In ways that are specific to incipient tyrannies

Adam Gopnik on commensality and the culture of eating together and eating together-but-apart and how central to our lives it all is.

On the issue of Sanders being expelled from a restaurant, mixed emotions are the only ones a rational person can have. On the one hand, one of the ritual functions of restaurants is to make a common place for commonplace civilization to proceed. They build social capital from their openness to all kinds. Think of how much the civilization of American cities depends on our being able to grab not just bite but a bit of anonymity—we eat alongside others without the others looking down too sharply upon us. It’s a fundamental liberal value, worth protecting in all partisan instances and on all partisan sides. And, no, we don’t want to set a precedent in which politics are so personalized that even simple common coexistence becomes impossible. As a moral duty, we should share the pleasures and conversation of the table with as many people of as many views as we can—and, even when we can’t, we shouldn’t grumble too nastily under our breath at our kids when someone at a nearby table takes up the case for the Donald. (A self-directed moral rule, this.)

On the other hand, the Trump Administration is not a normal Presidential Administration. This is the essential and easily fudged fact of our historical moment. The Trump Administration is—in ways that are specific to incipient tyrannies—all about an assault on civility. To the degree that Trump has any ideology at all, it’s a hatred of civility—a belief that the normal decencies painfully evolved over centuries are signs of weakness which occlude the natural order of domination and submission.

Yes. That. That. That’s why I keep obsessing over his constant insults, his scowls, his contemptuous nicknames, his belligerence – it’s his hatred of all those customs we have that prompt us to treat each other decently.

It’s why Trump admires dictators. Theirs are his values; that’s his feast. And, to end the normal discourse of democracy, the Trump Administration must make lies respectable—lying not tactically but all the time about everything, in a way that does not just degrade but destroys exactly the common table of democratic debate.

That’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s chosen role in life—to further those lies, treat lies as truth, and make lies acceptable. This is not just a question of protesting a particular policy; in the end there are no policies, only the infantile impulses of a man veering from one urge to another. The great threat to American democracy isn’t “policy” but the pretense of normalcy. That’s the danger, for with the lies come the appeasement of tyranny, the admiration of tyranny, and, as now seems increasingly likely, the secret alliance with tyranny. That’s what makes the Trump Administration intolerable, and, inasmuch as it is intolerable, public shaming and shunning of those who take part in it seems just. Never before in American politics has there been so plausible a reason for exclusion from the common meal as the act of working for Donald Trump.

As I keep pointing out, this isn’t “partisan.” Trump is a bad human being. Sanders speaks for him. She could leave at any time but she doesn’t. She puts a pious (albeit scowling) face on the hatred of civility.

4 Responses to “In ways that are specific to incipient tyrannies”