August 2018Theory

In Their Faces: The Politics of Personal Confrontation

Democratic Socialists of America, which has been in the headlines frequently as of late, got an espresso shot of notoriety in June when about 15 of its members confronted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a DC restaurant and, to say the least, ruined her appetite.

Nielsen, the architect of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children arriving at the border from their parents, was treated to chants such as “shame!” and “if kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!” Nielsen eventually fled the scene. The irony was lost on no one that the brouhaha occurred in a Mexican restaurant.

The incident with Nielsen appeared to inspire a string of public confrontations between ordinary citizens and Trump administration officials. Within days, Trump White House cronies Sarah Sanders, Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller and ex-advisor Stephen Bannon found themselves on the receiving end of public shamings from outraged citizens. So did Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned shortly thereafter, although the unkind words directed his way were probably less a factor than his abusing his position for financial gain.

The reaction to the new trend in public confrontation tended to divide mainstream Democrats from those outside government who consider themselves part of the resistance. — while Republicans and the right, of course, rave against the protestors as “totalitarians” and urge authorities to throw them in jail. Democratic grandees such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and David Axelrod tut-tutted the in-your-face activism, while Maxine Waters of California was almost alone among congressional Democrats in applauding the new assertiveness. “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd,” she urged. “And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore anywhere.”

Who is right? Is public confrontation of Trump officials called for?

Even before the Trump administration, politics was hardly the Platonic Academy; debates could get nasty and oppositional tactics confrontational. Marches and demonstrations are well-worn parts of the political arsenal, amounting to shows of force that transcend rational argument. The civil rights movement built on Gandhian strategy and introduced nonviolent civil disobedience into the protest playbook.

It might be hard to believe, but political discourse over the past few decades had been positively white-gloved compared to an earlier era in American history. In 1858, Charles Sumner, the firebrand abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, was beaten nearly to death on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina after delivering an antislavery speech. Through the early nineteenth century, duels over political differences were common, one of which took the life of future Broadway icon Alexander Hamilton.

But publicly confronting high government officials for the policy actions they or their bosses represent is an uncommon, although not unheard of, occurrence in recent American life. A rare example took place in 1997 after Congress temporarily revoked nearly all of the District of Columbia’s self-government. Shortly afterward, a group of local activists spotted Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) — the House’s main overseer of DC — in public and subjected him to a group tongue-lashing. One member of Congress urged outraged DC citizens to keep up the militant protest against their colonial status. Her name? Maxine Waters.

But perhaps the most apt guiding spirit of the confrontations with Nielsen and others is Beate Klarsfeld, an activist in Germany who took up the cause of exposing former Nazis hiding from their pasts while holding high-level jobs in the postwar government. (Klarsfeld, who is still living at age 79, was the subject of a dramatic film in 1986 in which she was portrayed by Farrah Fawcett of Charlie’s Angels fame). She is best known for her 1968 confrontation of Kurt Georg Kiesinger — selected chancellor despite having been a member of the Nazi party and holding positions of responsibility in Hitler’s government — in which she slapped him in the face while shouting “Nazi, Nazi, Nazi!” Now that’s in-your-face activism.

Klarsfeld realized Germany’s Nazi era was not a time of normal political engagement and that confronting it required abnormal strategies. Likewise, the Trump era is not a normal time in American history. When politicians call for civility, they do so in spite of a President who mocked a family that lost a son in combat and a disabled reporter, who boasted of his committing sexual assault, and who has referred to third-world countries as “shitholes.” Civility? That ship has sailed. For the resistance to practice civility toward Trump and his defenders would constitute unilateral disarmament. Civil discourse can thrive only in an atmosphere of mutual respect. But Trump has demonstrated that he respects nothing except his own ego.

But the recent confrontational politics has had less to do with Trump’s style than the substance of his policies. This is a president, after all, who ran for office on a platform of xenophobia, misogyny, racial hatred and religious intolerance and now is doing his best to put his toxic vision into practice. He has normalized, even made common cause with, the neo-Nazi right.

However, the resistance boiled over in response to Trump’s directive to separate immigrant families at border. Children, some of them infants, were torn away from their parents and locked in detention centers, in some cases thousands of miles from where the parents were detained. Some families, the government admits, might never be reunited. Many of the children’s emotional scars may never heal. This humanitarian outrage was condemned across the globe.

And then came the confrontation with Nielsen, and guess what? A mere two days later Trump reversed course and said the government would no longer separate families at the border. Coincidence? It seems to me that a message got through to the White House that the tide had turned, and not to Trump’s advantage. Even most Republicans understand that you don’t destroy hundreds of families to make a political point.

No, Trump is not an ordinary president, and these are not ordinary times. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Confrontational tactics are the only way to combat a confrontational president. And sometimes they work.

See more in categoryReturn to Issue