Uncivil Discourse

Last night, the Beloved Spouse and I were privileged to attend an absolutely beautiful dinner party given by two of our favorite people. Roughly twenty-four of us enjoyed a rich and delicious meal together in the temperate summer air, overlooking a glorious water view. There was a tent overhead in case of rain, but the weather held until about half an hour after the party ended. Then it stormed. Let’s just hope that wasn’t a portent.

Not long after we were seated, a highly accomplished and generally friendly man at my table, whom I had not previously met, went on a riff about how wouldn’t it be great if the CIA were to kill President Trump. He meant his comments to be taken as humorous, clearly assuming that the rest of us at the table shared his perspective that a deus (or rather, assassin) ex machina end to the Trump presidency would be a good thing, or at least a prospect that we could all contemplate with equanimity and not a little guilty pleasure.

I wasn’t the least bit amused. I’m pretty sure that our hostess – seated at the same table – also found the comments from her old friend a bit uncomfortable – if for no other reason than her awareness that my politics differ sharply from the consensus view of northeastern elites that our president is the embodiment of evil. In any event she quickly tried to change the focus of the conversation.

If she was worried that I would make a scene, she needn’t have been. Had we been on neutral ground, or at my home, I absolutely would have told him what I thought of his humor – but the last thing I would’ve done at her party was to strike such a discordant note. If my new acquaintance was paying attention to my reactions, though – which I doubt, since there were eight of us at the table – he might’ve noticed a lack of smiling approbation in my face. That far, I felt comfortable going.

As I think about the man’s comments, it strikes me as interesting that he felt comfortable making them.

Would I have felt comfortable making such a “joke” about President Obama, virtually every one of whose policies I thought ill-considered? Absolutely not. I would have thought such a line of patter to be tasteless, unpatriotic and, by definition, seditious – and those who didn’t know me would certainly have taken it as racist. And apart from all that, I never hated the man, I just thought he was a lousy president.

Do I think that the comments hoping for President Trump’s early and unnatural demise sprang from my dinner companion’s policy differences with the president? Can he be so offended by the fastest economic growth and lowest minority unemployment in decades that he hopes for the president’s murder? Given his business successes and the stock market’s recent trends, I would think that his own net worth is up sharply – unless, that is, he took Paul Krugman’s election-eve view that the market would never recover from Trump’s election, and sold. Doesn’t make sense.

Is he willing to kill, and implicitly overthrow our democracy, over Gorsuch and Kavanaugh? Seems rather extreme, don’t you think?

Does he think Trump is really in Putin’s pocket? If so, why would Trump be arming the Ukrainians, encouraging fracking, and trying to force our European allies to both rearm and blow up the Nordstream Energy deal? No, that doesn’t wash, either. Trump’s policies, if not his diplomacy, have been radically more anti-Russian than Obama’s.

Does he really think that coups d’etat are how we should change leaders? Clearly not, you see – that was the “joke” part – but it’s no stretch to infer that he would be delighted if we were to awaken one fine morning to learn that President Trump had, say, died of a heart attack.

I think what was really going on for those few minutes last night was that my new acquaintance was trying to bond with the rest of us at the table – at least, those with whom he was not already close – by stressing social solidarity based on the presumption that we all share his Trump hatred and his “progressive” political values. He was asserting that, of course, we all hate Trump. It wasn’t about policy differences – we can disagree on policy without calling for an end to the republic – it was the assertion of a class distinction of which he felt entirely confident.

In those presumptions, at least as far as I’m concerned, he miscalculated – but, more than that, the manner of his miscalculation, the form of his humor, was revealing. I won’t go all the way to asserting that by joking about a Trump assassination, my recent acquaintance was in any danger of normalizing the idea of bloodthirsty changes of power to any who might actually act on the idea – the crowd last night included no crazies. But I do think there’s some danger of that when Hollywood does the same thing in front of worldwide audiences, some number of whom are a good deal more suggestible – and that some lines of discourse should be frowned upon, even in small, private gatherings, among those who cherish a civil society.


M.H. Johnston


P.S. After a couple of minutes, the topic of Trump hatred was dropped; nobody else at the table had taken the bait. The conversation for the rest of the evening was both amicable and fascinating, and in fact the fellow who had dreamed aloud of a Trump assassination and I went on to pleasantly share thoughts on the effects of changing technology on society.

In another context, I would have enjoyed not holding my tongue. Another day, perhaps.

4 comments to Uncivil Discourse

  • DP  says:

    Appalling that anyone would say that or think it’s funny. Your observation that a similar comment about President Obama would be beyond the pale proves the point.

    Last week the NY Times published detailed precinct maps showing the vote split across America. You should look at some precincts where you live or know people. We literally live side by side with our political opponents and the picture we may have of how they look is probably very wrong. Yes

  • John Trafton  says:

    Well-said, old friend

    • Peter J. Lefeber  says:

      Appalling. Well said.

  • John Primm  says:

    Mark, i agree with the 3 comments given and once again thank you for such incisive writing. Sadly voices of reasonable discourse are not in fashion any longer. Please do keep up your work.



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