One evening about 20 years ago, I sat down to dinner with Charlton Heston to celebrate the publication of a book we’d been working on together. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, from his early childhood to his love of Shakespeare. But one comment stands out in my mind above all. After recalling with deep fondness his longtime friendship with Gregory Peck, he paused, smiled and said, “Of course Greg was a liberal, but I forgave him for that.”
I’ve thought of that comment many times in recent years, as I’ve watched America’s political discourse descend into the gutter. Civil debate now seems like a relic of the past, right up there with handwritten letters and gas-station attendants who checked your oil while filling your tank.
Right-wing radio hosts like Michael Savage bear a lot of responsibility for this sad state of affairs. When you sprinkle your commentaries with offensive words like “libtard,” after all, it casts a shadow of despicability over everything else you say.
For a long time I believed that things couldn’t get much worse. But when Donald J. Trump began his campaign for the presidency, I quickly realized I’d been naïve. Throughout the campaign, he went so far as to lament the fact that violence is frowned upon. In February 2016, for example, as a protestor was being escorted from a rally, Trump told a cheering crowd, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” Back in the “good old days,” he added wistfully, “guys like that” would be “carried out on a stretcher.”
Many Trump supporters did more than cheer in response to such remarks. Sensing that they now had a leader who approved of this kind of ugliness, they began peppering rallies with the most offensive chants imaginable.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen lots of people on the left employ unnecessarily hostile rhetoric as well. Occasionally I have been guilty of it myself, during debates on Facebook, when tensions are running high. I always regret it. I’ll also admit that Hillary Clinton didn’t help matters when she called “half” of Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” I know many people who voted for Trump. And while I think they were severely misguided, I firmly believe that they are good people who were simply feeling desperate for a new kind of leadership.
That said, I think the evidence is clear: While civil discourse in this country had been declining for years, Trump—single-handedly—made the problem 10 times worse.
So where do we go from here?
In spite of the fact that Trump has coarsened our discourse, I think the power remains in our hands. We can improve the quality of conversations, and there are specific steps we can take to do so.
First and foremost, we must be vigilant when conducting exchanges on social media. Hiding behind the safety of their computer screens, many people have a tendency to say vicious things that they would never say to someone’s face. Confronted with this, we have two good choices: We can either respond calmly and reasonably, or we can simply walk away from the conversation altogether.
There is, however, a much more meaningful step we can take: We can set social media aside and engage in more political conversations face to face. Recently I’ve begun making a more concerted effort to do that. Almost routinely, in fact, when someone attacks me as a “libtard” or a “communist” on Facebook, I reply that I’d be happy to debate him or her in person. People rarely take me up on the offer—but some do. Just a couple of months ago, for example, a man who identifies himself as a “staunch conservative” and Trump supporter, agreed to meet me for beers at a local pub. We disagreed, sharply. But the conversation never got heated. It ended, in fact, with a clinking of glasses and a toast to common courtesies.
The third meaningful step we can take is to try to become better informed. Nothing will degrade discourse more quickly, after all, than a slew of falsehoods and fallacies. This means not only staying abreast of current affairs by reading and listening to a wide variety of good news sources, from NPR to The Wall Street Journal, but reading up on history. By doing the latter, we can at least keep our current political climate in perspective.
It is worth remembering that we’ve been through worse. Take the case of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, for example. On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks confronted Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and beat him to within an inch of his life. Brooks had been upset by a speech Sumner had given three days earlier, in which he had harshly criticized slaveholders, and firmly believed that the attack was justified.
So did many other Southerners. An editorial in The Richmond Enquirer, for example, praised the assault as “good in conception, better in execution and best of all in consequences.” Sumner, the editors added, should be caned “every morning.”
Sad as it makes me to admit this, I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if something like that were to happen on the Senate floor today. Nor would I be shocked if Trump Tweeted in response that there was “blame on both sides.”
That said, I don’t think we’ve approached such a crisis in our discourse quite yet. After Charlottesville, I was encouraged, at least, by the number of Republican officials who spoke out forcefully against the white supremacists.
Speaking out against Nazis should be a given, of course. It’s easy. A far more difficult challenge is to discuss complicated issues like healthcare, civil rights, tax policies and foreign affairs, without resorting to personal insults. Some people will do so anyway, of course. There is no hope for them. But I firmly believe that the vast majority of Americans are decent, good-hearted people, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. If enough of us commit to this project in our daily lives, perhaps we will again see the day when men like Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck can be good friends.