Today I read that the Governor of New Jersey had expressed a wish to punch the American Federation of Teachers in its collective face. This is widely seen as Gov. Christie's attempt to connect with Donald Trump's audience, if not also a new rhetorical low in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Earlier today I read Michael Gerson's column from the Washington Post about Trump and his alleged imitators in the Republican field. Gerson sees Trump, and anyone who tries to talk like Trump, and anyone who likes Trump, as some sort of populist. It's a sort of populism that has little to do with limited government, given Trump's past opinions on many matters -- though I don't know why Gerson would have expected any sort of populism to be conservative in that way -- but is all about "style," "spontaneity," "authenticity" and "anger." Above all, it's about "incivility," and this is probably the closest Gerson gets to getting it. Nobody I've heard or read likes Donald Trump because they perceive that Trump is angry. People may like him because they're angry, but what they claim to like about him is that he talks straight and doesn't back down when people cry foul. As Gerson puts it, "Apologies are for wimps." Gerson doesn't note this with approval. "Incivility is immoral and dangerous to democracy," he writes. We can have "vigorous disagreement" without Trump's (or Christie's) brand of incivility, Gerson claims, but no one disputes this. No one is embracing Trump because he or she perceives a lack of vigorous disagreement in American politics. Instead, they applaud him because they think he's diagnosed why vigorous disagreement persists without hope of resolution: because stupid people refuse to listen to reason because it hurts their feelings or insults their self-esteem.
There is no place in politics for the "cultivation of contempt," Gerson warns, attributing that to Trump, but the columnist mistakes effect for cause. Contempt was rampant in our public discussions, especially at the grass-roots level of comment threads and call-in lines, long before Trump grew interested in the Presidency again. We've been at an impasse too long for either of the two main sides to believe very strongly that it's still a matter of honest or principled disagreement. Democrats have long been convinced that Republicans are stupid, but their party leaders have refrained from using the rhetoric of the rank-and-file. Republican leaders have done likewise, for the most part, until Trump has seemed to change the rules of the game, but their constituents are as likely to see Democrats as willfully ignorant to the realities that matter to the GOP, while Democrats are more likely to think Republicans congenitally ignorant. What mainstream Republicans may be afraid of is simply that two (or more) can play Trump's game. If Trump appeals to those who want to punch people in the face to make them listen, or else slap them and tell them their opinions no longer matter, does anyone doubt that there are at least as many Democrats, not to mention people further to the left, itching to treat Republicans, or even Hillary Clinton, the same way? One way or another, the Trump fad may represent a turning point in American politics, with effects outlasting his own probably chimerical candidacy. Trump and his rival imitators sound like an affront to our liberal tradition of civil discourse and "vigorous disagreement," but they've struck a nerve with people who feel, rightly or not, that sooner or later, and in one way or another, a lot of this vigorous disagreement has got to stop, and one side has to win decisively. The one way to lose this endgame, whether you're an establishment Republican or someone on the left, is to refuse to play.