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Civility alert: Can’t we all just get along, or even get dinner?

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor

Just last year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s security chief defended the need for his boss to fly in first class to avoid hostile confrontations with the “vulgar” and “threatening” occupants of coach-class seats. Pruitt was widely mocked for his expensive tastes, and for the presumption that public officials should be shielded, at public expense, from expressions of opinion by members of the public. But since then, the breakdown in civility that began during the 2016 campaign with chants of “Lock her up” has accelerated, with a prominent Democratic House member, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, calling over the weekend for what amounts to vigilante harassment of administration officials in public places.

In a video posted on YouTube, Waters exhorted a crowd to confront Trump Cabinet members “in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station. [Y]ou get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

That was already well under way last week. With emotions running high over the separation of immigrant families, presidential adviser Stephen Miller and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the two officials most closely identified with the policy, were jeered and heckled in separate incidents as they ate at — pointedly, or just coincidentally — Mexican restaurants. Then on Friday, the owner of a small restaurant in Lexington, Va., politely asked press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave — which she did, along with her party of eight. Since the restaurant, the Red Hen, seats only 26 altogether — and the owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, didn’t charge them for what they had already been served — it was an expensive way for Wilkinson to register a protest against what Wilkinson calls an “inhumane and unethical” administration.

It was also, presumably, a somewhat futile gesture. Wilkinson said she took action to preserve the feelings of her gay workers, who are upset about the Trump administration’s policies on LGBTQ issues, so that point was made. But Sanders, of course, doesn’t make policy in this or any other area, and even if she did, the chances that she would be deterred by missing a meal are probably negligible. The controversy, needless to say, went viral on social media, with posts defending and denouncing the restaurant — as well as a number of unaffiliated restaurants with the same name as far away as Connecticut, one of which reported receiving “thousands” of hostile messages and even death threats.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was told to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va. (Photo: Daniel Lin/AP)

One theme of many critics was that liberals who objected to a Colorado baker refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding should be equally outraged by a restaurant not wanting to serve Sanders dinner. But the cases are not actually parallel: Sexual orientation is a protected category in Colorado, like race,  and gays cannot in most circumstances be denied service. (The case turned on the bakery owner’s interpretation of his right to exercise his religion.) But there appears to be no rule in Virginia protecting presidential press secretaries.

Trump weighed in on the controversy with a Twitter post in his own preferred style of irrelevant insult, elevating the level of discourse by claiming the restaurant “badly needs a paint job.”

Around the same time Sanders was sitting down to her dinner, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a prominent Trump supporter on television, was heckled as she bought tickets to a showing of the Mister Rogers biopic, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Bondi vowed not to be “bullied.”

Waters’s comments drew their own pushback on Twitter, including this exceedingly mild, rather cryptic comment from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, attached to a retweet of a CNN post about Waters:

“In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again. Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable. As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea.”

Trump was less restrained, calling Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person” and warning her to “be careful what you wish for.”

At least he didn’t say she needs a paint job.

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