How the Red Hen affair broke America’s civility wars wide open


A restaurants choice to eject Trumps press secretary stoked debate on how liberals should behave in an era of outrage

A refugee from what is now South Sudan, David Acuoth remarked to compatriots recently that America increasingly reminds him of home. “Where we have ethnic tribes, here it is ideological tribes,” said the political consultant, based in Washington.

The latest evidence, Acuoth believes, came last Friday night when the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, was told to leave a restaurant in Virginia, touching off debate over “civility” and the implications – moral and tactical – of abrasive public shaming. Donald Trump seized on this and other incidents in a characteristic bid to cast himself as a victim and rally sympathy and support.

Fearing a trap, senior Democrats urged restraint but it appears they are out of touch with the progressive grassroots, where feelings are strong that a president who has stoked racial tensions, branded the media the enemy of the people, threatened to jail his opponents and separated children from their parents at the US-Mexican border has lost all purchase on civility. Liberal activists and grassroots Democrats (as distinct from the establishment figures) contend that Trump’s enablers ought to be challenged, confronted, pressured, provoked and discomforted in social situations, they contend.

In short, Democrats of all persuasions are wrestling with what the proper response is to Trump’s age of outrage. Is it (to quote Michelle Obama) “When they go low, we go high” or “Fight fire with fire”?

“Where do you draw the line?” Acouth wonders. “When you ask Sarah Sanders to leave, you are breaking the boundaries we all keep, that public spaces are open to everyone. I’m black, I’m African, I’m an immigrant to the United States: what if I go to a restaurant and they say we won’t serve you because you’re black? For the sake of the stability and the union of the United States, I think public space should be off limits.”

Not so, says Maxine Waters of California. Over the weekend the Democratic congresswoman told a crowd: “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them!” Trump retorted on Twitter that Waters is “an extraordinarily low IQ person” and wrote threateningly: “Be careful what you wish for Max!”

Maxine Waters urged people to ‘push back’ on the Trump administration. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Democratic party establishment has urged caution, and asked supporters to resist sinking to Trump’s level. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, said, “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable”, while the Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer, said from the Senate floor that “the best solution is to win elections. That is a far more productive way to channel the legitimate frustrations with this president’s policies than with harassing members of his administration.”

But Pelosi and Schumer, aged 78 and 67 respectively, seem to have been left behind by liberal activists who believe that there can be no compromise in resisting Trump. From this perspective, the administration’s ruthless attacks have made immigrants, Muslims and people of colour feel uncomfortable and unsafe in America and a milquetoast, business-as-usual response of floor speeches and press releases will not suffice.

The restaurateur Carole Greenwood once gave George W Bush’s defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, his marching orders because she regarded him as a war criminal. “He came in with a large party and the staff were excited,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Absolutely not, throw him out’.”

Greenwood, based in New York, fully supports the actions of Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, who politely asked Sanders to leave. “Owning a restaurant is a very difficult job. You corral, mentor, teach a disparate bunch of people and it’s not very profitable. One of the few perks is making decisions about what happens in your space. We throw out people who are drunk or inappropriately dressed.”

She adds: “What is the major tenet of democracy except for freedom of speech and protest? This administration is not about civility. The social contract is long broken and we don’t have to abide by it.”

America’s partisan rancour has intensified in recent weeks. The comedian Samantha Bee’s attempt to raise the alarm over border separations was overshadowed by her use of foul language to describe Ivanka Trump. Robert De Niro was given a standing ovation at the Tony awards after declaring: “Fuck Trump!”

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Robert de Niro’s ‘Fuck Trump’ speech at Tony awards – video

In an article headlined “How to Lose the Midterms and Re-elect Trump”, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni responded: “When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves. Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side. They just wince at the din.”

But then Stephen Miller, the White House senior adviser and architect of the family separation policy, and the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, in charge of enforcing it, were heckled and hounded out of restaurants in Washington. Nielsen’s home was also targeted by protesters. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, was confronted by protesters this week.

Ahead of midterm elections in November, Democratic elders are concerned that aggressive anti-Trump efforts might play into the hands of a president who embraces grievance and victimhood, governs with a philosophy of divide and rule, and fans the culture wars over everything from the Roseanne revival to late-night comedians to professional football players kneeling for the national anthem.

The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Photograph: Don Petersen/AP

On Tuesday, a fundraising email from the Trump-Pence Make America Great Again Committee, with the subject heading “Harassment”, said: “The Left is trying to bully and buy their way back into power. Not on my watch. I will always stand up for you.” The next paragraph was an appeal for money. The Trump confidant and cheerleader Sean Hannity told Fox News viewers that some of Trump’s opponents have become “utterly psychotic and unhinged”.

But many progressive activists dismiss such talk as hypocritical and unlikely to change anyone’s minds. DeJuana Thompson, a political strategist from Birmingham, Alabama, who works to mobilise African American voters, contrasted the Sanders incident with the case of Anthony Wall, an unarmed black man choked and thrown to the ground by police at a Waffle House in North Carolina last month.

“There’s a lot of focus on the way in which people are treated in restaurants but we forget what’s happening in Waffle Houses,” she says. “They’re not asked to leave, they’re slammed to the floor and led away in handcuffs.

Thompson also defends Waters. “I’m not sure why people are so up in arms about her statement. Discomfort is what it’s taken to move things in our country.

“There are rules of play but I don’t think challenging someone and voicing an opinion is something we should be scared of as belligerence or violence.”

Activists point out that it is Trump, not they, who has encouraged violence at rallies and who, when a civil rights activist was run down and killed during a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, insisted that there were “very fine people on both sides”.

Angus Johnston, a historian of American student activism based at City University of New York, says: “Political violence is already here. The idea that chanting at a restaurant is going to bring on political violence is false.”

Trump supporters at a rally in North Dakota. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

But the violence has been mainly coming from Trump, he contends. “From what I gather, the request for Sarah Sanders to leave was very civil and hardly a descent into anarchy. At the same time, we have a president of the United States who revels in calls to violence and an opposition that is overwhelmingly non-violent, and yet the focus of the media is on the latter.”

The president told a rally this week: “They are the party of Maxine Waters.” But the civility debate has exposed a fissure in the Democratic party.

Neil Sroka, the communications director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, says: “It’s disappointing to see corporate Democrats hand-wringing over this. If they fall into the trap of the false equivalency, this is literally why we lose.

“I have a great deal of respect for Michelle Obama but I think 2016 showed us that ‘When they go low, we go high,’ does not work against Donald Trump. We have to be willing to call out the bigotry and the hate of this administration and make people feel uncomfortable for associating with that hate and bigotry.”

He argues that the civility debate is absurd at a time when the Trump administration is “ripping” refugee children from their parents’ arms.

“The discussion of civility betrays how deep white supremacy is in our discourse. A black woman standing up there saying we should make these people uncomfortable becomes ‘uncivil’. There is no parallel between Sarah Sanders going to eat at a fancy restaurant and Donald Trump saying white supremacists are ‘very fine people’.”

The paradox of the Trump administration demanding civility in public discourse was spelled out when he held a rally in South Carolina on Monday night. His supporters chanted “Lock her up!” in reference to his defeated election opponent Hillary Clinton. Later Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, played the clip and quipped: “Hey, remember civility! It’s lock her up please.”

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