Reprinted from www.truth-out.org with author permission
In the face of a putrid and poisonous election cycle that ended with Trump's presidential victory, liberals and conservatives are quick to argue that Americans have fallen prey to a culture of incivility.
It's true that in the run-up to the presidential election, Donald Trump strategically showcased incivility in his public appearances as a mark of solidarity with many of his white male followers. However, it is a mistake to lump the racism, bigotry, misogyny and ultra-nationalism that Trump has played upon under an obscuring and euphemistic notion of "incivility." And it is simultaneously a mistake to delegitimize the anger that oppressed people feel about racism, sexism or class exploitation by categorizing protests over these injuries as merely "incivility."
Understanding the ramifications of current discourses of incivility will be one key to understanding the results of the presidential election and Trump's ascension. Clearly, Trump's embrace of incivility (in addition to his embrace of racism and xenophobia) was a winning strategy, one that not only signaled the degree to which the politics of extremism has moved from the fringes to the center of American politics, but also one that turned politics into a spectacle that fed the rating machines of the mainstream media.
The incivility machine Trump resurrected as tool of resistance against establishment politicians played a major role in gaining him the presidency. Moreover, it turned politics into what Guy Debord once called a "perpetual motion machine" built on fear, anxiety, the war on terror and a full-fledged attack on women, the welfare state and people of color.
Too often during this election season, a discourse of "bad manners" has paraded as insight while working to hide the effects of power, politics, racial injustice and other forms of oppression.
The rhetoric of "incivility" often functions as a conservative ideological tool, working to silence critics by describing them as ill-tempered, rude and uncivilized. Politics, in this sense, shifts from a focus on substance to style -- reworking the notion of critical thinking and action through a rulebook of alleged collegiality -- which becomes code for the elevated character and manners of the privileged classes. Within this rhetoric, the wealthy, noble and rich are usually deemed to possess admirable character and to engage in civil behavior. At the same time, those who are poor, unemployed, homeless or subject to police violence are not seen as victims of larger political, social and economic forces. On the contrary, their problems are reduced to the depoliticizing discourse of bad character, defined as an individual pathology, and whatever resistance they present is dismissed as rude and uncivil.
As a rich white man who has intentionally embraced an "uncivil" persona, Trump has related to this discourse in unpredictable ways. By claiming he loves the uneducated and appealing to the crudest instincts of the mob, Trump elevates incivility to a performance -- a pedagogy of righteous indignation -- while removing it as a platform for a substantial political critique. The uncivil persona becomes a threat, a signpost for misdirected anger and a symbol of a mass in need of a savior.
There is more at issue here than ideological obfuscation and a flight from social responsibility on the part of the dominant classes; there is also a language of violence that serves to reproduce existing modes of domination and concentrated relations of power. In this instance, argument, evidence and informed judgment -- when they hold power accountable or display a strong response to injustice -- are subordinated to the category of unchecked emotions, a politics that embraces rude behavior and a propensity for violence. When deployed in a way that obfuscates the injuries of class, racism, sexism, among other issues, the discourse of incivility reduces politics to the realm of the personal and affective while cancelling out broader political issues such as the underlying conditions that produce anger, the effects of misguided resentment, and a passion that connects the body and mind.
As Benjamin DeMott has pointed out, the discourse of incivility does not raise the crucial question of why American society is tipping over into the dark politics of authoritarianism. On the contrary, the question now asked is "Why has civility declined?" Tied to the privatized orbits of neoliberalism, this is a discourse that trades chiefly in good manners, the virtues of moral uplift and praiseworthy character, all the while refusing to raise private troubles to the level of public issues. The call to civility confuses the relationship between anger and resentment, dismissing both as instances of faulty character and bad manners.
What happens to a democracy when incivility becomes a central organizing principle of politics? What happens to rational debate, culture and justice?
The US has become a country motivated less by anger, which can be used to address the underlying social, political and economic causes of social discontent, than by a galloping culture of individualized resentment, which personalizes problems and tends to seek vengeance on those individuals and groups viewed as a threat to American society. One can argue that the call to civility and condemnation of incivility in public life by the ruling elite no longer registers favorably among individuals and groups who are less interested in mimicking the discourse and manners of the financial elite than in expressing their resentment as they struggle for power, however rude such expressions might appear to the mainstream media and rich and powerful. Rather than an expression of a historic if not dangerous politics of unchecked personal resentment (as seen among many Trump supporters), we are witnessing a legitimate and desperately needed politics of outrage and anger -- one that privileges the struggle for justice over an empty call for civility and acceptable manners.