Griffin’s stunt the latest slide into incivility

Published 10:06 am Wednesday, June 7, 2017

by John Micek

An anonymous reader of the newspaper I work for had a lot on his mind:

“If that was your hero Obama’s bloody head, I do believe there would have been a small novella condemning every right-winger … by now,” he or she, operating under cover of an online pseudonym, chided me.

My faceless friend, as you might have gathered, was referring to the latest paroxysm of rage to seize the online commentariat this week: A photograph of D-list comedienne Kathy Griffin posing with the decapitated head of President Donald Trump.

Let’s get this out of the way right now, lest someone out there think I found the photo even remotely amusing:

Griffin’s stunt was sick and disgusting. Full stop.

And while her particular form of protest is constitutionally protected, it doesn’t make it any less repellent. In fact, it’s the fastest way for progressives to kneecap their own cause.

Griffin’s stunt, which had the salutary effect (at least for her) of making people remember her name, is just the latest stumble down a slope of incivility in our politics that is getting more and more slippery all the time.

Within the last couple of weeks, we’ve been treated to the sight of a Congressional candidate body-slamming reporter. And, instead of getting well-deserved darts, the candidate, now U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, got laurels instead.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, columnist Gerald Seib added to the catalogue of incivility, pointing out that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez liberally deploys obscenities at his own events.

Sometimes, Seib noted, the anti-Trump heckling is so loud that Perez’s parade of profanities gets drowned out anyway.

Still, it starts at the top. Trump, undoubtedly, deserves some of the blame for the coarsening of our politics.

On the campaign trail last year, the New York real estate mogul branded his opponents “Little Marco” Rubio; “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and “Crooked Hillary Clinton.”

He waxed longingly about punching protesters in the face.

The end product of this coarsening has been an inevitable polarization and the effective paralysis of our politics at nearly every level of government.

In deeply divided Congress, it’s become nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans to reach across the aisle to forge the kinds of compromises that are so badly needed to keep the wheels of government turning.

Any departure from orthodoxy puts them at risk of challenges from the left and right flanks. Break from the pack and you’ll likely find a super-PAC running ads against you in your home district.

Trump called for the Senate to jettison the filibuster and pass his priorities with 51 votes — all well and good until you remember that Republicans are equally divided among themselves.

And remember how the web was supposed to make us all smarter, ushering in a flowering of knowledge leading to the creation of an online Athens where every man would be Pericles?

Forget that.

Twitter is a cesspool on its best days.

Given the cover of anonymity, participants in most online comment sections are little more than cheap-shot artists. Friends unfriend friends on Facebook. And there’s simply not enough booze to get through holiday get-togethers anymore.

Look, I’m not pining for some golden age of politics that never existed.

As every school-kid knows, Teddy Roosevelt took a bullet while giving a speech; Andy Jackson went after a would-be assassin with his cane, and Hamilton and Burr faced-off in a duel.

We’ve had four presidents actually assassinated.

Politics, as they say, ain’t cricket.

But what we could depend on, at least, was some adherence to small-”d” democratic norms that kept everything going, a basic faith in the system that results (though uneven) would generally work out for the good of the body politic.

In May, The Washington Post released the results of a survey of experts who forecasted an 11 percent chance of democratic breakdown in the United States sometime in the next four years.

That’s still pretty low — and the results are caveated to within an inch of their life. But the fact that we’re even having that kind of conversation is worrying enough.

I don’t know if there’s an easy way to arrest this slide. But sounding off loud and clear every time it happens, as has been the case in this incident with Griffin, is a sign that there’s hope for us yet.

JOHN L. MICEK, an award-winning political journalist, is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at