Trump and his supporters are responsible for much of our current glut of contempt, but they are hardly the only perpetrators of it. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment qualifies as contempt, although her subsequent expression of regret undid some of its effects. Opponents of Trump have also directed plenty of contempt at both Trump himself — as we saw in some of the signs brandished at Saturday’s marches across the country — and at the people who voted for him, particularly rural voters without much education. Contempt has been injected into our public space from all sides.We'll see if people are prepared to listen to her. It's an instrumental argument -- the reason not to engage in contempt is not that it's morally wrong, but because it works to the opponent's advantage. That kind of argument might be more persuasive than a genuinely moral one, in a diverse nation with little remaining agreement on what (if anything) rightly grounds morality.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to conclude that all expressions of contempt are equally bad. Contempt occurs in the context of social relationships that are themselves characterized by power differences.... It may seem as though the best response to Trump’s contempt is to return it in kind, treating him the same way he treats others. The trouble, though, is that contempt toward Trump does not function in the same way that his contempt toward others functions. Even if we grant that Trump deserves contempt for his attitudes and behaviors, his powerful social position insulates him from the worst of contempt’s effects. It is simply not possible to disregard or diminish the agency of the president of the United States. This means that contempt is not a particularly useful weapon in the battle against bigotry or misogyny. The socially vulnerable cannot wield it effectively precisely because of their social vulnerability.
The better strategy for those who are already disempowered is to reject contempt on its face. Returning contempt for contempt legitimizes its presence in the public sphere. The only ones who benefit from this legitimacy are the people powerful enough to use contempt to draw the boundaries of the political community as they see fit.
Of course, the problem with an instrumental argument like this is that it doesn't cut both ways. If the reason to avoid contempt is that it empowers Trump at the expense of others, then that's also a reason for Trump and his supporters to actively choose to use contempt. By the same token, it suggests that those who privately hold us in contempt should insist on universal respect only until they manage to come to power -- after which point, expressing their contempt for us becomes a useful tool for them.
UPDATE: An allied piece in the NYT: "Is It OK to Punch a Nazi?"