It happened when a vast and horrified international public was digesting the ugly news that the Trump administration was separating 2,000 children from their border-crossing parents and lodging them in something resembling a jail. In their loneliness many of them were crying.
The bitterness engendered by that gross cruelty, and the tears reported by journalists, probably heightened the anger behind what happened to Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She showed up as a would-be customer at The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., where she was recognized as the woman who conducts daily press briefings at the White House.
Sanders was refused service on the grounds that the restaurant did not care to be associated with anyone working for President Donald Trump. It was a strange and perhaps unique political gesture, both hostile and (presumably) protective of The Red Hen's reputation.
The restaurant people were polite, in a way, and so was Sanders. Trump, however, did not take this insult peacefully. He tweeted that The Red Hen was a dirty restaurant in need of paint and should be worrying about that rather than bothering Sanders. (Amazing how a president can summon that kind of data so quickly.)
Immediately, armies of opinion-mongers sent out their views. Some attacked the restaurant. Their comments were mean and rude. Others attacked Sanders. They, too, were mean and rude. Nobody even hinted at empathy, which apparently has gone out of style. But it soon became clear that people were not disturbed about the restaurant. The real subject was civility, and whether it was being used on this occasion.
On a Commentary magazine podcast about recent events, the first words listeners heard was a doom-laden title, "The Day Civility Died!" Another bulletin was headed: "CIVILITY -- Why Donald Trump Has Never Used That Word." Slate magazine advertised "The New Rules of Civility."
Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar, corrected our usage of the key word. "Civil" does not mean "nice." Latin-based, it refers to the appropriate way free citizens treat one another. It relies on respect for social rules, widely accepted.
Jane Eisner, the editor of the Jewish magazine Forward, is well known for having invented the Trumpatorium, a brief respite from references to Trump. In 2016, as he was about to secure the Republican presidential nomination, she ordered that for 24 hours on a certain date his name could not appear for any reason in the Forward. A nice idea, but too short. (How about 24 months?) Trump must be pleased by these fresh examples of discord and division. Stimulating hateful controversy is his principal occupation. The U.S. is more divided now than it has been in several decades and Trump appears to be the Divider-in-Chief. Factionalism made him important by drawing attention to him, and it seems likely to keep on working in his favour.
We require an event like the Sarah Huckabee Sanders scandal to realize what Trump has achieved in the last two-and-something years. He has changed the rules of discourse in the U.S. -- what is said, how it is said, and the thoughts that people allow themselves to utter. He has developed a brash, off-the-cuff style of rhetoric that he parades regularly on Twitter. His vanity seems to tell him that every thought in his head is valuable. He believes that even a single word of his (such as "Sad") becomes a shrewd judgment if he utters it. On every subject, from Saturday Night Live to Chinese trade policy, he habitually speaks from ignorance in a shaky semblance of authority.
All of this is contagious.
We now see echoes of Trump in every corner of American journalism. His meanness is easy to imitate. People who write "Sad" don't know whether they are satirizing him or learning from him. Intentionally or not, Trump has substantially altered the moral atmosphere of America, revising its style in his own image.