President Donald Trump’s penchant for personal and derogatory remarks about his critics and opponents is well known. Many of us have objected to how Trump’s tweets and attacks have tarnished the Office of Presidency. He has already given insulting labels to various candidates in the Democratic primary. However, such attacks are not just confined to Trump. Yet, as academics, such incivility runs against our tradition of civility in discourse. It often can take no small amount of restraint, but name calling and ad hominem attacks achieve little beyond joining a race to the bottom. That level of restraint was lost this week by Laurence Tribe, a renowned academic and the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University. While name calling is now routine, this instance is notable, and alarming, from one of the nation’s leading academics.
Tribe went after Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week after McConnell promised to fill any Supreme Court vacancy in 2020. McConnell had led the blocking of the confirmation of Merrick Garland in 2016 by citing that fact that it was an election year. When asked what would happen if Republicans faced a vacancy in 2020, McConnell was adamant: “Oh, we’d fill it.” That was too much for Tribe who attacked McConnell in what many would view Trump-like postings.
Prof. Tribe ridiculed McConnell as “McTurtle” and said that his “middle, first and last names are “hypocrisy.” He then added “What a flagrant dickhead!” for good measure.
I certainly understand Tribe’s frustration but people of good faith, and particularly professors, need to try to restore civil discourse in our public debates. Otherwise reasoned debate will be replaced by mere ridicule. Democratic candidates have already started to return personal insults from Trump. That may be a way to appeal to the extremes of our politics but it will do little to convince people on the merits of these issues. Moreover, for those of us who do not want this to become the “new normal,” the participation of professors undermines our efforts. If we are going to avoid a race to the bottom, we need to show a degree to restraint in listening to what Lincoln called our “better angels.” That also means that we must at times call out those people who, despite our respect, yield to the temptation to engage in name calling and petty attacks.