About one year ago I wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, pointing out that the then newly elected President Trump tied his ties so that the front blade was too long, and, to manage the correspondingly short back blade, which did not reach the loop designed to keep it in place, he resorted to scotch tape. His ties looked tacky from the front—an exaggeration of masculine symbolism consistent with Trump’s other vulgar, self-aggrandizing boasts. Worse, if the wind blew so that the back was visible, the X of scotch tape was exposed for all to see, revealing a sort of sartorial Potemkin Village. I suggested that Trump’s ignorance of—or contempt for—vestimentary norms might reveal something unnerving about how he would approach democratic norms.
I received a lot of reactions to that piece—most positive and, predictably, some that accused me of partisan bias—why didn’t I criticize, say, Bernie Sanders’ sloppy appearance? But the most telling were those that insisted that it was silly—even contemptible—to consider Trump’s personal appearance at all. Some complained that with so many serious issues at stake in Trump’s rise to power, it was frivolous to focus on a neck tie; others argued that it was elitist—an insult to the millions of artless plebians in our great nation who may not know or care about sartorial nuances.
Of course, a badly tied necktie isn’t, in and of itself, a threat to the Republic. But the idea that attire is beneath serious consideration suggests that etiquette and manners generally are inconsequential. It’s priggish—even snobbish—to care about whether someone is dressed appropriately, or is refined and polite in their social interactions. Good citizenship consists only of complying with the letter of the law and anyone who insists on more is probably a snob or worse, a “cultural imperialist” who is trying to impose his or her patrician sensibilities on the less refined common people.
Such a faux-populist contempt for norms of democracy or civility has been a defining feature of the Trump presidency: Who cares if every other candidate for President releases his or her tax returns? There’s no law requiring it. For that matter, exploiting loopholes to avoid paying taxes isn’t unpatriotic—as long as the tax dodge isn’t clearly illegal, it’s just smart business. Threatening and insulting your political opponents on Twitter is fair game in politics—after all, there’s no law against it. As historian Michael Beschloss told the New York Times, “Trump is essentially saying ‘I’m not going to operate . . . within the boundaries . . . people might have expected for 200 years. I’m going to operate within the boundaries of what is strictly legal, and I’m going to push those boundaries if I can.”
This scorn for civility isn’t ideologically exclusive—it’s a cultural meme that joins political enemies. For the Left, it has taken the form of a countercultural and multiculturalist attack on “hegemonic” mainstream norms and values that, at its worst, glorifies belligerence as the speaking of truth to power; for the Right, it underlies the populist ressentiment that put Trump in the White House and it has long been an implication of the libertarian insistence on the irreducible subjectivity of all values—the reduction of ethics to mere “preferences.”
The idea that shared norms are unnecessary—even oppressive and elitist—puts a lot of pressure on the law. If we can’t require adherence to shared norms and values, the strict letter of the law alone must keep us safe, secure and free—and as Trump has shown us, we can expect that any legal ambiguity or legislative oversight to be exploited to the fullest. Inevitably there will be such ambiguities and oversights that need to be clarified or filled in by what I might quaintly call common sense and common decency. Such common norms are the mortar that holds the bricks of legal reasoning—and of civil society—together.
All told, the law has done an admirable job over the past year: courts have blocked the most bigoted aspects of Trump’s immigration policies and the formal structure of government prevents him from firing the special counsel tasked with investigating his possible collusion with Russia. But the law isn’t enough to keep a society together. As political scientist Robert Putnam discovered in his classic study of Italian local democracy, a tradition of social trust distinguishes successful democracies from failed ones. Likewise, the widespread failure of anti-corruption, human rights and rule of law projects in dysfunctional socio-political contexts worldwide demonstrates the impotence of formal law in the absence of norms and habits of liberal democracy. Law can limit some of the worst abuses of illiberal demagogues, but it won’t save us from the slow degradation of civil society caused by sustained demagoguery.
Consider how Trump’s disregard for norms of civility have made a tense and difficult situation much worse with respect to race relations. Since the early 1970s, there has been an unspoken norm against overt racial appeals in American politics. Of course, many politicians in the recent past have subtly appealed to racial prejudice—Ronald Reagan, for instance, notoriously spoke of “welfare queens” and extolled state’s rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of a notorious lynching of civil rights activists; George Bush endorsed the shamelessly race-baiting Willie Horton ad campaign and Bill Clinton had his “Sister Soulja” moment. But in Trump’s mouth the dog whistle has become a megaphone, damaging a norm of mutual respect and emboldening the worst elements in our society. One might argue that the difference is only of sensibility and style: Trump is as obvious and vulgar as a Vaudeville barker whereas, Reagan winked at racists with a film actors’ understatement. But that difference actually matters quite a lot. Unlike Trump’s suggestion that some of the neo-Nazis who terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017 were “fine people,” the subtler, “Southern strategy” style of racial appeals didn’t serve as a recruiting pitch for bigots—after all, the whole point of a dog whistle is that only dogs can hear it. The Southern Strategy was bad, but Trump’s provocations are worse. The difference, is, if you will, a matter of civility.
Looking beyond Trump, consider the controversies surrounding “offensive” speakers on university campuses. The law tells us only what government must and must not do—common norms tell us what other groups and individuals should and should not do. Common decency says that one should not promote gratuitously offensive provocations of negligible intellectual content simply to ‘bait” one’s ideological opponents, as some conservative students have admitted to doing. Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have a First Amendment right to spout their inanities in any free speech area or forum open the general public, but respectable organizations will deny them an invitation to speak in more exclusive intellectual settings. On the other hand, common sense should be sufficient to distinguish these professional provocateurs from actual scholars, such as Charles Murray, who, unlike Coulter and Yiannopoulos, is not gratuitously offensive but merely wrong, and who liberal students at several colleges have silenced with a heckler’s veto.
The almost daily affronts perpetrated by Trump and his political allies may seem to call for a response in kind. But in this case, fighting fire with fire may just burn everything to the ground. The best way to resist Trump is to defend the norms of mutual respect and that he so consistently seeks to undermine. Here the best moments of the civil rights struggle of the mid-20th century provide a model. When the civil rights activists of the mid 20th century challenged the blatant injustices of that troubled era they did so by evoking the nation’s best shared ideals—even though those ideals were too often honored only in the breach. In today’s distrustful and polarized times, such appeals to shared sensibilities are often dismissed as a toadying “respectability politics.” But the author of that term, the historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, saw the politics of respectability as a fierce, uncompromising and dignified political activism that compelled the respect of those who witnessed it: “they wanted to look clean cut because they wanted people to see them and say, ‘these are respectable people . . . Their cause is something we can identify with.’” These weren’t people who shouted down their political adversaries or flaunted the size of their… neckties. Those who would resist Trump should reject—not mirror—the belligerence, anger and contempt for civility that will likely be his only enduring legacy. The 45th President has shown us precisely what the opposite of respectability politics looks like when it prevails.