After pleas for unity, rhetoric in Washington remains heated
Following the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise and others at a congressional baseball practice last month, President Donald Trump issued numerous calls for unity and civility, at one point saying the Louisiana Republican “took a bullet for all of us” and his suffering would bring the country together.
“Though we have our differences, what unites us is so much stronger: our love of country, our devotion to its people,” he said in his weekly radio address. “Now more than ever, these values must guide us – and bring us closer together. Let us always remember that our job is to serve and represent the whole American People -– and that we are all children of the same God.”
Political leaders and members of Congress in both parties echoed that sentiment in the wake of the attack, which appears to have been motivated by the gunman’s hatred of Republicans and President Trump.
However, in the weeks since the June 14 shooting, there has been little evidence that the president is heeding his own call, or that many others in Washington are sticking to their commitment to tone down political rhetoric.
Despite his purported desire to unite the country, Trump has continued attacking Democrats and journalists, accusing them almost daily of lies and obstruction. He spent much of the last week escalating his divisive war against the mainstream media.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted out a video depicting himself clotheslining a CNN logo along with the hashtag #FraudNewsCNN. It was the culmination of nearly a week of hostile anti-media tweets, including one in which he dubiously claimed MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a facelift” when she met with him on New Year’s Eve.
Many in the media took the wrestling video as an implicit threat.
"We condemn the president's threat of physical violence against journalists. This tweet is beneath the office of the presidency. Sadly, it is not beneath this president,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in a statement.
Some conservatives defended the tweet as a harmless joke and White House officials have insisted the president is defending himself against what he feels is unfair coverage, but Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., suggested Sunday that Trump is “trying to weaponize distrust” with his anti-media crusade.
Democrats have done little to inject civility into their opposition to Trump and his agenda since the shooting.
“My prayer is that we can resolve our differences in a way that furthers the preamble to the Constitution, takes us closer to e pluribus unum,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a floor speech on June 14.
At a press conference the following day, she struck out against “sanctimonious” Republicans who were blaming Democrats for the shooting.
"I think that the comments made by my Republican colleagues are outrageous, beneath the dignity of the job that they hold, beneath the dignity of the respect that we would like Congress to command. How dare they say such thing?” she said.
As Republicans inch closer to passing a health care reform bill in the Senate, Democrats and protesters have ratcheted up their rhetoric, claiming that the GOP’s policies will lead to people dying from lack of insurance coverage. Though this mirrors Republicans’ hyperbolic 2009 attacks on the Affordable Care Act, such as the false claim it would create “death panels,” some conservatives have complained that the heated language is further degrading discourse.
Republicans have also expressed concern about the passionate and angry protesters turning up at their town halls and district offices. Some say they have canceled forums with constituents out of fear for their own safety, but activists are still seeking opportunities to confront lawmakers during the 4th of July recess.
As President Trump continues to dismiss concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election as a hoax, Democrats in Congress have also stepped up calls for impeachment. Over the weekend, a number of House Democrats coalesced around quixotic legislation that would use the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office because he is unfit to serve.
Trump supporters also point to examples of incendiary behavior on the left like comedian Kathy Griffin’s photos with a decapitated Trump head and a performance of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that featured the assassination of a Trump-like leader.
The public is noticing a breakdown of civility in Washington since Trump took office. According to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, about 70 percent of Americans believe the tone in Washington has gotten worse since November, and only six percent say the tone has improved.
Though Democrats and Independents are more likely to say the level of civility has gotten worse, 65 percent of Republicans agree. In comparison, 35 percent of Americans said the tone got worse in the first six months of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009.
Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and a professor of advertising at Boston University, said the tone of political discourse has been degenerating for decades, but that has accelerated since Trump was elected.
“The rhetoric isn’t just uncivil,” he said. “It’s dangerous, on both sides.”
Trump exacerbated the downward trend by continuing to be as coarse from the Oval Office as he was during his campaign and his decades as a tabloid and reality TV celebrity, according to Berkovitz.
“I think the big disappointment for some people is that he never stepped up to the august nature of the presidency…. The problem is that he has dragged the press down to his level and the press has been willing accomplices on that,” he said.
Trump’s political opponents and celebrity critics have also stooped to new lows in their attacks.
“One of the sayings we have in politics is, ‘never wrestle with a pig’…. This is like the Super Bowl of pig-wrestling from both sides,” Berkovitz said.
The White House frequently blames the president’s critics when he lashes out, claiming he simply “fights fire with fire.”
"I don't think you can expect someone to be personally attacked day after day, minute by minute, and sit back," said Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a press briefing last week.
However, Democrats argue the president is reaping what he has sown with his constant stream of insults, complaints, and Twitter rants.
“The only folks on the planet who have never once been attacked, ridiculed, mocked or disavowed by Trump are Ivanka and Vladimir Putin,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “Live by the sword, die by the sword. He has no real allies, only Republican politicians afraid to say in public what they whisper to each other in private.”
According to Cornell William Clayton, co-editor of “Civility and Democracy in America” and a professor of government at Washington State University, Trump cannot expect his critics to tone down their rhetoric while he frequently engages in such personal attacks against them.
“It’s just so unusual to hear a politician so focused on the kind of personal vendettas he’s focused on,” he said.
Clayton said the problem in Washington is less that politicians are engaging in uncivil rhetoric and more that they have proven incapable of compromise on major issues. The prospect of working with Democrats on health care has become a worst-case scenario for Senate Republicans, but a bipartisan agreement could reinforce the importance of working toward the common good.
Not all on Capitol Hill have abandoned hope. In the last few days, two Republican senators have published op-eds expressing a recommitment to civility and urging their colleagues to join them.
“My unlikely friendship with Ted Kennedy is but a small example of what our nation can accomplish if we choose respect and comity over anger and discord,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in Time. “Only by doing so can we look beyond the horizon of our differences to find common ground.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., insisted that both sides employ civility and respect as they debate health care policy.
“We all want people in the safety net to have good health care, we all want to eliminate fraud and waste, we all want to bring down health-care costs—we just differ on how to get there,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “This nation is not made up of monsters who hate; it is made up of people who care, but disagree.”
Those sentiments, while noble, presume that voters want their lawmakers to behave more civilly, something recent election results and Trump’s entire political career call into question.
“In an ideal world, it would be nice to have leaders who spoke appropriately, who weren’t constantly creating partisan attacks on one another, but it’s the same thing you hear during campaigns…. No voter has punished any politician for running that kind of communication,” Berkovitz said. “They say one thing and yet how they respond isn’t always consistent with what they’re saying.”
According to Clayton, the growing polarization of the electorate is driving politicians toward their parties’ more extreme bases, even as voters claim they want more respectful rhetoric.
“They don’t want to hear the incivility…but they don’t understand at the same time that what’s driving that is the stridently ideological nature of the demands they’re putting on politicians,” he said.
Periods of great division are not uncommon in U.S. history, and Clayton said they end in one of two ways: a cataclysmic event like a civil war, or political leaders finally working hard to find compromises.
“It only ends when we find some consensual ground on these major issues dividing the country,” he said.
Berkovitz had a bleaker prognosis.
“I think it’s going to continue spiraling downward until something so vile occurs that somehow the American public, the politicians, and the media realize we have just overstepped every boundary of propriety and civility,” he said.