The last several decades have seen one of the great policy achievements of our age: a policing revolution that dramatically reduced crime in most major cities, especially New York. It was grounded in a fundamental insight that small signs of disorder—a broken window in an abandoned building—lead to bigger ones. The same insight holds true, it seems, for political speech and civility. Small excesses lead to more troubling statements. When people laugh off a politician’s crass remarks or nod their heads at not-so-veiled threats, it only encourages crasser remarks and more direct threats. Recall the crowd’s guffaws when Donald Trump suggested that maybe “the Second Amendment people” could serve as the last line of defense against the Supreme Court picks of a President Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign produced an ad claiming that if Trump wins the election, neo-Nazis will be running the country. Political civility has been suspended until at least the second week of November.
Our politics have always been a little salty. John Adams called Alexander Hamilton “the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler”—a brickbat that may have brought the quality of our political discourse down a peg, but at least had the virtue of eloquence. The current campaign’s insults, by contrast, are crude and crass. And it’s not just Trump and Clinton. Across American society, standards of civility have been slipping for a while. Maybe it all started with The McLaughlin Group and CNN’s Crossfire, the long-running shows in which liberal and conservative pundits shouted, interrupted, and insulted each other for half an hour. Nothing like that had existed on TV before 1982, when both shows debuted. Soon, people were screaming at each other on the other channels, too, egged on by the likes of Morton Downey, Jr., Jerry Springer, and Geraldo Rivera. In the nineties, cable news broadcasts often took the lowest-common-denominator format and put it on around the clock. Any time of the day or night, tune in and watch the other team get walloped.
Then came the Monica Lewinsky affair, with nightly news anchors leading their 6:30 broadcasts with talk of stained blue dresses and Oval Office cigars. Americans were forced to confront the fact that the presidency could be captured by an unfaithful cad, a charming lowlife, a congenital liar. Rhetorically, the George W. Bush years plumbed new depths. His critics freely called him a stupid, unsophisticated embarrassment—and suggested that he was probably a war criminal, too.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, nudity and profanity proliferated on television. Four-letter words that censors had previously kept off the airwaves began popping up on popular shows—and at earlier hours. Where once Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds to appease the FCC, now you could catch a glimpse of an actress’s comely rear end as she stepped from a shower on NYPD Blue. You could blink your eyes in amazement at the sight of Janet Jackson’s bare breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. The vulgarity quotient has intensified dramatically in recent years. There’s no longer such a thing as a “family hour” on TV. Even the commercials feature content unsuitable for children.
The Obama presidency has proved utterly toxic to civility. The president’s more agitated political enemies suggested that the first black president was foreign-born, anti-American, a secret Muslim. Obama, for his part, sneered at half the country, suggesting that Americans clung to their guns and their religious faith out of fear of the diversity and complexity of the modern world. He compared GOP congressmen with hostage takers. Obama’s supporters—recently so keen to characterize dissent as patriotic—were quick to paint any opposition to him or his policies as bigotry.
Trump’s rise has been explained as a reaction to our out-of-control culture of political correctness, but his juvenile name-calling and ugly insinuations have brought out the worst in some of his supporters. They have bombarded Jewish reporters on Twitter with disturbing images of the Holocaust. Republicans who have publicly disavowed the candidate report being harassed online and, in some cases, threatened with physical violence. The Democrats and their media allies happily joined the race to the bottom, even as they professed horror at Trump’s rhetoric. The press aired in full every Trump rally and let the candidate call in for interviews. Some estimates have put the dollar value of the free press Trump has received in the billions. Trump is crass; Trump is vulgar; but Trump gets good ratings. We can’t turn away.
The cumulative effect of the escalating charges—liar! bigot! racist! crook!—has been that of a slow-acting poison. We managed to survive the party conventions without running battles in the streets, but we’ll be lucky to avoid violence before the whole thing is over. If, against the odds and despite himself, Trump wins in November, the far Left will ensure that his term is marred by chaos. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Anonymous, the Bernie Bros—they’re all primed for a fight that they imagine will hasten the revolution by heightening the contrasts. Does anyone think that a President Trump will meet their efforts with restraint?
The media will come under tremendous pressure to treat President Trump even more harshly even then they treated President Bush. Last week, an AP story about the Trump family real-estate empire prompted howls of outrage from the Left. The story was “a stupefying and egregious piece of political propaganda, notable for its deceptive content, conspicuous timing, and the author’s direct connection to the Trump campaign,” wrote Sarah Kendzior at BlueNationReview.com, a site owned by Media Matters for America founder David Brock that bills itself as the “media platform that Democrats trust.” MTV’s Jamil Smith told his 70,000 Twitter followers that the media “normalizes” the Trump phenomenon by covering it like a traditional campaign. “It isn’t normal,” he wrote. “It isn’t acceptable.” Earlier this year, a Vox.com editor tweeted, “Advice: If Trump comes to your town, start a riot.” Should Hillary prevail, don’t expect the angriest on the right to cool their tempers, either.
Our democratic republic, one fears, could be more fragile than most Americans think. We’ve survived some major constitutional crises in recent times, from Watergate to the Florida recount, leading us to believe that our system is made of reinforced steel and mile-thick concrete. We think we’re immune to the kinds of kill shots that have taken down younger democracies. It’s an illusion derived from a 240-year-old tradition of orderly and peaceful passage of power from one party to another. All political legitimacy flows from that genteel custom, but nothing says that it has to continue forever.
A long season of name-calling, escalation, and character assassination has fatigued and demoralized us. We have given up on the idea of a good outcome and are simply bracing for whatever it is that comes next. Like residents of a neighborhood where most of the windows in most of the buildings have been broken and left unfixed, we’re merely waiting for the thugs to take over completely. The institutions that once promoted decency stopped doing their jobs long ago. The state of our union is not strong.
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