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America's Uncivil War

28 October, 2017

In the last few weeks, Americans heard their political leaders speak in a way that is not generally considered polite, kind, or professional – in other words, uncivil.

One exchange has followed the death of an American soldier in Niger. President Trump called the soldier's widow to offer his condolences. But a U.S. lawmaker, who heard the phone call, called the president's remarks disrespectful.

The president responded with a tweet saying the lawmaker was "wacky" and "gave a total lie."

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks to the media during the daily briefing on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks to the media during the daily briefing on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The president's chief of staff, John Kelly, defended Trump and his positive intentions. He said the lawmaker should not have listened to the call, and added that she was an "empty barrel" who just made noise.

This example of the negative tone in the current public conversation is a comparatively mild one. A reporter for the Washington Times newspaper wrote that a number of polls show media coverage about President Trump is overwhelmingly critical.

The article quotes the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as saying, "This is a president who fights fire with fire." In other words, he answers criticism with criticism.

A Stanford professor who studies relationships at work notes that one negative exchange leads to others. Bob Sutton said in an interview with New York magazine, "Nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior." A single unkind remark can spread like a sickness, he said.

One lawmaker recently tried to make a joke about the ugly tone of today's political language. After a meeting of Republican senators with the president, Senator John Kennedy from the state of Louisiana reportedly said, "Nobody called anyone an ignorant slut."

The term "ignorant slut" refers to a skit from a popular, humorous television show. But the words are still considered strong language, and some political leaders are not laughing.

Presidents, senators speak out

In fact, former presidents have taken the unusual step of speaking out about the current political climate.

George W. Bush, a Republican, cautioned Americans against "casual cruelty." Barack Obama, a Democrat, warned against the "politics of division."

And then, in a dramatic speech on Tuesday, a Republican senator from Arizona announced that he would not seek re-election. One reason, he said, was because he could not support the president's leadership.

Jeff Flake said, "Mr. President, I rise today to say: Enough." Flake accused the president of attacking people and institutions, often for no good reason.

The president has criticized Flake in the past, calling him "toxic" and "weak."

Earlier, another Republican senator, Bob Corker, also said he was retiring and strongly spoke out against Trump. On Twitter, Corker called Trump "untruthful" and described the White House as "an adult daycare center." In other words, Corker said the president and his staff could not take care of themselves and needed supervision.

In answer to Flake and Corker, Trump pointed out that many voters supported him, but were highly unlikely to re-elect them. "Now act so hurt and wounded," Trump added in a tweet.

Commenters on the right and left have also pointed out that the retirement of these lawmakers strengthens Trump and those in his party who support him.

A country divided

The divisions within the country – and even within the Republican Party, which Bush, Flake and Corker share with Trump – are real. A report published this week found that even members of the same party see major issues differently.

Pew researchers point out that they have found these divisions over the last 30 years of studying American beliefs. But two things may be different now, researchers found.

FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, white nationalist demonstrators, right, clash with a counter demonstrator as he throws a newspaper box at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, white nationalist demonstrators, right, clash with a counter demonstrator as he throws a newspaper box at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.

First, the Trump administration is calling attention to many of the issues that traditionally divide the Republican Party: immigration, America's role in the world, and whether the U.S. economic system is fair to most people.

Trump's government is speaking about these topics and pressing hard on policies related to them.

Second, Pew researchers found that the divide between Republicans and Democrats has grown larger. Republicans and Democrats are finding less and less common ground on issues such as race and how much the federal government should support people who need help.

The researchers said that these divisions were wide under the government of Barack Obama. Now they are even wider.

Personal attacks in American politics

But what is not new to U.S. politics is strong, angry language and personal attacks on lawmakers.

The campaign of 1800 between former friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is often held to be the most negative in U.S. history. The magazine Mental Floss writes, "Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward."

The political conversation in the U.S. also suffered in the years before and after the Civil War. In one event, one lawmaker who supported slavery even used a cane to strike one who opposed it. The men were in the Senate chamber.

They both became heroes to their supporters.

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do edited it.


Words in This Story

condolences - n. a feeling or expression of sympathy and sadness especially when someone is suffering because of the death of a family member, a friend, etc.

wacky - adj. amusing and very strange

intentions - n. an aim or purpose

ignorant - adj. lacking knowledge or information

slut - n. a woman who has many sexual partners

skit - n. a short, funny story or performance

toxic - adj. poisonous

hypocrite - n. a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs

libertine - n. a person (especially a man) who leads an immoral life and is mainly interested in sexual pleasure