Civil Discourse Won't Fix the Trump Problem

I've become afraid I might have nothing to show my future children if they ask what I was doing to fight against a demagogue while he was approaching the presidency. Earlier today, I wrote these imaginary children a 5,000-word missive explaining my strategy. Since then, I have been given the absolute honor and privilege to have a HuffPost Blogger account - and I'm thrilled. However, HuffPost readers want much shorter posts! So, I begin my contributions with a series of bite-sized pieces of the full post, How to Trump Trump and Make American Greater Than Ever. Peek ahead, or take your first bite below.


Part 1: Civil Discourse is Honorable - and It's the Enemy

This is mostly a letter to my kids or grandkids. I don't have kids or grandkids, and am not married. So I don't know exactly to whom I'm writing yet. But, I want to tell them what their dad or granddad was thinking and doing at the time uncivil discourse was rampant in American society and a demagogue was approaching the presidency. More importantly, I want them to understand my commitment to contribute to a solution. Especially because what I'm about to say is counterintuitive: the solution to uncivil discourse is not civil discourse.

This is March 2016. Gerrymandered voting districts and lack of term limits have contributed to a polarized and unaccountable Congress. Decades of biased media and spokespeople have fanned the flames of partisanship. People's belief in the effectiveness of government is at an all time low. And now, the incivility and brazen rhetoric of a vocal minority in the Republican party is rising to a boil in the highest stage of American politics: the race for President of the United States. Donald Trump is currently the leading and presumptive Republican presidential candidate while calling for a wall between the USA and Mexico, saying Mexican immigrants racists and murderers, arguing to keep out all Muslims, and stating he'd like to punch protesters (and cover the legal fees of any supporters who would). Trump is so secure in his support he's said he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York and not lose any voters.

To some usually-partisan leaders' credit, calls for denying Trump's candidacy are mounting. It's obvious, expected, and good that Democrats and many non-Republicans are speaking out against Trump. But many Republicans are as well. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are just two, joined by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. A major faction of the responsible Republican base is working against Trump's nomination, including 22 conservatives who wrote essays against Trump in one issue of the conservative National Review. I applaud these people.

With Republican leaders and spokespeople on the frontline, there is a diverse, multi-partisan coalition of thought forming around one shared belief: the best of American values is not represented by the Trump campaign. This coalition is united in this single thought, and not united in shared action at this point. Some are protesting at Trump rallies, some are funding anti-Trump Super PACs, some are avidly supporting their alternative presidential candidate(s). One refrain, though, is becoming more and more common from the coalition's membership: the uncivil dialogue must stop, i.e. we must commit to a more civil discourse. There are calls almost hourly for civil discourse, and tamping down the rhetoric, for fear it will boil over.

This isn't a new refrain - there have been advocates for civil discourse for as long as there as been uncivil discourse, which is probably close to as long as humans have existed. I believe in the refrain. For my part, since 2003, I've personally coordinated and moderated over 300 community forums aimed at creating this civil discourse. I also became mayor of Harrisonburg and am finishing my eighth year on city council, having run local campaigns in hopes of contributing to a more civil discourse in local government. I learned of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and their 2000-person network working on civil discourse in communities, business, education, and government. Through NCDD, I am aware of many thoughtful civil discourse advocates who have nuanced and expansive understandings of the term civil discourse. These people, though, understand a different kind of civil discourse than the simplified type being called for by well-meaning leaders, media personalities, and everyday Americans.

Civil discourse, in response to Trump, generally means, "Don't be mean, don't say racist things, don't call people names, don't interrupt, don't punch people, don't yell, don't show emotion, and don't make people uncomfortable." In short, civil discourse, for many, means, "Speak politely." Speaking politely is certainly a noble pursuit, and politeness would indeed be a refreshing departure from the rhetoric in our politics in general and in the Republican debates specifically. Politeness can contribute to respect, trust, and even resolution to some conflicts. There are actually plenty of examples of polite speaking while disagreeing. Every Sunday morning ABC's This Week, NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, CNN's State of the Union, and Fox's Fox News Sunday feature people with disagreements stating their opinions rather politely. Add to that NPR and PBS, and there's actually plenty of polite talk out there.

But asking for more polite speaking doesn't seem to be motivating anyone. In fact, the more uncivil Trump and his crowds are, and the more calls for civility are made, the more fervent his supporters get. Speaking politely, it seems, is not an inspiring request to the frustrated Trump supporters. To better understand this, consider another term that is very close to "civil discourse," and notice its similarity to Trump's very justification for his candidacy: "political correctness."

Political correctness is laughed at (literally at Trump rallies) by millions of people in America. It's perceived to be weak, ineffective, and soft. But more, many conservatives don't just dismiss political correctness as annoying - they hate it. Political correctness is perceived as a threat to their own God-given and constitutionally-secured right to their freedom of speech. Political correctness, i.e. speaking politely, is not perceived as a solution to anything. It's experienced as the very essence of the problem in America. As Trump says, the time for political correctness as a way to create solutions is over. People are offended too easily, and political correctness - civil discourse - is in the way of getting real, getting down to business, getting to solutions, getting things done, and, of course, making America great again.

But why is there such a negative reaction to being asked to speak politely and be politically correct? To understand this, we need to examine what speech actually is, which I do in my next post.

Image Source: used with permission from NathanMac87 on Flickr.