As the language of public life has declined from dinner-table English to something previously considered unprintable, the word “civility” is suddenly everywhere — except Donald Trump’s lips.
While Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that she has the right to be served dinner at any restaurant, no matter what she says or does, her father, the pastor and former Presidential candidate Governor Mike Huckabee — and someone the Press Secretary has presumably dined with before — tweeted a photo widely condemned as racist.
Meanwhile we are bombarded with images of children, removed from their parents, sleeping beneath blankets of aluminum foil — test cases for how much cruelty we can accept.
What is happening is an assault in both word and image, tools familiar from the verbal and visual campaigns of Nazism and Stalinism. But absence is often as important as presence, and we should also note what’s missing from the “civility” discussion: President Trump.
According to the online tool factbase that tracks Trump’s words, the President has used the word “civility” a grand total of zero times. And maybe that, for once, is appropriate.
As the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn tweeted:
“Civility,” for the record, does not mean trivial “good manners.” It is, in fact, deeply political: from the Latin “civis,” “citizen,” it refers to the appropriate manner for free citizens to treat one another.
Mendelsohn is also the author of “The Lost,” which traces what happened to six of the six million murdered in the Holocaust. The six million were all citizens of countries, and citizenship didn’t protect them. Their murder began in an extended assault in both word and image.
Then as now, political speech and pageantry can overturn law.
Trump is very comfortable with the word “citizen,” using it 1025 times, often in tweets justifying cruelty — perhaps because he knows that “citizenship” doesn’t have to mean much. He comfortably praised dictators who give their citizens no rights at all.
In the bastardization of the deep political roots of the word “civility,” what we are left with is the surface meaning of the word — niceness. And not surprisingly, “nice” is one of Trump’s favorite words: used a whopping 2486 times.
Comedians, who are working overtime these days, were quick to pick up on the niceness factor. Writer and comedian Kashana Cauley tweeted: “They called it the Civil War because everyone involved was nice.”
But we’re not in a comedy.
President Trump, who’s enjoying 90 percent approval among Republicans, recently announced there would not be due process at the border. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, jailer of journalists, just won another election. Erdogan also controls the judiciary, leaving opponents with “well that’s not very nice” as a defense.
This week, amid the usual hate mail, I received an interesting letter from Inga in Portland, Oregon, asking me to write about more than just language, and begging me to “connect the dots.”
Here are the dots.
We’re talking about civility because its deep meaning and Latin roots are under attack — and we run the risk of mistaking a test run for fascism as a mere referendum on polite conversation.
We are living in a world where “play nice” may soon be the only cry we have left, which is why the First Lady strutted around at a detention center wearing a jacket reading “I really don’t care. Do U?”
“Be nice” probably didn’t do much for Mendelsohn’s relatives, and doesn’t seem to be working as a defense for young children at the border or for Turkish journalists. We shouldn’t be fooled by the misleading, monosyllabic barrage of “nice” coming from Trump’s lips — 2468 mentions and counting. And we should be listening to what isn’t being said, as well as what is.
CIVILITY — Why Donald Trump Has Never Said That Word
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God.” Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner