Eden Collinsworth is the author of Behaving Badly: Modern Morality in Politics, Sex, and Business.
My mother, an extremely correct woman, once told me that “civility clears a path toward morality,” as if it were all I needed to know.
I’m not entirely convinced that is the case all of the time, but, because the British appear to be clinging to the hallmarks of civility (despite the tendency of their newspapers to be extremely rude), I decided to move to London for the year I planned to write a book about modern morality.
While it is true that politicians – regardless of nationality – have proven willing to drag decency through the muck, it seems to me that there’s more restraint in expressing that intention in the U.K. Offering a lesson on the political effectiveness of English understatement was the former Labour leadership contender, David Miliband. When asked what he thought about that party’s representative, Jeremy Corbyn, personally, Miliband conveyed his sentiments in an exhilaratingly rude way, without being uncouth.
“Apparently, he is nice to his cats” was all that needed to be said on the matter.
My book on modern morality has been published recently in the U.S. To promote it there, I returned from the U.K., a place where the most aggressively personal thing I’ve heard a public figure say about someone else in the public eye was Sir Nicholas Soames calling Julian Assange a “scoundrel liar coward bail fugitive and common criminal.” Still, nothing could have prepared me for Donald Trump. Just when his personal attacks can’t possibly be more offensive, or his view of his fellow humans more lacking in humanity, he is somehow able to find new and amazing ways to do both, often at the same time.
We are coming up on the one-hundredth demoralizing day of Trump’s attack on civility. His behavior toward world leaders has been sullen or downright insulting, and, in expressing himself to his fellow Americans, the words he continues to use are marinated in misogyny, racism, and a belittlement of the less fortunate. His rhetoric has consistently taunted what was once considered unspeakable. The result is that, now, it can be spoken.
And it is.
Two weeks ago, walking in the crush of humanity during Manhattan’s rush hour, I heard a shrill sound of angry horns directed at a man holding up traffic by double-parking his truck. A cabdriver, stuck directly behind the truck, got out of his cab to take his complaint directly to the source of the problem. The two men began to shout at each other: not an unusual method of expression on New York City streets. As an on-and-off New Yorker, I, too, have, on occasion, handled my own skirmishes there with a variety of unattractive words, but what the truck driver yelled at the cab driver shocked me to the core.
“Get out of my country!”
Wedged in a crowded express bus inching downtown, I mulled over how the truck driver might have convinced himself that America belongs to only his kind, whatever he perceived his kind to be. He might have known – but is too angry or afraid to admit – that, despite the promises made to him by Donald Trump, nothing can prevent the modern world’s unrelenting mass mobility, and that it is the combination of others that will imagine our future. But the real point here is that the truck driver possessed the unqualified confidence to shout such a thing on the streets of a city where virtually everyone has come from some other place.
Time will judge whether Donald Trump’s policies will fail. Sadly, he has already succeeded in recasting the public face of civility in this country.