Monday, August 10, 2015

The Rudeness Factor

The news continues to be dominated by Donald Trump's latest comments (in particular his post-debate onslaught against debate moderator Megyn Kelly) and by both media and Republican reactions Of course, to a certain extent this is what we have come to expect. The media focuses on that sort of thing, indeed thrives on it. One of the constants of American political campaigns is how journalists consistently distract the electorate with short-term "horse-race" comparisons, and an emphasis on "gaffes" and "inside-the campaign" news and "inside the beltway" concerns.

That said, Trump's litany of insults - beginning with his comments about Mexicans, then moving on to his dismissive characterization of Senator John McCain, and now his weird reaction to Megyn Kelly's questioning - may well be pushing the envelope of what is palatable political rudeness. But in doing so Trump is really reflecting two other already well established trends. The first is the long-term coarsening of our society, reflected in the increasingly rude and vulgar character of ordinary language. This has been going on since at least the 1960s, got a great boost first from the growth of cable TV and subsequently from the development of social media. There has always been vulgar talk in the world, of course; but 50-60 years ago there was also a standard for polite conversation. That standard has consistently been eroded in the past 50-60 years (along with any real distinction between polite and vulgar conversation), each generation further debasing what was left of the civil culture it inherited. What was once simply unacceptable in public is now normal.

But there is a second trend, which parallels the first and to some extent benefits from the first. That is the increasingly not just coarse and vulgar but spiteful and hateful character of political speech. This is not unprecedented either. Its antecedents can be detected int he early years of the republic. In the 1950s, it characterized Joseph McCarthy and his allies. In the early 1960s, it was associated with what was then labelled "the radical right." In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, it was the New Left. In recent years, it has been opposition to President Obama that has increasingly expressed itself in this way, what some commentators have called "Obama Derangement Syndrome."  Certainly, something - perhaps the election (and re-election) of a non-white President - seems to have traumatized certain segments in society, rendering them increasingly incapable of rational analysis and civil discourse (both prerequisites for any successfully functioning democratic polity). Trump and his admirers may be taking political rudeness and incivility to new heights, but in this the political Right in general and the Republican Party in particular are just reaping what they have been sowing for years in not distancing themselves from the debasing and destructive direction so-called "conservatism" has taken.

The Trump campaign may have become the latest vehicle for expressing the anger of some of those who feel left behind by the changing character of our society. As is often the case, however, their spokesman hardly fits into that category himself but rather represents extreme success. He is, after all, as his responses to the questions about his bankruptcies and his political contributions illustrated, basically a businessman. If there is an ideology there it is an ideology that values success and favors "winners" while disparaging society's "losers."

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