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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

In the new style of politics, giving offence outweighs the fear of falling from grace

The political currency in a Trump era is rough-hewn cowboy language or a snappy proposal, says Damien McElroy

Sarah Huckabee Sanders was thrown out of a restaurant in Lexington - par for the course in a "suck it up" era. Michael Reynolds / EPA
Sarah Huckabee Sanders was thrown out of a restaurant in Lexington - par for the course in a "suck it up" era. Michael Reynolds / EPA

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s swearing in as president, the first legislative wave was, in fact, a set of bills dubbed the “suck it up, buttercup” laws.

While overshadowed by the president’s own dramatic coup, these initiatives were the earliest expression of the meaning of Mr Trump’s triumph to conservatives – not just those who voted for him but a wider slice of America that felt it had steadily lost out in its own country.

After more than a decade of suffering a pummelling in the culture wars — the tide turned shortly after George W Bush’s mishandling of the Iraq war — the US political middle and right was sickened by the progressive agenda.

Development after development was used to delegitimise not only the views but also the emotions of conservatives.

Hence the "buttercup laws" that stripped funds from universities providing counselling for students who claimed they had been subjected to hate speech as well as institutions providing space for students seeking shelter in “cry zones” from their peers.

To proponents, the measures were fightback against the shutdown of the American psyche. To detractors, the laws were a form of attack in themselves.

In truth, the buttercup movement was another road marker in the crushing of civility across US politics – maybe not the first in the recent cycle but one worth noting as Mr Trump’s ascendancy reaches maturity.

The tragic events of Thursday in Maryland underscored just how tensions over incitement now easily dominate a news cycle. Reportedly, the attack on the local newspaper offices was carried out by a former litigant against the newspaper, whose grievance had been dismissed.

Yet as Mr Trump routinely smears the press as enemies of the American people, it is not hard to see how the environment has become more permissive for such attacks.

Two years ago, a British MP was murdered by one of her constituents at a time when the political atmosphere was charged with the most extreme invective.

Words have consequences. Witness how the president’s own inner circle are up in arms over a slew of in-your-face incidents targeting leading members of the White House and Congress.

Around Washington DC and the suburbs, flash mobs have recently hounded figures in the Trump administration and its allies in Congress. The White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have all had to weather protests in social settings.

The rationale for these restaurant ambushes are clear and equate to the suck it up tendency. Angered over penal policies towards migrant children or thinly camouflaged race-based travel bans, a good section of Americans detect dictatorial policies emanating from their government.

Taking cues from the mantra "all that is necessary for evil to flourish is that good men do nothing", the protesters have shed social norms, such as not making a fuss in a restaurant.

This could be a blindingly obvious but somehow hitherto neglected tactic. The fact enormously divisive public figures can go about their private lives unmolested is in many ways puzzling.

The instantly identifiable British foreign secretary Boris Johnson claims he is often verbally assaulted in the streets. If so, he is one of the few. For example, retired generals who have orchestrated major wars seem to bear no legacy from their public duties.

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Read more from Damien McElroy:

The European project is failing when it comes to migration, the economy and the defence

Military pressure is a legitimate tool to use in the deadlock in Yemen

The G7 summit separates the strongmen from the chaff

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It is important to retain some perspective. Fifty years ago, the tensions in US public life were far more deadly than today. In a few short months, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed. The mayor of Chicago put troops and live fire on the streets to quell the surging tides of anti-Vietnam protesters during the Democratic Party convention.

However, a membrane may have been broken and the private sphere of politicians and prominent officials could soon be fair game.

As politicians push through the trapdoors at every extreme, the public will obviously take its cues from its leaders. There is a early stage dynamic to this that makes the future unpredictable.

The politicians in the revanchist vanguard are such an offensive proposition that the tide of public opinion can suddenly snap back. But it is not enough to think that these events can be just ignored until they pass.

One notable feature of the new politics is that the thrill of giving offence outweighs the fear of falling from good grace.

Lessons learned from history are suffused with inconvenient truths. The best intellectual thinking on all sides is deemed too complicated to digest.

A ready wit or a smart-sounding proposal is the political currency of the day.

Rough-hewn cowboy language captures both the tone and the impact of politics. Buckle up.