David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, wrote the lead comment for the July 10 issue before the controversy broke out over the GIF showing Donald Trump beating up a CNN stand-in, but after the President had posted his ad hominem tweets against the co-hosts of Morning Joe. "When has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak?" Remnick asks, "Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the Presidency a little more." He worries that "the atmosphere of debasement and indignity in the White House ... is contagious." He's probably right to worry, but Trump is not Patient Zero. In purely aesthetic terms, his is certainly the most undignified rhetoric of any President, but in the race to the bottom of indignity in America he is follower more than leader. Meanwhile, a preoccupation with "dignity" probably isn't helping Trump's critics, either in opposition or within his own party. To Trump's base, it most likely looks like snobbery, especially among those for whom the President himself and his family epitomize "class."
Those who find the President undignified tend, like Remnick, to identify his indignity with his petty trolling of opponents. Trump lacks dignity, the argument might go, because he shows no respect to anyone who disagrees with him. But Trump's real fans probably see no sacrifice in dignity in calling things as you see them, and probably consider insults the least of what his enemies deserve. While some Republicans are just as repelled by Trump's social-media shenanigans, those probably matter more to Democrats, not just because Trump is a partisan enemy, but because his trolling habits offend their sense of egalitarian dignity. Their theory of democracy includes an entitlement to dignity; each person is owed respect as a human being, while people's status as equal citizens is threatened when their identities as individual or group members are disrespected. That's why Trump's insults are so often perceived as threats. Protests against those perceived threats, meanwhile, make little impression on observers whose idea of democracy requires a degree of mutual accountability apparently denied by both the subculture of political correctness and a political culture that privileges dissent and "speaking truth to power." From that perspective, appeals to "dignity" simply rationalize an unfair refusal to allow the President or his people to answer in kind attacks on their character that aren't exactly dignified themselves.
While "speaking truth to power" is a slogan of the left, the privileging of dissent is a general American tendency, arguably inevitable in a polity and culture that value "freedom" more than anything else. We've reached the point where the absence of something like Fox News or MSNBC marks a country as dangerously authoritarian in many eyes. Dissent is the health of the state from this perspective, while any suggestion that dissent goes too far sounds like a call for the suppression of all dissent. When the only proof of a free (if not a good) society is your ability to bitch at the leaders, an unlevel playing field of discourse becomes increasingly apparent to whoever supports the party in power, belying the rhetoric of egalitarian dignity, and attacks on opponents' dignity will seem increasingly appropriate and gratifying. In an ideal republic mutual respect and mutual accountability are perfectly compatible, but that's not where Americans live. Accountability arguably is the higher priority here, and that may require us to endure some undignified times.