Those who oppose Mr. Trump can also be meanspirited; just check out the toxic debate below any of his tweets. Mrs. Clinton’s “Delete your account” tweet last June was the most retweeted post from either candidate. Though the longstanding internet put-down was a relatively benign retort (the tweet she responded to called her “Crooked Hillary”), the barb was not quite the “going high” that her fellow Democrat Michelle Obama suggested during the campaign.
In liberal circles, mocking Mr. Trump’s hair and skin tone is commonplace when referring to him — true, he has a history of objectifying and attacking others based on their appearance — in a manner that would incite furor if leveled against Mrs. Clinton.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s own social media accounts surely embolden hordes of his supporters to make similar comments without fear of consequence. As Meryl Streep put it in her Golden Globes speech about the incoming president’s words and deeds, “Disrespect invites disrespect.”
But Mr. Trump is less enabler in chief than a symptom of a free-for-all environment that prizes cutting smears. Humor, of course, is often the refuge of the disenfranchised and disaffected, but there’s a difference in both tenor and objective between hypocrisy-dicing irony and its weak cousin: detached, fatalistic, teenage-style sarcasm.
Social media has normalized casual cruelty, and those who remove the “casual” from that descriptor are simply taking it several repellent steps further than the rest of us. That internet trolls typically behave better in the real world is not, however, solely from fear of public shaming and repercussions, or even that their fundamental humanity is activated in empathetic, face-to-face conversations. It may be that they lack much of a “real world” — a strong sense of community — to begin with, and now have trouble relating to others.
Andrew Reiner, an English professor at Towson University who teaches a seminar called “Mister Rogers 101: Why Civility and Community Still Matter,” attributes much of the decline in civility, especially among younger people, to Americans’ living in relative sequestration. The majority of his students tell him they barely knew their neighbors growing up, corroborating thinkers like Robert Putnam, who in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” argued that civic engagement is diminishing. Consequently, Professor Reiner believes they have little experience in working through conflicts with people with whom they must figure out a way to get along.
“Civility is the idea that you’re not always going to agree but you still have to make it work,” he said. “We fear our ideas clashing with somebody else’s, even when we’re all ultimately pulling for the same thing.”
This leads to a vicious cycle in which the breakdowns of civility and community reinforce one another.
“People think, ‘If I disagree with you, then I have to dislike you, so why should I go to a neighborhood meeting when it’s clear I’m going to disagree with them?’” he said.
Professor Reiner also chalked up some of the devolution of basic courtesy to people’s increasingly digitized existence and engagement with their phones, not one another. For an assignment, he asks his students to experiment with old-fashioned civility by committing random acts of kindness and eating with strangers.
“It’s about trying to get beyond our own insecurities and get past the possibility of rejection, and that never has to happen with our online lives,” he said. “It reintroduces the idea of social risk-taking, which not that long ago was the norm, and learning how to be uncomfortable and relearning the skills of how to talk face to face.”
Though the internet receives the brunt of censure for corroding manners, other elements of popular culture aren’t much more elevated. In my neighborhood subway station a few months ago, two posters near each other for the TV shows “Graves” (about a former president) and “Those Who Can’t” (a comedy about teachers) both featured lightly obscured depictions of the middle finger. After the election, as I looked at the one depicting Nick Nolte in front of an American flag with the presidential seal covering his offending hand, it no longer seemed so shocking that Mr. Trump would soon occupy the Oval Office.
And the putative employer wielding all the power over labor is a trademark of reality TV, where Mr. Trump honed his brand for 14 seasons on NBC and trained us to think of a blustery television personality like him as a regular and revered figure in contemporary America. We have long had game and talent shows, but elimination from them used to be gentler — or, in the case of “The Gong Show,” at least goofier — than being brusquely told, “You’re fired,” “You are the weakest link” or receiving Simon Cowell’s withering exit-interview critiques.
In the dog-eat-dog environments of these programs, cooperation and kindness are readily abandoned for back-stabbing and character assassination. Short-term strategic alliances sometimes form among rivals, but the rules of the games preclude the possibility of something like collective bargaining. Likewise, union membership has drastically shrunk in the private sector over the last four decades. Why sacrifice for another person when there can be just one top chef or model or singer, one bachelorette with the final rose, one survivor — or in your own workplace, one promotion this financial quarter amid a spate of layoffs?
As evinced by the long-running “Real Housewives” series, calm conflict resolution does not make for good ratings. Even cake baking is now a fight to the finish.
Rather than seeking the comfort of known faces with the fictional, loving families and buddies from “The Brady Bunch,” “Cheers” and “Friends,” we now crave the company of supposedly “real” squabbling family members or acquaintances from documentary-style shows, perhaps as consolation for most likely watching them by ourselves, on a small laptop or phone screen.
“We would rather watch families on reality TV than do the hard work of being in a community with our own families,” Professor Reiner said.
Many critics of Mr. Trump have drawn parallels between this era and 1930s Germany. But when it comes to incivility and the 45th president, a more apt epoch may be 1950s America and its Communist witch hunts, specifically a quotation from the lawyer Joseph N. Welch in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. (The chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy was Roy Cohn, who later went on to become a close friend and business associate of Mr. Trump’s.)
It is a question many would like to pose to Mr. Trump — and one we all, nasty sirs and women alike, should be asking ourselves.