The Democratic Party establishment is in a tizzy over the controversial decision of the owner of a Lexington, Virginia restaurant, The Red Hen, to boot out White House Secretary Sara Huckabee Sanders to protest her complicity in the Trump administration’s xenophobic and racist policies.
Protestors have also confronted Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the department of homeland security, and heckled Stephen Miller, senior advisor to the president, and Trump-supporter Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general. California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters has exhorted supporters: “If you see anybody from that 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…. tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
The public shaming of Trump administration officials is a welcome catharsis for progressives dispirited and tired of Trump’s xenophobic and racist policies and incendiary and insulting tirades. But the Democratic Party establishment and political strategists fear that this pushback could undermine the party’s prospects in the 2018 elections.
Their criticism is around two broad themes. The incivility might alienate potential voters, who are turned off by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. Also, bipartisan civility is a civic virtue and public humiliation of people with whom we happen to disagree could quickly escalate and make the already disagreeable politics even more combustible.
David Axelrod, the former chief strategist to Pres. Barack Obama, warns: “Rousting Cabinet members from restaurants is an empty and, ultimately, counter-productive gesture.” Likewise, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, cautioned: “The best solution is to win elections. That is a far more productive way to channel the legitimate frustrations with this president’s policies than with harassing members of his administration.”
Axelrod and Schumer may be right. Harassment of Trump officials by their critics could well gin up Trump’s base and turn off Independents disgusted with Trump’s own divisive conduct. We know, however, that the failure to confront Trump’s mendacity and insults during the last presidential elections by an equally cautious and calculating Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, ended disastrously for the party. In any event, we will never know how this play out electorally in November.
And we need not. Ordinary citizens are not beholden to the calculations and compulsions of political strategists and party bosses. Many of them are fed up with the cautiousness of Democratic leaders who have abdicated resistance to Trump’s fascist agenda for far too long.
Protest politics will not be tidy; it is often confrontational and impolite. Food counter and bus sit-ins by civil rights activists were highly offensive and upsetting to well-heeled polite society in the 1960s too.
That was their point.
Trump has to be fought in the sewer, not Michelle Obama’s pretentious “high road,” because it is where he happens to reside.
Stephanie Wilkinson’s personal protest in booting Sanders from the Red Hen is as an admirable act of conscience. While she was “not a huge fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson said, “We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions.”
This is the moment.
Her conduct was not risk free. Irate Trump supporters have been picketing her restaurant and harassing potential customers and employees, as a result of which the restaurant remains shut since the incident. Unrelated Red Hen restaurants in Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington, DC, have also been hounded. You don’t hear about the vigilantism of Trump supporters, because that is the new normal.
To be sure, the tactic of scorning public officials should be deployed strategically and calculatingly. Protestors should be nonviolent and eschew harassing public servants who are often doing thankless jobs, sometimes unwillingly.
But verbally shaming Sanders and Trump administration cabinet officials or treating them as pariahs in polite company is fair game. We should not be complicit by our silence in the face of the Trump administration’s fascist designs out of fear of upsetting the political calculations of feckless Democratic strategists.
Trump’s drumbeat of xenophobic rhetoric and erratic policies have numbed us to the systematic destruction of democratic institutions and his unrelenting assaults on immigrant and vulnerable communities. Through calculated disruptions designed to generate fear and panic among legal and illegal immigrants alike, the Trump administration is embarked on a fascist project to alter the country’s demographic makeup in hopes of restoring what he and his supporters believe is the lost glory of Whites.
Trump’s rhetorical excesses are media distractions designed to befuddle and divert public attention from his fascist project. Like his Russian enablers, Trump apparatchiks are leveraging the vulnerabilities of conventions and restraints in American democracy against itself. They are counting on liberal handwringing to protect them against public shaming and protest as well.
That is the hidden genius behind their madness.
So, please, spare us the specious moral equivalency between the restrained act of a restaurateur politely interrupting a guest she found morally abhorrent to request she leave her establishment and Trump’s repeated incitements to supporters to assault protestors and harass the media, or the assassination of abortion providers, or the vandalism of mosques and Black churches by right wing hate mongers who fire up and populate Trump rallies.
If the price of individual moral resistance to evil is an election, so be it. Timidity didn’t work too well last time for Democrats either.