Why the Personal Attacks?

Terry H. Schwadron

March 12, 2021

Despite all the divide, I don’t get the personal attacks — especially when they are made up seemingly to make some other point.

Here was Sean Hannity using his influential right-leaning television commentary to attack Joe Biden’s stutter as being invented only in recent weeks, apparently intended to cover mental slippage as president. What? Not only has Biden talked about overcoming stuttering since childhood, what’s the point? Does a stutter make Biden unacceptable as a president?

Wouldn’t Hannity be better served calling out policies about immigration or climate or other areas that distinguish Biden from The Former Guy?

Fellow commentator Tucker Carlson now regularly personalizes his criticisms against a wide variety of individuals with whom he seems to disagree politically — not only expected Democrats but against Meghan Markle (“a narcissist), Tucker Lorenz, a New York Times reporter “at the top of journalism’s repulsive little food chain” for defending herself from online criticisms, against reporter Brandy Zadrozny after she investigated the extremist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, QAnon members and election misinformation. Carlson regularly slams anything he remotely perceives as “liberal” from women in the military to allegations of racism among British royalty.

Ads from the American Patriot News Network ask for a public poll on Biden’s mental fitness. He drew derision from military leaders for ranting about women troops with “new hairstyles and maternity flight suits,” saying “Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. Military.”

The newfound fervor for finding character flaws in political enemies is not limited to the Right, of course. The current spat between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Susan Collins over Collins’ on-again fiscal conservatism has skirted very close to personal charges, and almost everything said about Donald Trump over four years has been as centered on his very flawed personal characteristics as policies.

Trump himself helped to usher in the renewal of personal attack as he showed himself the king of personal insult against opponents of all stripe, whether the issue at hand was substantial or incidental, and showed that the Right is better at doing this. Trump just lost an important libel lawsuit against The New York Times over an op-ed column that rightly noted a pattern of cooperative contacts with Russians before and during his presidency.

Several Biden Cabinet nominations have run into Republican objections not to policy but to the tone of anti-Trump tweets, which is irony personified.

Freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., punctuated an advertisement against Speaker Nancy Pelosi about Capitol security with the sounds of a gunshot and a rifle re-loading, which sounds an awful lot like a threat.

The point is that none of this incivility solves a problem, and none of it helps persuade a vote to fix a problem. I may think it, but I’m trying not to say it publicly. We ought to pull back only to re-consider whether our criticisms are doing anything to shine a light.

Lousy Debate

“My Facebook feed used to be about a third kittens, a third beer jokes, and a third ‘Look how great my kid is!’ It’s now 99 percent political — and barbed,” noted a psychologist-turned-activist from the State University of New York in a Psychology Today article. While there is reason for passion, “It’s critical to make sure that disagreement is done with civility and respect. . . not easy to do. . . I’m constantly working to make sure to tease apart the people from the ideologies that they support. “

A Politico column asks: Why are so many people in the business of being likable actually so unlikable . . . Unlikable in the toxic, misanthropic, something-must-be-wrong-with-him sense.”

We barely got through this Washington debate about Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid and stimulus bill with egos intact only to see the hypocrisy of various Republican lawmakers emerging to take credit for the effects of the bill that Republicans member to repeatedly opposed in Congress. The issues ahead, from guaranteeing voting rights to the complexities of immigration, infrastructure projects, climate and the rest only seem more difficult areas for commonality.

It seems clear the obstructiveness on all sides will only harden towards the next election showdowns, especially as more “moderate” politicians give way to the purer ideological breeds.

Whatever else you may want to conclude, the nature of these personalized attacks are making a mockery of governmental law-making. We have resorted to the perceived power politics of an over-weaning majority or the total obstruction of a self-victimized elected minority — even when they are split 50–50.

Wrong Thinking

It seems the widely accepted political savvy that the only way to compromise solutions is to adopt the position of the other side of a debate; that’s how Senate Republicans, for example, talk about “bipartisanship” — adopting what they propose in place of what Biden sends over to them.

Or, to hear from those drafting candidates, at least Democratic candidates, we should avoid division and improve chances of “winning” by seeking out candidates who start out by describing themselves as “centrist,” who avoid party orthodoxy. By contrast, Republicans are threatening anyone leaning towards centrism and promising only more ideologically drawn candidates.

How about we drop both of those political principles in favor of plain-speaking arguments that avoid personal insult and concentrate on fact. How about we elect politicians who care more about getting the job done than in declaring slogans. How about if politicians cannot keep their tongues civil, we simply eliminate them from consideration?

Certainly, there is a place for consideration of the “character” of our political leaders: Voters who now are upset over allegations about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s behavior, intended or not, towards women in his administration should reflect such feelings when they vote, just as those of us who still express surprise that so many voters did not take Donald Trump’s personal excesses into account in their ballot choice.

Let’s demand a little more civility from those who put themselves forward for public trust.