How Republicans Exploited The Term "Respect"

by Bronwyn Isaac
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, the Senate Majority Leader inadvertently set off a social media storm that has galvanized a new wave of anti-Donald Trump/anti-GOP resistance. With the support of his fellow Republicans, Sen. Mitch McConnell silenced Elizabeth Warren from speaking candidly on the Senate floor, or at least, tried to. During a Senate debate about the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Republicans stopped Warren from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King by invoking Senate Rule 19, which states, "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator."

Perhaps, devoid of context, the rule McConell invoked to silence Warren sounds reasonable enough. However, this invocation feels pointed considering the fact that Rule 19 wasn't on the table when Sen. David Purdue slammed Sen. Charles Schumer's tears while talking about the refugee screening last week. Specifically, there were no Senate-based repercussions when Purdue criticized Schumer, saying, "The Minority Leader’s ‘tear-jerking’ performance over the past weekend belonged at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, not in a serious discussion of what it takes to keep America safe."

One of the most insidious tools used to prop up the silencing of Warren is the notion of "respect." Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch addressed how Warren was silenced by framing it as a matter of bipartisan respectability, "We have to treat each other with respect or this place is going to devolve into a jungle."

However, I believe that if Hatch was truly concerned about respect he could have also addressed Purdue's statements about Schumer last week. Instead, this notion of respect, in this case, is functioning as a tool of tone-policing and justification for silencing Warren.

Other Republicans expressed similar disapproval against Warren's dissent, couching their discomfort in blanket ideals of keeping the Senate running properly. "You don’t insult — whether it be from a letter, or from a message from God, or on golden tablets,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, in response to the rule silencing Warren, “That’s the rules of the Senate. They want to complain about it, complain about it.”

Again, it seems that Republicans in Senate wanted to pull out a rule that hasn't been used since 1979, when Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker insulted Sen. John Heinz, calling him both an "idiot" and "devious."

There's a huge gap between calling someone an idiot and Warren's strategic dissent. More specifically, there's a huge difference between being recklessly disrespectful, and the act of reading King's 1986 letter urging Senate to reject Sessions as a federal judge.

Equating disrespect and well-cited disagreement is a dangerous road for the Senate to go down because it stifles the very concept of Democratic debate, a cornerstone of how Senate confirmation hearings work. Painting Warren's opposition to Sessions as a rule-breaking moment equal to the 1902 fist-fight that gave rise to Rule 19 places Warren in a position where the only respectable response is silence.

Moreover, notions of respect as a tool of -policing are already self-contradictory by nature. Respect is off the table once one party is silenced.