosen to make segregation look at once evil and ridiculous, and the protests were calibrated to make it plain that the police officers and vigilantes enforcing the institution were the bad guys. The Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr was no plaster saint of civility or centrism, and he was often willing to earn a reputation as a disturber of the peace. But he still chose his disturbances strategically, which is why the images on American television screens featured Southern Christian Leadership Conference activists sitting peacefully in lunch counters or facing down attack dogs — rather than, say, turning Lurleen Wallace out of her favourite restaurant.
What this example implies for anti-Trump activists is not that they should abandon protest politics, but that they should do everything possible to keep those protests focused directly on the places where the administration’s policies look worst — meaning at this moment, obviously, the separation of children from their families along the border. And many activists are doing just that, to their credit — which is part of why the Trump White House felt compelled to back down, however partially and temporarily, from its cruel version of deterrence.
But these efforts are not likely to be helped by set pieces staged far from the border in which (mostly female, so far) Trump officials come off looking like the victims. The central political problem for the Resistance, at the moment, is that they see the Trump administration as self-evidently authoritarian and perhaps even trending Nazi-ward, while much of the country dislikes Trump and opposes many of his policies but just doesn’t see that same scale of existential danger. In that environment, every time the headlines focus on something unusually bad the Trump administration is doing, the Resistance stands to gain. But it stands to lose, bigly, when it’s the people calling Trump a Nazi who seem to want a conflagration.
Of course some of the people pushing for direct action sincerely believe, no less than the Trump voters who imagined themselves charging Flight 93’s cockpit, that conflagration is inevitable and history will be hard on people who grabbed a torch too late. And we do have some historical examples where this attitude was prescient. We just have more cases in which people who embraced it ended up setting their own cause alight.
© 2018 New York Times News Service