The real problem with anger in U.S. politics? There's not enough

Thousands attend the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall on Oct. 30, 2010 in Washington.

I’ve spent a lot of my brooding moments recently brooding about this: The role of civility — and, conversely, anger — in our current American politics. Part of the reason was the incident earlier this month in which a deranged man with liberal political obsessions shot Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and four other people at a Virginia baseball practice — clearly a case in which anger over the American condition was taken to an illogical and immoral extreme. But that sickening event also occurred amid a string of non-violent but objectionable, even disturbing episodes like comedian Kathy Griffin posing with a fake bloodied severed head of President Trump and Johnny Depp joining the loser’s club of people who suddenly thought a presidential assassination joke would make them America’s Next Great Comic. Of course, no one was killed in those incidents, but they were a source of ammunition — for people eager to change the national conversation away from the authoritarian tendencies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the wealth grab taking place up the street on Capitol Hill, or the evidence that American democracy may be less than what meets the eye. The pro-Trump backlashers can grasp at these new straws to insist the real problem with U.S. politics is so much anger and hate.

Over the weekend, as I brooded some more, this flew over the transom.

Ah, yes — I remember it well. The 2010 Jon Stewart (and Stephen Colbert) Rally to Restore Sanity — which could never decide if it was satire or an earnest plea for — wait for it — civility in American politics. The rally was held on a beautiful fall Saturday on the National Mall, right before that year’s critical mid-term elections, and the excitement that it generated among those that we now call “cosmopolitan’ coastal types, predominantly progressive, was over the top, even weird. There were scores of buses — leaving from a popular food co-op in Northwest Philly, or paid for by Arianna Huffington, who ran a supposedly “liberal” news website but never did anything similar for any actual liberal causes, to my knowledge. I watched some of the event on TV; here’s a good description from a journalist who was there, Jason Linkins, then of the Huffington Post:

The Rally To Restore Sanity was a well attended, and my by vantage, a well organized event, that drew thousands of very friendly, somewhat liberal, but not at limited to young, people to Washington, DC. The early arrivers were deep into the sanity theme. With signs that decried hysteria, endorsed conversation, and made great sport of the excesses that we are, all, used to by now (“There was only the one Hitler” read one), the most dedicated attendees showed up to support reasonableness.

Who could be against that, right? The reason why that 2010 rally sign that was tweeted out Saturday night hasn’t aged well is not that everyone who opposes you is “a Nazi” — that wasn’t true then or now — but that it numbed us to the idea that a politician with support from actual neo- or quasi-Nazis like Richard Spencer or David Duke could get elected president and continue to employ a dude with weird, Nazi-ish connections on his White House payroll. To me, it’s a lot more important that we protest neo-Nazi influence in American politics than that we rally for “reasonableness.” And the true fact there “there was only one Hitler” can numb us to the dangers of a modern variation of neo-fascism.

But the biggest problem I had with the 2010 Jon Stewart rally was that while young and progressive-minded folks were laughing ironically in DC, thousands of Tea Partiers — on the same political team as hundreds of millions of dollars in billionaire and corporate campaign cash — were working their proverbial butts off that same weekend to elect a slate of politicians who regularly steamroll civility to impose a dark vision on America. I’ll bet that 90 percent of the ironic Stewart ralliers believed that “reasonableness” means listening to scientists and taking care of sick people. But while they “endorsed conversation,” voters in states like Pennsylvania weren’t talking but working to just barely elect first-timers like Sen. Pat Toomey, who confirmed President Trump’s climate-change deniers into the Cabinet and just crafted a plan to throw millions off Medicaid. The irony for the formerly ironic Stewart and Colbert aficionados is that I’ll bet many, if not most, of them are now involved in some way in the so-called Resistance protesting Trump — and wondering what the hell happened.

The truth is that a lot of the people pleading for a return to civility in American politics are actually hoping for something different: Passivity, or inaction. It’s not something completely new — using protests and occasional lapses into violence as an excuse to crack down on dissent and take away the civil liberties that are supposed to be guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights is an old trick. But in 2017, more protesters are facing arrest, and longer prison terms, and a slew of states have passed or are debating laws that would criminalize demonstrations — as the same time that journalists are facing a rise in harassment or even arrests. It is the classic cycle of abuse, but in this case the abuser is the government. So when abuse occurs — whether it’s an oil pipeline jammed down a community’s throat or news that you could lose your medical coverage — the victim responds with justified anger, which is then cited to justify even greater abuse.

I’ve mentioned this once or twice before, but in high school I had a great football coach named Rob Pickert, and I’ve always remembered the way that he taught defensive ends how to contain the other team’s backs — to rush with what he called “reckless abandon, but under control.” That’s not so easy to do, in football, or in life. In a nation of 320 million people, there are, sadly, going to be unstable, violent individuals, and when one of those people — like James Hodgkinson, the Virginia shooter who had a history of domestic violence — commits an act of terrorism, it’s not surprising that the talking heads start calling for a broader civility, to tone down the conversation among the remaining 319,999,999. But while no one should incite violence, there’s also a real danger in too much “civility” and calm at a moment like this, when it’s unfortunately not an exaggeration to say the fate of America as a democracy is hanging by a thread. If you’re not angry about what’s taking place in Washington at this very moment, you’re not paying attention. Which is what they’re going for.

It’s hard to say which is more outrageous tonight. Is it the fact that congressional Republicans are dangerously close to passing a bill that plays on cultural resentment of ex-President Obama and other “pointy-headed liberals” to get away with $800 billion in tax cuts mostly for the richest Americans, that would be paid for by taking away health insurance from the working poor or from older citizens in nursing homes who’ve exhausted their life’s savings? Or that — aware that most citizens would oppose the so-called Trumpcare plan if they knew what was in — elected Republicans have taken to blatant, over-the-top lying? The worst example of this is Pennsylvania’s own Toomey, who told CBS News this morning that the Senate health care bill would “make permanent” the expansion of Medicaid and that “no one loses coverage,” when in fact Toomey was the architect of its provisions that over time will move millions off Medicaid and into the ranks of the uninsured. Who gave U.S. senators the idea that they could get away with blatant, easily check-able untruths. Maybe it was President Trump, whose most provable lies took up an entire page (in small type, no less) in the New York Times. I don’t know if there’s an appropriate “civil” response to a lying government — but anger is unavoidable.

You want irony? When a foreign enemy — like ISIS, a despicable terrorist group that occasionally inspires lone wolves but does the bulk of its damage halfway around the world — isn’t confronted in the most aggressive and militaristic way possible, that’s called weakness, or appeasement. But when the threat to our way of life comes from within — when government tells us our parents might get kicked out of their nursing home or that our kid may not be able to get cancer treatment — we are suddenly expected to become a nation of 320 million Neville Chamberlains.

And don’t be surprised to watch so-called political leaders use “civility” as a crutch to maintain the status quo in a nation that is currently unfair and unequal. Last week, I saw West Virginia moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin pledge to not campaign against Republican Senate colleagues, using the Virginia baseball-field shooting as an excuse. But the estimated 184,000 West Virginians who will lose their health coverage under Trumpcare don’t want Manchin to be nice to his millionaire Senate colleagues. They want him to fight for their lives.

The people are going to have to do what the politicians won’t do. Fight — with reckless abandon but under control. Violence never solves anything, but meaningful social changes has never come without large-scale resistance and with righteous anger, from Selma to Stonewall and beyond. Reasonableness has its place, but it’s important to understand that there’s a class of folks out there who talk about “civility” when what they really mean is don’t call your senator, don’t circle the Capitol at 5 p.m. Wednesday night to show your outrage, and by all means do not say anything that will interfere with this orderly transfer of $800 billion from the struggling middle class to the already wealthy. Yes, there’s a problem with the level of anger in American politics right now. It’s not high enough.