Civility Strikes Back

Style and substance are both yielding to societal norms - at last

From the moment Donald Trump down rode that escalator straight through Inauguration Day, he forced America to conform to him. Since the inauguration, we increasingly have forced him to conform to us.

Since taking office, Trump has been reined in on policy. This is as the Founders intended: absent a clear mandate to, say, repeal the Affordable Care Act, the status quo stays. President Obama’s signature program will therefore remain with us, warts and all.

Subtler than specific policies, but more important for the long-term health of the body politic, are the constraints on breaking political norms. On this, we may have just witnessed the turning of the tide.

For a year and a half, Trump berated the media: since the inauguration, in the unfortunate person of Press Secretary Sean Spicer, the media has forced him to deflect, retreat and, most recently, formally apologize for comparing the Syrian President unfavorably to Adolph Hitler as the sun set on Passover.

It is tempting to see such collisions as occurring flatly between style and substance. In fact, the two have established a dialectic unique to Trump’s America. Both style and substance are yielding to social norms.

In rejecting Trump’s proposed ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries, the 9th Circuit set the stage for fusing style and substance, and evaluating the combined product through the lens of what is acceptable in America. They elected to take Trump’s words throughout the campaign on banning Muslims not only seriously but literally, and on this basis let stand a suspension of the ban. With a bigoted motive thus established, no remedy is feasible—even in a province normally reserved to the discretion of the executive.

Normally reserved. This ain’t normal. Except, increasingly, the President himself.

Consider Trump’s reluctance to address anything of consequence at his much-anticipated meeting with China’s Xi Jinping, or his abrupt about-face on Syria. Both choices carry substantive implications for policy. Yet neither seems driven by strategy. They are reversions, under pressure, to what we expect presidents to do.

Trump is finding the limits of outrage just as—forgive me the conceit—decent Americans are forcing other despicable quarters across our society to cry uncle. The outrage against Pepsi may have been strongest with Black Lives Matter, but was expressed well beyond, particularly among Millennials.

The video of a physician assaulted, abducted, bloodied and petrified by uniformed guards may mark a turning point not only in the fortunes of United Airlines, but the chronic national conversation about police conduct—to say nothing of the near-continuous erosion of civility in air travel.

I don’t predict @realDonaldTrump will soon give up his Android, no matter the obvious security concerns of @POTUS using the world’s most notoriously unsecure mobile platform. I don’t expect his tirades against the rest of the world for “ripping us off” to subside: in fact, he just might return to the stump to refresh his ego.

But the damage is being undone. From Secretary of State Tillerson’s reversal on Assad, to the President’s own newfound capacity for criticizing Russia, to those most merciless stewards of social standards, late-night TV hosts, norms are finding defenders in every sphere. Even Senator Lindsey Graham’s invocation of the F-word on Meet the Press stood in the service of egging Trump on toward a more conventionally hawkish Republican posture.

This is the week that civility fought back. Like the good manners your mother insisted on, it is itself a combination of style and substance. Coming as it does at the head of so many setbacks for the Administration in both style and substance, I give the best odds in two years that it’s not going away gently.

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