Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of President Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, and the civility police are on a rampage: On “Morning Joe,” host Willie Geist lectured that the House Speaker’s act is “not what the country needs.”
As many pointed out, Pelosi’s theatrical gesture, which came after Trump appeared to refuse to shake her hand at the outset, is tame alongside Trump’s own constant shredding of decorum — the hate rallies, the insulting of lawmakers and so forth.
But there’s a more precise point to be made here. If the underlying premise of the criticism of breaches of decorum is that they pose a threat to our democracy’s functioning, then much of what Trump has done well beyond such breaches — for three years now — actually does pose a severe threat to that functioning, while acts like Pelosi’s actually do not pose any remotely comparable threat.
This isn’t whataboutism. It’s meant to correct a massive category error. Breaches in civility are not the main threat to our political system. Indeed, if Trump only went on half-cocked rally rants and merely insulted Democrats, the current damage would not be nearly as severe.
It’s all the other misconduct that threatens the fabric of democracy — Trump’s unchecked lawlessness, his abuses of power, his public racism, his unprecedented lying, his treatment of the opposition as illegitimate.
In this context, hand-wringing about a mutual deterioration of decorum — the New York Times discerned a “mutual snubbing,” while an NBC reporter sniffed that Pelosi indulged in “antics” that are “Trumpian” — is profoundly misleading about the wildly asymmetrical realities of the moment.
More broadly, their showdown is now being widely treated as the capstone of a troubled relationship — a “tumultuous” and “sour” one — which culminated in Trump’s impeachment.
But such descriptions won’t do. This is not a matter of Pelosi being angry at Trump for his policies and rhetoric on one side and Trump being angry at Pelosi for impeaching him on the other.
Trump treats the opposition as illegitimate
When the Senate acquits Trump, it will come after Trump worked in every conceivable way to render the House an illegitimate or even nonexistent arm of the government.
No matter how vigorously Trump’s propagandists lie to the contrary, the impeachment — for extraordinary abuses of power designed to subvert our national interests to Trump’s own and corrupt our elections, the foundation of democratic government — was a legitimate exercise of constitutional authority. It was handled in a manner commensurate with the gravity of the undertaking.
The Trump administration refused to turn over any documents and laid down a blanket (but only partly successful) ban on witness cooperation. And so, Trump didn’t merely say the House’s constitutional impeachment function was illegitimate — “a coup” — he treated it as such in a manner designed to make this so.
In acquitting Trump while refusing witnesses and evidence, Senate Republicans will not only be clearing him for the article levied for this obstruction of Congress (as well as for abuse of power). They will be carrying through that delegitimization of the House’s institutional role to completion.
Team Trump argues he’s above accountability
Trump’s team has unabashedly argued throughout that Trump is not subject to legitimate accountability of any kind.
During the special counsel investigation, Trump’s lawyers argued he can close down an investigation into himself for any reason, even if it amounts to a corrupt effort to shield his wrongdoing from scrutiny. Then, during impeachment, they argued Trump cannot be impeached for abuses of power, a view widely dismissed by legal scholars.
As political theorist Will Wilkinson noted, the upshot of this is that the House lacks the “legitimate authority to second-guess anything the president does,” in effect meaning that “Democratic power is illegitimate.”
Acknowledging the legitimacy of the opposition is a hallmark of accountability in government. In allowing for it, a president in effect allows he’s not just accountable to his own voters but also to those of the opposition — such as the national majority that elected the Democratic House in 2018.
But this conception of accountability, for Trump, is simply a dead letter. Trump has delivered speeches that are literally scripted to make opposition voters disappear. He declared impeachment an affront to “the American voter,” as if only his voters, and not those who elected the House, exist.
And well before impeachment, Trump vowed to stonewall “all” House subpoenas, to protect his corrupt profiteering off the presidency — which itself is severely destructive to democracy’s functioning — through maximal resistance to legitimate congressional scrutiny.
Trump’s lawyers also argued that impeaching Trump would disenfranchise voters by denying them a choice in the next election, which is the proper mechanism of accountability. But they also claimed that in soliciting foreign interference rigging that same election, Trump did nothing wrong. In short, no political accountability mechanism for Trump is legitimate or beyond Trump’s corrupting powers.
On top of all this, there are the threats to turn loose law enforcement on political opponents; the constant racist denigration of parts of the country represented by nonwhite lawmakers (which are not mere “antics,” but tear at the country’s fabric); the nonstop lying (a form of deep contempt for the very idea of deliberative democracy) and the perpetual manipulation of government to validate lies (another form of deep contempt for government in the public interest).
I don’t claim to know whether Pelosi’s act was bad or good politics. It probably won’t matter in the least. But in this broad context, debates about an erosion in decorum are at best utterly meaningless and are at worst actively misleading about the deep hole we’re in.