In September, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer relaxed the chamber’s formal dress code — coat, tie and slacks for men, but no specified attire for women — to accommodate Sen. John Fetterman, who wore hoodies and gym shorts in the Senate cloakroom. After an outcry, the Senate voted unanimously to reinstate the code.
“Putting on a suit,” the Washington Post editorial board opined, “creates an occasion for lawmakers to reflect, just for a moment, on the special responsibility with which the people have entrusted them and on a deliberate process that at least aspires to solemnity.” With voter approval of government at all-time lows, the editors added, the Senate “might want to avoid looking even a tiny bit more like a high school cafeteria.” Sen. Joe Manchin also affirmed the value of “some basic rules of decorum, conduct, and civility.”
A formal dress code, alas, has not diminished the coarsening of American politics, which continues to increase at an alarming rate in Congress and throughout the country. The new normal of vulgar and violent rhetoric directed at political opponents is obliterating the fundamental components of a functioning democracy: courtesy, cooperation, compromise, trust in the integrity of public officials, including the “loyal opposition” and the rule of law.
In June, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called Rep. Lauren Boebert “a little bitch” on the floor of the House. Months later, after a security camera caught Boebert vaping and engaging in what she later confessed was “unacceptable” behavior (also known as groping), Greene dissed her colleague as “a whore.” Calling Boebert a “whore,” is not new, said another member of Congress, “she’s being doing that for a while.”
This month, after Rep. Darrell Issa stated that Greene lacked the “maturity and experience” to use the proper procedures to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, she called him “a pussy.” Greene also mocked Rep. Rosa DeLauro as cognitively diminished, falsely implying that the 80-year-old congresswoman forgot she had voted for the continuing resolution to fund the government a few hours earlier.
At about the same time, Rep. Tim Burchett, one of eight Republicans who voted to eject House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, accused McCarthy of walking down the hallway and delivering what Burchett characterized as “a shot to the kidneys.” “Hey Kevin, you got any guts?,” Burchett asked, before calling the former Speaker “a jerk,” “pathetic,” and “a bully.” McCarthy later said, “I guess our shoulders hit or something.”
The “shot heard round the Capitol” was yet more evidence of “a substantial increase in breaches of decorum unlike anything we have seen since the pre–Civil War era,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, leader of the effort to get rid of McCarthy.
Meanwhile, during a Senate committee hearing, first-term Sen. Markwayne Mullin confronted Sean O’Brien, president of the Teamsters Union. Mullin, a former mixed martial arts fighter, read a tweet from O’Brien calling him a “greedy CEO who pretends he’s self-made,” but “in reality is a clown and fraud… You know where to find me. Any place, any time, cowboy.”
“We finish it here,” Mullin proclaimed. “I’d love to,” O’Brien shot back. “Then stand your butt up.” As the pair prepared for combat, Sen. Bernie Sanders, chair of the committee, yelled “Stop it! No, no, sit down. You know, you’re a United State senator.” As they took their seats, Mullin and O’Brien used language rarely heard in U.S. Senate proceedings.
Mullin subsequently claimed that his challenge to O’Brien represented “Oklahoma values.” In a fight, he added, “I’ll bite 100%. .. I’m gonna bite. I’ll do anything. I’m not above it. And I don’t care where I bite, by the way.”
Although Matt Gaetz was referring to Speaker McCarthy, he was surely right to conclude that “the rot starts at the top.” After using vulgarity to convince voters of his tell-it-like-it-is authenticity in 2016, Donald Trump richly earned the title of “the Profanity President.” His violent rhetoric continues to legitimize white nationalism, xenophobia, vigilante justice and the demonization of political opponents.
Trump has insinuated that General Mark Milley, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should be executed for treason. He told the California GOP Convention in September that shoplifters should “fully expect to be shot” as they leave stores. Undocumented immigrants, Trump declared in October, “are very aggressive. They drink, they have drugs,” and they are “poisoning the blood of our country.” This month, he claimed that “communists, Marxists, fascists and radical left thugs live like vermin within the confines of this country.” If elected in 2024, Trump has promised to “totally obliterate the deep state,” prosecuting Joe Biden and a long list of other people who have crossed him: “Either they win or we win.”
Given the wide dissemination and celebration of the behavior of these “role models” on social media, it is not surprising that many Americans are angry and combative. And that 23 percent of them, including one-third of Republicans, believe that “patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.”
The stakes are very high. January 6, 2021 was a close call. And American democracy now seems perilously close to the point of no return.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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