You don’t win an argument by getting personal

7 July 2018 9:00 AM

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (image: Getty)

‘If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant,’ Democratic Representative Maxine Waters railed to a California rally last month, ‘in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome any more, anywhere.’

So this is the way Americans do politics these days. It’s roll-up-the-sleeves down-and-dirty, and it’s personal.

Democratic activists have indeed harassed, hounded and heckled members of the Trump administration during their downtime at movie theatres, restaurants, and their own homes. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was ejected from a Lexington, Virginia restaurant because of the perceived toxicity of her politics. (It would have been illegal to refuse service to Sanders for being gay, black or disabled, but no American law forbids discrimination against Republicans.) Hence a national discussion about whether ‘civility’ should still play any part in a country that’s lost the plot in every other respect.

Mind, the proprietor’s request that Sanders’ party leave the Red Hen was altogether civil compared to the blowback on the right. Trump supporters inundated the place with fake reservations and negative reviews on Yelp, where the establishment is now rated one-star. Eateries of the same name in other states were deluged with threatening phone calls. With Lexington’s Red Hen battered by protesters, one local innocent showed up for his Saturday dinner reservation, bewildered. For now, the restaurant is closed.

I confess to some backhanded sympathy for Trump’s stoic press secretary, and not mainly because she had to skip the cheese course. This poor woman has had to front for lies, faulty (meaning no) presidential research and scrawled-on-a-wet-napkin policy decisions, all with a straight face. I can’t imagine a worse job on the planet. News that even the stalwart Sanders is falling out of favour with her boss is yet more evidence that Trump can’t even defend his own interest, much less the country’s.


Regarding Trump as an attack on the very integrity of the American political process, many Democrats believe that all the old rules are out the window, so the gloves are off. Yet when aping the crude insults of Trump himself, the left only accelerates his corruption of American politics. The new exceptionalism means the most primitive standards of decency no longer apply to either side. And it’s mighty difficult to cram the genie of political ‘hate speech’ back in the bottle.

To a point, politics is personal. We infer character from position. The default assumption on the left is that its opponents are not merely misguided, but immoral. By conceit, conservatives are heartless, selfish, bigoted, cruel, greedy, unimaginative, poisonously nostalgic for a past that never existed in the first place, exclusively interested in consolidating their own power, rich through the aegis of injustice or cheating, and stupid. These aren’t ideological but deeply personal qualities. In turn, to conservatives, left-wingers are impractical, judgmental, shrill, delusional, humourless, self-righteous, dictatorial, childish, dangerously ignorant of what makes societies, economies and people tick, and — naturally — stupid. These are deeply personal qualities also.

Yet on an individual level, these caricatures don’t hold. People have a wide variety of reasons for believing what they do, and we don’t know what those reasons are unless we ask. I’ve friends with whom I differ politically. It’s vital to me, as it should be to all of us, that we can disagree and still like each other.

For the purposes of public conversation (which we no longer conduct), we’ve lost touch with the fact that ‘ad hominem attack’ is a logical fallacy. Slandering an advocate of an idea does not defeat it. In argument, you can’t win by shooting the messenger.

Alas, we don’t live in an age of argument. We live in an age of the shouting match, when ‘You’re a moron and I don’t like your face!’ passes for debate. Yet expressions of rage, vitriol and indignation only rouse the base. Rudeness to public officials backfires, making the likes of Sanders more sympathetic.

Approaching November’s midterms, Democrats would do well to watch a few Jordan Peterson videos. What has made the Canadian psychologist so energising for the centre-right is his unemotional style. Whatever you think of Peterson’s message — pretty moderate stuff, when you unpack it — he has perfected an unflappable, self-possessed delivery that unfailingly triumphs over diatribe. He appeals to reason. He almost never raises his voice. Logic, evidence, calm and systematic thought provide the man enormous powers of persuasion.

Too small a word for a widespread rhetorical decay extending well beyond American politics, ‘incivility’ is making it impossible these days to explore a difference of opinion with mutual respect. It’s not enough to disagree; your antagonist has to be vilified as personally evil. New York Times reporter Astead Herndon recently decried the ‘civility fetish’ in DC. But outside those Peterson videos, I’m not seeing much fetishising of civility anywhere. I’m reluctant to pile hyperbole on hyperbole. The current climate of name-calling and character assassination that Trump himself has helped to usher in doesn’t necessarily lead to physical violence. But it’s tilting in that direction.

I can’t remember ever being quite so upset over the death of someone I didn’t know. If there’s any good to be extracted from the baffling suicide of the culinary journalist Anthony Bourdain, it is the relief of shared public grief. Adventurous, good-humoured, open-minded, generous, and attractive in every sense, Bourdain was the kind of character growing all too rare: the prominent figure whom everybody adored. Why such a charming man with one of the best jobs in the world would want to leave the building — at exactly my age — is none of my business, but it feels as if it is my business. His suicide disturbed me on a tectonic level: if this guy had had enough, maybe he knew something; maybe life really isn’t worth living. Yet I find small solace in the improbably universal sorrow of his bereaved audience.