Like many of our most depressing political debates these days, it began on Twitter. Yet the instigator this time was not President Donald Trump.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio and the manager of his brother Julián's presidential campaign, decided that his contribution to fixing what ails us after the latest round of mass shootings would be to publicize the names of people in his district who donated to the Trump campaign. He tweeted that the owners of two specific local businesses and a realtor were "fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as 'invaders.'" He added a list of other donors. For those with jobs, he including their place of employment; others were identified as retirees.
Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, charged that Castro was "targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs." Castro shot back that "no one was targeted or harassed in my post," that McCarthy knew that, and was "trying to distract from the racism that has overtaken the GOP."
The chief defense of Castro -- made by the congressman himself and legions of his Twitter allies -- is that the information was all publicly available and that he was exercising his First Amendment rights to comment on it. It is not a good defense, which ought to be especially clear to the many journalists who have made it. When a news outlet runs a story, the building blocks are often publicly available information, and almost always legally gathered information. The outlet is in the vast, vast majority of cases within its legal rights to run it.
Yet nobody supposes that the choices of reporters and editors are therefore exempt from moral criticism. A newspaper could decide to publish a series based on the publicly available divorce records of a random citizen. If it did, most people would ask why it was doing it and what the effects would be. They would say that the newspaper had exercised its freedom in an irresponsible way.
So here. Everyone knows why Castro tweeted these names. At best, it was to expose the donors to social and economic pressure from people who agree with Castro about Trump. Everyone knows, as well, that in our current political environment the effects could include harassment and even violence. Castro himself has been known to opine on the dangerousness of some political commentary for just this reason.
The more interesting defense comes from Washington Post columnist Radley Balko, who asks, "Would it be outrageous to publish the names of people who donated to a U.S. Nazi Party? How about to David Duke? Corey Stewart? Is the argument here that it's always wrong to shame with publicly available donor information, or that Trump isn't dangerous enough to justify shaming?"
This is one of those rare instances in which invoking the Nazis is clarifying. It suggests that what's at stake is not an issue of principle but of judgment. The relevant distinction between Trump and declared American Nazis is not that he is less dangerous than they are, since they are not very dangerous at all. It's that supporting the Nazis today is an aberrant practice and a mark of a vicious character. Supporting Trump is neither.
It may or may not be wise or morally justified, but millions of well-meaning people have chosen to do so. They should not be insulated from criticism from Trump's opponents, any more than Democrats should be insulated from criticism from Trump's supporters. Neither group, however, deserves to be shunned or harassed.
And since both supporters and opponents are extremely numerous, either side's adoption of such tactics is more likely to degrade our common life further than it is to have salutary political effects. The best thing about Castro's behavior in this affair is that he is pretending that he is not adopting these tactics. At this moment in our politics, hypocrisy is the tribute that partisanship pays to what remains of civility.
Ramesh Ponnuru (email@example.com) is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.