As President Donald Trump arrived at Sunday’s World Series game in Washington, D.C., the crowd’s reception was, for a moment, just white noise. Moments later, the boos emerged and as that kindling took light, chants of “Lock him up!” echoed throughout Nationals Park.
Given the D.C. area’s strongly liberal politics, the president should have expected a cool reception. By the next morning, however, America’s political and media elite were arguing about whether 50,000 fans chanting for the chief executive’s incarceration was simply a response to Trump fans’ longstanding “Lock her up” MAGA rally cries — or whether we’d violated the heralded norms of our political system.
The question of political civility is a common debate topic in the Trump era, to the extent that responses almost feel predetermined. But this relatively predictable moment still felt particularly illustrative — and, given the venue — particularly American. It is not unusual for fans at sporting events to boo, nor is it unusual for politicians to be booed, as Will Leitch pointed out earlier this week. But the reaction to this event is illustrative of several different concerning trends in American politics today.
As American partisan politics became the national status quo during the mid-1990s, the political rhetoric and behavior considered acceptable has existed on a sliding scale. Trump’s election fully and finally broke that formulation, and with it the rules that once governed allowable campaigning.
The question of political civility is a common debate topic in the Trump era, to the extent that responses almost feel predetermined. But this relatively predictable moment still felt particularly illustrative.
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This leaves Americans three bad options when it comes to their politics.
First, we will ultimately accept that we have entered a truly calcified, sharp and brittle phase in our Republic. In this phase, it is not only acceptable, but indeed beneficial to your prospects to openly call for the imprisonment of your political opponents.
As New America’s Lee Drutman outlines in his upcoming book, such acts are a consequence of having a truly siloed two-party system. Prior to Newt Gingrich’s blowtorching of congressional bipartisanship, and the nationalization of campaigns, the parties were more malleable and there was much more overlap. We had Rockefeller Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats operating in the middle ground, and that was a good thing. Elephants and donkeys could look and act like one another and working together was not beyond the bounds of personal political survival.
But some voters may not want to wade into the increasingly frothy fray. Next November, it is entirely possible that tens of millions of voters will want less than nothing to do with re-electing Donald Trump. However, their other option, regardless of whom the Democrats nominate, may be equally unpalatable, thus leading to some kind of withdrawal from civic life.
Such dynamics further reinforce what we’ve seen in the past two election cycles: Both parties cater only to their base voters, making the contest solely about turnout on your side and depression on the other — by whatever means necessary, to win on Election Day. We are living with those results and are likely to live with them again.
The last option is for one “side” to determine that no matter how low Donald Trump goes, they won’t go with him. They will stand on principle; they will never chant “lock him up;” they will be able to sleep soundly at night. While this last option sounds very noble and safe, it actually offers the most immediate danger in that it allows the more aggressive (and in this case, executive) party to steamroll opposition. The dynamic becomes both self-fulfilling and self-sustaining as a chain reaction of bad behavior.
Our own history teaches us what happens when good women and men do nothing. The Whigs would not stand up to the moral abomination that was slavery. They were steamrolled by antebellum Democrats. A new group, willing to fight for the right things, upstarts called Republicans, understood what was at stake and fought the institution, at first politically, ultimately on the battlefield.
When political opposition determines that they have no stomach or taste for the fight, they are encouraging, some many call it appeasing, bad actors. It’s happened before. It can happen again. If no one puts a stake in the ground now, it will happen again.
Our own history teaches us what happens when good women and men do nothing. The Whigs would not stand up to the moral abomination that was slavery.
Neither the Republican nor the Democrat parties are anymore able to solve this problem for themselves or for the American people. There are too many voters they no longer represent, and if a given voter does not represent the most efficient, least expensive path to electoral victory, they might as well be stricken from the rolls.
What the system is asking us to do, what these two parties are asking us to do, is line up either with the “Deplorables” or the “Human Scum.” That’s how their leaders see us if we don’t agree with them. What’s worse, perhaps, is that those labels are now being worn as badges of honor by those to whom they’re applied.
In true Trump family fashion, Donald Trump Jr. claimed his father proudly wears Washington’s scorn. The Nats’ fans disapproval was not indicative of the president’s behavior or politics, at least according to Jr., but yet another example of how the “elite” — elite baseball fans in this context — don’t understand the president and are afraid of him.
A brighter future for the American Republic is not a given. Certainly neither of the two major parties is looking for that future to represent everyone. Next year, we should find America’s worst political actors, from city hall to the White House and turn them out of office. We should support those happy few electoral reformers who are trying to change the system. We must begin cultivating a new generation of leaders, one that embraces historical understanding while being open-minded enough to know that the future is ours to write.
Chants aren’t the starting or ending point for this epoch of American history. Indeed, they may be nothing more than the expressions of those people in a stadium on a certain day at a certain time. Booing in particular has a long and rather storied history in American professional sports. Outside those moments in time, though, they represent a new chapter in our evolution, one unsuited for those unwilling or unable to take the political fight directly to those who would do more, lasting damage to this imperfect experiment of ours.