Even if only a pretense, staying civil is in Donald Trump’s interest (and ours too).
During the 2016 presidential election a great deal of attention has been paid to a single question: How should Donald Trump behave?
Even as Trump occasionally acted like a conventional candidate he also continued to flout proprieties.
From the first days of the campaign through much of the primary season, Trump appeared to specialize in defying conventional electoral etiquette. He said many inappropriate things. He called Mexican immigrants rapists, pointedly questioned the intelligence of one of his opponents, and condemned the esteemed veteran John McCain for having been a prisoner of war. Trump also mocked a reporter with disabilities, and he insinuated that the tough questioning he received at a debate occurred because one of the moderators was menstruating.
The outrageous comments and inflammatory insults were, as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski frequently observed, a result of simply letting Trump be Trump. Trump was his own man. He listened only to his gut, not to pollsters and consultants.
Trump’s authenticity won enthusiastic praise from core supporters. Yet as the prospect of Trump winning the Republican nomination became more certain, pressure mounted on Trump to change his ways. Lewandowski was pushed aside by a new campaign manager, Paul Manafort, a seasoned political professional who promised to pivot Trump toward a more conventionally presidential public style. “You can’t change somebody’s character,” Manafort observed shortly after joining the Trump campaign. “But you can change the way somebody presents themselves.”
Trump subsequently trimmed his sails—a bit. He read a few scripted speeches from teleprompters and in mid-August he managed to apologize generally for sometimes not saying the right thing.
Even as Trump occasionally acted like a conventional candidate, however, he also continued to flout proprieties. He attacked the parents of a fallen American soldier and he suggested that violence might be the best response to the election of his opponent Hillary Clinton. Talk of a pivot toward typical presidential behavior persisted, but Trump appeared unwilling to follow through. The very same week that Trump issued his non-specific apology Manafort resigned as campaign chief and was replaced by Stephen Bannon, a media provocateur known for his strident rhetoric. It would seem that, once again, Trump would be allowed to be Trump.
Should we lament Trump’s return to authenticity? The plan to re-package Trump, as proposed by Manafort, sounds like an effort to disguise the candidate’s true character. Trump himself has said that his abrasive remarks are a result of his complete honesty. In asking him to adopt a different standard of behavior, aren’t we asking Trump to be dishonest and to pretend to be different than he is? Why should we call for Trump to embrace a code of civil conduct that will permit pretense and posturing?
Should we lament Trump’s return to authenticity?
Civility has long been subject to the criticism that it encourages artifice and hypocrisy. Lord Chesterfield, the great eighteenth-century champion of civility and polished manners, argued that decorum often required individuals to obscure their true feelings: “In the course of the world, a man must very often put on an easy, frank countenance, upon very disagreeable occasions; he must seem pleased when he is very much otherwise; he must be able to accost and receive with smiles those whom he would much rather meet with swords.” For many critics, Chesterfield’s description of appropriate behavior read like a perverse celebration of deception. Dr. Johnson, for instance, accused Chesterfield of advocating “the morals of a whore.” If civility is rooted in duplicity, who needs it?
One traditional response to this question it to say that Chesterfield got civility wrong. Many have claimed that civility rightly understood is an expression of true inner virtue, not a pose struck simply for the sake of getting along. A second traditional response is to say that habit eventually makes civility into a kind of second nature, with the repeated adherence to demands of etiquette gradually transforming individuals from poseurs into genuinely gracious souls (in other words: if you consistently fake it, you will one day make it). A third response is to double down: to insist that civility involves an irreducible measure of pretense and to argue that the ever-present possibility of double-dealing actually serves a positive purpose.
It is this third response that has the most direct bearing on the current interest in getting Trump to behave himself. The idea that civility is a direct expression of inner virtue does not explain why Trump should suddenly stop saying what he actually thinks. And the notion that the practice of civility will eventually make Trump into a different sort of person does not fit the existing electoral timeframe (a single election is hardly sufficient time for habit to take deep root).
The case for anchoring civility in pretense has several parts (all of which are detailed in How Civility Works). But, to put it briefly, decorum gives people the opportunity to display the goodness and personal decency that they crave yet are typically unable to attain. People are often motivated by ambition, pride, and vanity; as a result they will never be completely able to practice the high principles that they preach. Public moral standards remain important, as does the inclination to follow them. Individuals are, however, typically too consumed with self-love to actually uphold these moral standards and will seek shortcuts whenever they can. Civility provides a code of behavior and a set of conventions that display our virtue (whether or not we actually have any virtue to speak of), making possible cooperation and mutual benefit where one would otherwise expect destructive competition between self-seeking actors.
Although it may feel like encouraging dishonesty, to ask Trump to start acting like a conventional candidate is indeed to ask him to mask his true beliefs. Civility’s reliance on pretense is not easy to confront, and many people may prefer not to dwell on the contrived posturing that facilitates social interaction. Yet pretense performs an important role whether or not individuals are comfortable acknowledging it, and we should care when people refuse to play along. As La Rochefoucauld put it, “social life would not last long if men were not taken in by each other.” Trump’s unwillingness to engage in conventional pretenses suggests that much more than the presidency is at stake in this election.
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