Will civility make a comeback under President Joe Biden?

Will civility make a comeback under President Joe Biden?
Source: Joshua Roberts, Reuters
Even though Biden has yet to take office, some conservatives are already arguing he is a divisive political leader whose calls for unity are hypocritical.

On November 4, days before any news agency declared a winner in the 2020 election in the United States, President-elect Joe Biden gave a speech in which he urged national unity. It’s a theme the former vice president has repeatedly touched on, both during the campaign and in the weeks since Election Day.

On November 6, as vote totals increasingly appeared to favor Biden, he once again gave a televised address to the nation in which he acknowledged the political divisions. “We’re certainly not going to agree on a lot of issues,” he stated. “But at least we can agree to be civil with one another. We have to put the anger and the demonization behind us.”

This call for unity and civility comes after four years in which President Donald Trump has frequently been accused of intentionally worsening bitter divisions through insults and heated rhetoric. Yet, even though Biden has yet to take office, some conservatives are already arguing he is a divisive political leader whose calls for unity are hypocritical.

While the political divisions in the US have been deeply felt for decades, it is an open question whether respect is possible anymore. Is Biden the man for the moment, or will his presidency only help prolong an era of incivility?

President Trump’s uncivil discourse

From the moment Trump announced his campaign for the presidency in June 2015, much was made of his coarse language and penchant for insulting opponents. Even his Republican rivals for the nomination called Trump out for his uncivil tendencies, which included making a reference to the size of his own penis during a debate.

Trump’s signature trait is a propensity for insulting his enemies and anyone who criticizes him. So frequent are his insults – including toward his fellow Republicans, most of whom eventually fall in as reliable allies – that The New York Times began curating a definitive list of all his Twitter insults. Though it was last updated in May 2019, it stands at 598 insults since he announced his candidacy.

The president’s most biting insults tend to be reserved for people of color, who he often criticizes as unintelligent, and women, often focusing on their appearance (as well as intelligence).

Trump’s attacks on Black people, in particular, have frequently been criticized as racist. He has referred to Black athletes who protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem as “son[s] of a bitch” and infamously called Haiti and some African nations “shithole countries” during a meeting with senators.

Meanwhile, Trump has responded to some of the more than two dozen women who have accused him of sexual assault by insulting their looks. Most recently, when dismissing a rape accusation from former advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, he said she was “not my type.” Carroll is currently suing Trump for defamation after he accused her of lying to sell copies of her memoir.

Nonetheless, his supporters praise him for his tactlessness and refusal to be “politically correct.” In fact, his anti-PC language has often been considered a selling point, as it is allegedly evidence that he’s a Washington outsider who would shake things up in government.

Trump’s incivility was mirrored by some of his supporters, who were photographed at his rallies wearing apparel with insulting, or even violent, messages directed at Trump critics. Perhaps the most ubiquitous example was the “crying liberal” meme in which an image of a Hillary Clinton supporter crying on Election Day 2016 became a go-to gloating response to Democrats.

Will President Biden be more civil?

In the aftermath of four years of this rhetoric, Biden is making an effort to push for a more civil discourse in American politics. However, his initial entreaties have already been met with skepticism.

Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News host who has said she left the job because of Trump’s personal attacks on her, has flatly dismissed Biden’s calls for unity. On November 8, she tweeted that Trump’s supporters have been “unfairly demonized as the worst of humanity for 4yrs” and so they would not now “hug those who’ve viciously attacked them.”

Biden’s choice of Neera Tanden to join his cabinet as the head of the Office of Management and Business has also been highlighted as evidence that Biden’s calls for civility are insincere. Tanden is described by The Associated Press as a “partisan combatant willing to go low against both Republicans and left-leaning critics of her former boss Hillary Clinton.”

Tanden has been known to insult Republicans (as well as leftist supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders), including calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “Moscow Mitch” (a reference to his alleged ties to Russia). Her antagonism of Republicans is seen as a likely impediment to her chances of being confirmed for Biden’s cabinet if the Senate remains in Republican hands.

Others have dismissed this criticism, pointing to Trump’s history of insults. Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, a “Never Trump” Republican and CNN host, defended Tanden, tweeting, “if u spent the last 4 years pretending u didn’t read Trump’s disgraceful tweets, refused to comment on them, or worse yet, defended them…u got no moral standing to whine about Neera’s mean tweets. None. Zero. Nada.”

Tanden has reportedly been deleting some of her past tweets that include insults and criticisms of various Republicans, both individually and collectively. That is unlikely to change many people’s minds, though, especially as deleted tweets can still be found via the web archive.

If Biden truly is dedicated to uniting a bitterly divided country, he will have to convince a base of voters who not only supported his opponent, but who also, by a large percentage, believe Biden stole the election from Trump. With a substantial portion of the country anticipating (if not actively supporting) a second civil war, the Biden administration’s best intentions may not be enough.

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