If you spend too much time online, you probably know about the white woman in San Francisco who called the police on a young girl of color last week for selling bottled water on the street without a permit. Video footage of that woman trying to hide from a cell phone camera, while crouched down on her own phone with authorities, went viral, which has probably been very unpleasant for her, but has also served the important purpose of deterring others like her who might be tempted to hassle underprivileged children. Don’t do that if you don’t want to be shamed online.
The controversy ends there, because nobody has risked ridicule by arguing that the woman trying to sic law enforcement on a child should have been allowed to make her phone call in peace, for the sake of civility.
Senior Trump administration officials are embroiled in a much more important and horrifying controversy involving their mistreatment of thousands of children, but it is the consensus position of the political establishment that they should be insulated from similar forms of social censure.
To put a finer point on it: President Trump and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have used official powers to whip up a harassment campaign against a restaurant in Lexington, VA after its owner, at the behest of her immigrant and LGBT employees, declined to serve Sanders. Amid the controversy, the establishment has largely taken the opportunity to lecture the owner about decorum.
Different people landed on this view for different reasons, some better than others, but all of them seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the stakes of the act, as if it were a symbol of a deterioration in discourse between liberals and conservatives, rather than an act of moral suasion that, if widely adopted, would impel Republican leaders to change the detestable ways they treat immigrants, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable people.
At the end of the Bush administration, a contingent of liberals advocated, similarly, that certain officials should essentially be shunned. These officials dragged the country into a war that cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqis their lives on false pretenses, and instituted an illegal torture regime at CIA black sites around the globe. If they were simply reabsorbed into elite life, the argument when, the next cadre of potential torturers would feel undeterred. Making them anathema wouldn’t merely serve retributive purposes, wouldn’t be uncivil behavior for incivility’s sake, but would create an important incentive for future unscrupulous leaders to avoid inhumane temptations.
The establishment did not abide this argument. Today, architects of the torture regime include the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a lifetime appointee on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. One of its implementers is the director of the CIA. And the new president of the United States is a torture apologist who fawns over authoritarians who torture dissidents.
Wittingly or not, the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA took a stand for the view that this history shouldn’t be allowed to repeat itself. It is abundantly clear that influential elements within civil society are uncomfortable upsetting the elite balance in this way. Some people who would stand squarely behind the girl selling water on the street in San Francisco don’t want Sanders to be made to feel uncomfortable, because they dine with her, or with her political allies. Institutions that typically uphold decent values don’t want to be seen censuring representatives of one political party, because they prize the appearance of partisan neutrality over whatever small deterrent effect they might have. Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski lied to the public programmatically, and were rewarded with fellowships at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
There are only so many official channels for enforcing moral standards in American public life. One is elections, which happen pretty rarely, and, thanks to gerrymanders and the electoral college, frequently reward popular vote losers. Another is the law, where courts are increasingly stacked against the majority. Under those circumstances, shame is a potent weapon, and it’s little surprise that people invested in the status quo want those who can wield it to unilaterally disarm.
As Harvard has hopefully learned, disarming is an error. Spicer and Lewandowski should have been denied those fellowships. They should also wonder, every time they walk into a new restaurant, whether they will be told to leave. It is good that Spicer has been unable to cash in on his shameful tenure as White House press secretary with a cushy corporate gig, and it is good that Lewandowski lost his speaker’s bureau contract. Not just because turnabout is sometimes satisfying, but because other Republicans are watching, and if they understand that advancing Trumpist values comes with a cost, it might arrest the right’s slide into illiberalism. That’s something even reluctant factions of the political establishment should awaken to and embrace because all of us are along for the ride together.