Quick, grab the smelling salts—pundits are having fainting fits over profanity in public discourse. Writing at American Greatness on Tuesday, right-wing military historian Victor Hanson Davis lambasted CNN as the “Crude News Network” because their hosts use “obscenity, crudity, and a sort of cruelty” in criticizing President Donald Trump. (Anderson Cooper told Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord that if the president “took a dump on his desk, you would defend it,” and Reza Aslan called Trump a “piece of shit” over his response to the London terrorist attack). What’s worse, Hanson argued, such profanity has spread from journalism to politics. “Aslan is channeling the vulgarity of other journalists, which in turn has brought the inner vulgarian out of politicos like Tom Perez, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Burton and other Democratic grandees.”
Hanson is just the latest in a long line of writers to observe this trend. In April, writing for Politico, Alex Canton noted the “expletives ringing from large sections of the Democratic bench,” adding, “It’s enough to make you wonder what the hell is going on.” Last month, Josh Kraushaar, the impeccably middle-of-the-road political editor of the National Journal, tempted the dreaded reply-to-retweet ratio with this:
The rise in profanity is real. Early in his presidential campaign, in 2015, Bernie Sanders implored supporters not to let anyone tell them that “politics is bullshit.” Gillibrand, the senator from New York, told the New York magazine this year that “if we’re not helping people, we should go the fuck home.” Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, said at a party forum that “if you don’t have the trust of the community, then you ain’t got shit,” and said a rally that “Republican leaders and President Trump don’t give a shit about the people they were trying to hurt” with their Obamacare alternative. Congressman Ted Lieu tweeted in March:
Prissy complaints about “the cursing and coarsened Democrats” do little to explain the cultural shift that has made politics much more blue. For one thing, this is a Republican phenomenon, too. Look no further than the president, who in 2011 said his message to China will be, “Listen you motherfuckers, we’re going to tax you 25 percent!” (Trump has since learned that he needs the help of these motherfuckers to deal with North Korea.) In 2015, Trump said he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. Last year, he said U.S. businesses returning from Mexico can “go fuck themselves.” These are only some of the indelicacies that have issued forth from Trump’s mouth:
But the current era of political obscenity also must be put in historical context. Privately, presidents ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Nixon were prone to use off-color language. But in public, their political rhetoric was loftier, aiming to be more sacred than profane. When America was on the cusp of the Civil War, Lincoln in his inaugural address evoked “the better angels of our nature” and the “mystic chords of memory.” Behind closed doors, though, Lincoln could be as coarse as anyone, and had a predilection for potty humor.
The novelist Norman Mailer was a pioneer in breaking down the division between private language and political speech. In 1969, he ran for New York mayor under the slogan “No More Bullshit.” He lost, but his political career shouldn’t be dismissed as a Quixotic gesture. As a writer, Mailer was attuned to the fact that culture was changing. In his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), he had to replace “fuck” with the euphemism “fug.” (According to a famous but apocryphal story, Dorothy Parker asked Mailer if he was the young man who couldn’t spell “fuck.”) By the late 1960s, due to the weakening of censorship laws, Mailer was allowed to swear all he wanted in his novels. Mailer concluded, accurately although prematurely, that foul language would soon have a place in politics.
The release of the Watergate tapes in 1974 did much to discredit Nixon in the eyes of his conservative supporters, especially since the tapes were littered with four-letter words rendered by newspapers as “expletive deleted.” The Chicago Tribune, which had long championed Nixon and then called for his resignation, lamented, “He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane.” Yet the tapes seem to have opened the doors for greater acceptance of swearing in politics. Once it became know the f-bomb was commonplace in the Oval Office, politicians were freed from unrealistic expectations of public decorousness. Jimmy Carter ran as a squeaky clean alternative to the sordid Nixonian, but in 1979 he said of his political rival Ted Kennedy, “I’ll whip his ass.”
The increasing obscenity in politics has a political salience. The word “vulgarity” is rooted in the Latin term for “the multitude”; to use coarse language is to speak in the tongue of the common people, and to reject the code of civility prescribed—if not always followed—by the political ruling class. Trump swore on the campaign trail to establish his populist bona fides and connect with the working class, while at the same time distinguishing himself from typical Republicans like Jeb Bush, the high-minded WASP, or Mitt Romney, the prim Mormon. Trump’s foul language showed his followers that he was serious about breaking the rules to upend the establishment.
Democrats’ use of profanity projects a comparable message. Foul words often come from politicians who are already populists or hope to be seen as such (Gillibrand, Sanders, Perez). And swearing has intensified as Democrats have become more recalcitrant in their resistance to the president. Just as Trump cursed as a way of rejecting the Obama-era politics of 2016, Democrats are now cursing as a way of rejecting the Trumpian politics of 2017. To call “bullshit” is to renounce compromise or a search for comity. It means you are raring for a fight. To yell obscenities at the president is to say that his politics are themselves obscene.
Conservatives like Davis and centrists like Kraushaar are upset by the foul words fluttering around because they either want Democrats to stop denouncing Trump (Davis) or for our politics to return to some mythical state of bipartisan co-operation (Kraushaar). The only proper response to such critics is: With all due respect, eat shit. The new wave of swearing isn’t the cause of a breakdown in civility, but a symptom of a national crisis. These are dire times in the U.S. The president is a manifestly unfit kleptocrat who may have obstructed justice, but he’s not going to be impeached anytime soon because he has the support of his party. The only proper response is a full-scale attack on the political system, which requires rallying the public by letting them know just how foul things are—a task best accomplished with foul language. Trump represents an existential threat to American democracy. In this state of emergency, there’s no room for wimpy euphemisms and lofty rhetoric.