From a repulsive photo shoot depicting a “comedian” holding the president’s decapitated head, to a congressional candidate body-slamming a reporter and the belligerent behavior at town hall events across the country, the deterioration of public debate following last year’s presidential race has been striking.
There’s plenty of fault to go around, but the decline is most notable among the president’s detractors. Since the morning of November 9, 2016, the daily scorning of Donald Trump has seemed an obsession for many pundits, politicians, celebrities and activists upset with the election outcome. While no reasonable person would suggest that any president is above criticism, much of it is overwrought, hyperbolic or simply unconstructive.
Sometimes this Trump fixation manifests itself in outcries over the most trivial of matters. A photo of a White House advisor with her shoes on the Oval Office couch drew strident condemnation. The attire of the president’s wife and daughter is frequently disparaged, as are the president’s vacation habits.
At some point, these detractors might want to become much more judicious in their outrage. Screaming the sky is falling too often risks outrage fatigue. When challenges of higher stakes arise, they may find that their constant howls over anything and everything have made it more difficult to bring attention to more substantial issues they hope to address.
As I write this, the world isn’t the same place it was just a few weeks ago. There’s a renewed national anxiety over the prospect of a nuclear incident with North Korea, which has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside an intercontinental ballistic missile. The country’s own state news agency says it’s developing plans to strike military targets on Guam, a U.S. territory of vital strategic significance, with its medium-to-long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-12.
About a month earlier, as Americans celebrated our independence, Pyongyang set off some provocatively-timed fireworks of its own with the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska. A couple of weeks later it launched another, this one with a high-loft trajectory and an estimated 6,000-mile range — which encompasses a dozen western U.S. states. The combined nuclear capability and ballistic missile testing mean that, for the first time since the Kennedy presidency, the U.S. is at serious risk of nuclear confrontation.
The president warned of “fire and fury” if North Korea continues down this road. As expected, the critics let loose, decrying his words as reckless and irresponsible. That complaint might have had more resonance had many of those folks not also recently been in a frenzy over his golf schedule. Like the boy who cried wolf, their perpetual ranting over even inconsequential matters makes it harder to take their warnings seriously.
The North Korea threat is a grave one, with no easy answers. We clearly can’t rely on the United Nations, China or Russia to do the heavy lifting needed to stabilize the region — leaving the U.S. to grapple for solutions that have evaded four successive presidential administrations.
And North Korea sits atop a mound of crises confronting the U.S. Radical Islamic terror attacks in Europe have raised the specter of more terror activity here. We’re belatedly realizing the extent of an opioid epidemic which has destroyed countless lives. Most recently, political violence by white supremacists has caused understandable alarm and put many citizens on edge.
Together, these crises present possibly the greatest threats we’ve faced in several generations. Forging a path forward will require a spirit of resolve, and willingness to put the nation’s interests ahead of parochial interests or political one-upmanship.
And I dare add that times of tumult or uncertainty call for civility. Healthy debate lends itself to a productive exchange of ideas. Tough problems are best overcome when politics are shaped by the best ideas rather than the loudest voices.
We can each help our leaders rise to these challenges, starting by holding ourselves to a higher standard of dialogue. It’s possible to take a principled stand without stooping to personal vilification.
Civility is contagious – as is the lack of it. How we treat each other affects how policy-makers see the political landscape, and how they react.
In this climate, anything other than rancorous partisanship is a tall order. But those who put country ahead of political advantage will take stock of how talk and how we treat those with whom we disagree, and make our own, individual effort to uplift the tenor of our national debate.
Finally, the Apostle Paul wrote to his friend Timothy to “pray for all those in authority, that we can lead peaceful lives.” I wonder what could happen if those who professed belief in the Scriptures would heed that advice and pray for all in authority – including those of opposing viewpoints. I think it would make a big difference.
Eckstrom is the elected Probate Judge for Lexington County. A retired U.S. Navy Captain, he served as an overseas Navy Antiterrorism Officer. He also taught the Law of War and Law of Armed Conflict for the Department of Defense.