As we look back over an emotionally charged week that finally saw the president reverse a heartbreaking policy to separate young children from their parents at the Southern border, I feel like I still need to catch my breath. Since the policy has already been discussed at length, I’d like to turn my attention to a related but less discussed issue — namely, the way some Americans reacted to it.
Watching Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen get hounded out of a restaurant was pretty shocking for buttoned down DC. It was the same for seeing White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders ejected from another restaurant for working for the president of the owner’s opposing political party. Also this weekend, angry protesters confronted Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi as she walked out of a Mister Rogers documentary.
Pam Bondi attempted to attend a screening of the Mister Rogers documentary a day after announcing her plan to end protections for health care consumers with pre-existing conditions. Here, via @timintampa, is what happened. pic.twitter.com/zMLrSayS8M
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) June 23, 2018
Then Rep. Maxine Waters called for more of this kind of behavior.
Maxine Waters calls for attacks on Trump administration: "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, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere." pic.twitter.com/jMV7wk48wM
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) June 24, 2018
Seeing the resulting celebrations across sections of Twitter felt like the bottom had fallen out yet again. It reminded me of a children’s story with the refrain, “It could always be worse.” Indeed, that seems to be true. I just wish we’d stop testing boundaries in this seemingly endless race to the bottomest bottom.
In the last two years, every time I’ve thought surely things couldn’t get any worse, they have — coarser, cruder, more disheartening and inflammatory. As tough as Washington has always been, protesting a cabinet secretary during a private dinner is a new low point for civility. What ever happened to Michelle Obama’s oft repeated “When they go low, we go high?” Since the Trumps moved into the White House, that’s seemingly been replaced by a widespread contest to see who can go lowest.
This affects us all. Not only are social media and news reports filled with rage and anxiety, making everyone feel worse about the state of the country, but that negative feedback loop could reshape our government for the worse.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told “We get the leaders we deserve.” For years, I’ve vehemently disagreed, because whenever that cliché is uttered, the conversation is inevitably about someone in government who’s a criminal or public embarrassment, and I say we deserve better than a government filled with bad apples, or a kakistocracy.
I’m that idealistic person who has long believed in the value of public service. I’ve also hated collective punishment, ever since I first encountered it in elementary school. So I’ve never been partial to the notion that my family or country deserve corrupt or inept leadership. However, I’m starting to think there might be something to the well-worn saying.
There’s already been a noticeable change in who’s running for federal office over the last two years. See: Alabama’s Roy Moore, Virginia’s Corey Stewart, and Illinois’ Arthur Jones. Lest we forget, when a pedophile willingly announces himself, you know the world has changed.
Going forward, I suspect this will be a trend. We’ll have more of these former outsiders contending for leadership, in both elected and appointed positions.
The public arena has become so much uglier and more bruising in recent years, significantly changing the job description in many cases. Those who want to serve need elephant hide for skin. After surviving mud-slinging campaigns or politicized Senate confirmations, they must also be able to tune out and withstand the mob, because Nielsen’s restaurant ejection may only be the beginning.
“Activists gathered outside Nielsen’s ritzy townhouse Friday morning with posters calling her a ‘child snatcher,’ and a loudspeaker playing the [detained] children’s cries,” the Daily Beast reported. Relatedly, the Department of Homeland Security felt the need to email all employees on Saturday afternoon, warning of credible “threats to their personal safety.” After seeing this, how many normal people would want to enter public service? Very few, I suspect, if any.
Working for any presidential administration has traditionally been considered a huge honor. Every previous president had his pick of the most talented people associated with his party, and that was good for the country, because no president can implement his campaign promises without competent and experienced staff.
By contrast, as the media loves to report, the Trump administration has faced challenges filling important jobs in federal agencies. In many cases, promising candidates withdraw their names. Filling White House jobs, historically the most coveted spots of all, has gotten so difficult that the White House is participating in a job fair. Presumably, this helps to explain how the White House hired two men who had to resign over domestic abuse scandals.
This doesn’t represent government that inspires pride that we’re governed by the wise, or a sense of trust that our institutions are humming along successfully. The more Teddy Roosevelt’s famous arena becomes distorted and polluted, the more normal people who’d make thoughtful, honorable public servants are likely to decline those jobs and live quieter, private lives.
If they do, they’ll abandon government and its immense powers to those who were previously mocked as misfits. Of course, if that’s when we truly hit bottom, maybe it can also become the start of our civic recovery, and we can rebuild the sort of government I hope we deserve.