In Defense of Civility

In Defense of Civility

Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Fountain Hills, Arizona, March 19 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

“I know,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, “the American People are much attached to their Government. . . . Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.”

Lincoln wrote these lines in the winter of 1838, as a twenty-eight-year-old member of the Illinois House of Representatives, in response to the murder of Elijah Parish Lovejoy a few months earlier. Lovejoy was an opponent of slavery and the editor of the St. Louis Observer and subsequently the Alton Observer. His condemnation of slavery, as well as of the lynching and burning of the African-American Francis McIntosh, drew the ire of many. Worrying both about his life and his craft, Lovejoy left Missouri and relocated his printing press to Alton, Illinois, a free state. But it was too late for him to find security. Lovejoy was killed by an angry mob on a quest to destroy his printing press.

Lincoln’s 1838 address, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” is about the dangers to democratic institutions when mob rule becomes the law of the land. He worried that our anger rendered us vulnerable to those who would use it for ill, rather than good—those whose ambition was unconstrained by humility and regard for one’s fellows. Ambition shorn of such constraints “scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”

But Lincoln’s worry about the emergence of the demagogue conceals his more compelling insight. For him, the security of democratic institutions and community relied on our self-imposed constraints of civility and decorum, which at once bind us to our fellows and suppress the more malevolent angels that threaten to tear us apart.

In recent months we have witnessed the astounding rise of Donald J. Trump, now frontrunner for the Republican nomination for presidency of the United States. He has, it is said, tapped into a deep anger. In recent weeks, Americans have watched and listened to Trump encourage his supporters to punch or commit violence against those protesting against him. But Trump’s call to violence goes back to the very beginning of his campaign, with his own verbal assault on undocumented immigrants, Muslims, women, and a host of others.

That Trump has tapped into the anger of a certain segment of the population is an understatement. The issue for us to confront is not just that Trump supporters are angry, but the source of their anger. The affection for Trump emanates from a deep sense of fear by a segment of the white electorate who see in front of them the waning of their power. Confronted with the perceived decline of their supremacy, these white voters project their fears onto the rest of us—black, brown, Muslim, foreign born, and any other class deemed to be different.

Fear, however, is an unstable emotion. As the political philosopher John Locke once observed, fear is “an uneasiness of the mind” and “the chief, if not only spur to human industry and action is uneasiness.” But fear may also, as the novelist and essayist James Baldwin understood, throw us back onto ourselves, leaving us cowering in the corner as we struggle to hold at bay what has left us so terribly afraid. For white Republicans who fear the decline of their supremacy and see the browning of America as its major culprit, Trump represents the “great white hope.” But his appeal to white supremacy is not the greatest danger he poses. After all, he is hardly alone in espousing such racism. The true danger of Trump is that he is completely removing the norms of civility and decorum from public discourse—the same norms that have served to hold in check those unwilling to see their society transformed by greater equality and liberty.

Civility and decorum may well sound like the high virtues of an aristocratic society, often used to reinforce deference and politeness. But virtues become what they are only when placed within a larger cultural and political frame. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, may well have shown courage during the Civil War, but once that courage is understood to have been in the service of a narrow and racist vision of America, the apparent virtue turns out to be a destructive vice. Virtues—excellences of character—turn out to be noble or ignoble based on the form of life they are in the service of.

When placed in the context of a democratic society, then, civility and decorum are more often than not checks that stabilize the dignity of our fellows, even amid the deep disagreement. In the face of our inability to be transformed, they constrain, at the very least, our malevolent angles in the service not only of democratic stability, but of the very idea of democratic community.

As we continue to watch Trump’s march toward the GOP nomination, we should keep the following in mind. The quest for the presidency has typically involved at least two supporting values—the ambition of the candidate for power and the attachment of the candidate to the moral symbol that the presidency represents. The second typically works to constrain the first in the service of governance.  Trump most certainly channels the first of these values, but he dispenses with the second. In doing so, he has given his followers license to make hate the ultimate value of American politics.


Melvin L. Rogers is Scott Waugh Chair in the Division of the Social Sciences and Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at UCLA.