It's getting hard out there for a Trump staffer. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who made the interesting choice to go out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant at the moment her department was separating thousands of children from their parents at our border with Mexico, found herself heckled by protesters shouting "Shame!" Politico reports that "Staffers leaving the White House grounds semi-regularly catch passersby flipping them the bird," and the young ones looking for love on dating apps find that when prospective partners find out who they work for they're regularly rejected, with some colorful insults thrown in. And last Friday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders posted this on Twitter:
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 23, 2018
Anyone who has watched Sanders lie to reporters and sneer contemptuously at them knows that last part isn't true, but things are getting personal. These travails for Trump staffers come at a time when there is undoubtedly more incivility about, whether it's tension at the Thanksgiving table or celebrities like Robert De Niro letting their anger out in public.
You may have noticed at some time in the last couple of decades that while liberals are constantly asking themselves whether they're being sufficiently courteous or alienating the people who hate them, this is never a question conservatives spend time worrying about. That doesn't mean liberals shouldn't wonder, however. Nor should we pretend that episodes like this one don't raise complex philosophical and practical questions.
The owner of the restaurant surely didn't want to get swept into a media circus, but she told The Washington Post that her staff, which included a number of gay employees angered by the administration's policies, said they'd rather not serve Sanders. "I'm not a huge fan of confrontation," she said. "I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals." So she politely asked Sanders to leave.
As we must, people immediately began debating the rightness of the restaurant's choice. Is it acceptable to deny service to a key member of an administration you find abhorrent? Are other forms of political activism more effective? Isn't this just going to give more ammunition to conservatives, who love nothing more than playing the victim?
Some have raised the analogy of the recently decided Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, in violation of a state anti-discrimination law (the Supreme Court found in his favor, but on narrow grounds that didn't resolve the fundamental issue). If liberals believe that baker is wrong for denying service to that couple based on his beliefs, how can it be right to deny service to Sanders?
The simplest answer is that the baker knew nothing about that couple other than the fact that they were gay; he turned them away simply because of who they were. The restaurant, on the other hand, didn't have a sign reading "Republicans may not eat here" in the window. They turned away Sarah Sanders as an individual, because of the specific things she has done in the service of Donald Trump.
It's also important that this happened in a specific context, when the country is debating one of the most odious things this administration has done: literally tearing children from their parents' arms and incarcerating them. And it wasn't some kind of organized activist effort; it was a spontaneous expression of dismay on the part of people who find this administration's actions horrific.
The least persuasive argument for why this is problematic is that rudeness might alienate conservatives. Hearing people who work for Donald Trump—Donald Trump!—talk about civility is enough to make you feel as though you've been transported to Bizarro World, where everything is upside-down and backwards. Let's not forget that there were few more fundamental appeals underlying Trump's presidential candidacy than this one: Join me, and you no longer have to treat people you don't like with respect. When Trump rails against "political correctness," this is what he's talking about. A popular t-shirt at Trump rallies (though not as popular as "Trump That Bitch") read "Trump 2016: Fuck your feelings."
In a large portion of Trump's base today, there is no higher goal in public debate than "owning the libs"—not making a insightful argument or compelling case for a particular course of action, but pissing off the people you hate. It has become a movement devoted to trolling as a central goal and an end in itself. All over America, people report that angry bigots are feeling unleashed to let everyone know how they feel about them, whether it's in organized neo-Nazi rallies or one-on-one interactions.
So spare us the lectures on politeness from people who work for a man who makes up mocking names for anyone who angers him, who bragged about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, who warns against immigrants who will "pour in and infest our Country," who vomits out an unending stream of lies, who encourages his supporters to be as cruel and hateful as he is, and who regularly demonstrates his loathing for all the institutions and procedures that separate democracy from dictatorship. As I write this, the most-read article on the website of my other employer, The Washington Post, is "The owner of the Red Hen explains why she asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave." The second-most-read article is, "Trump advocates depriving undocumented immigrants of due-process rights." Who's being uncivil here?
In all the endless media examinations of every thought that might drift through the mind of a Trump loyalist tucking into the omelette special at Grady's Diner on Main Street in a sturdy but struggling town in the heartland, we often lose sight of just how many Americans have been scarred by this presidency already. Even apart from those who have been hurt in direct and tangible ways, there are millions who have been told that their they aren't true Americans, that they don't deserve civil rights, that the machinery of the state can be mobilized against them based on the whims of an impulsive man-child and the party that enthusiastically supports him.
So we shouldn't be surprised when some of those people decide, in a moment of anger or calm reflection, to push back just a little on the people who are most enthusiastically turning Donald Trump's will into action. Those administration staffers made a choice to work for him, knowing full well who he is.
They should spend the rest of their lives in the ignominy they deserve, but the truth is that they won't. They'll move to lavishly remunerated positions with corporations and think tanks and lobbying firms, and the Republican "establishment" that expressed so much terror at the prospect of a Trump presidency will work hard to rationalize all their misdeeds. They'll be just fine.
So in the meantime, count me as not particularly upset to hear that Sarah Sanders or Kirstjen Nielsen got confronted by some Americans disgusted at the things they do. If someone started an organized effort to make sure no Trump staffer could eat a meal or fill up their gas tank without being yelled at, I'd say that there are more effective ways to accomplish one's political goals. But if they have to move through the world being reminded of how contemptible most of us find them, that's at least some tiny measure of justice and accountability.