The cursing president
How Trump changed America's rules about profanity
Donald Trump is the first president to make C-SPAN unsuitable viewing for children. "The president used language that some may find offensive," reads a disclaimer on C-SPAN's website for a speech he gave in July. In that speech, President Trump said, "If you don't support me, you're going to be so goddamn poor."
Taking the Lord's name in vain is mild compared with the president's recent statements. On Friday, he called Beto O'Rourke a "poor bastard." On Sunday, he retweeted a video of a UFC fighter calling him "a bad motherf---er." On Monday, he called Gov. Matt Bevin (R-Ky.) "a pain in the ass."
Trump is so obscene that the country's newspapers and websites, including this one, have had to change their rules about publishing profanity just to keep up. Thanks to him, you can now read "shithole" in The New York Times.
Last month, Trump said Joe Biden "understood how to kiss Barack Obama's ass," called Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) "a pompous 'ass,'" called himself a "son of a bitch," called the impeachment inquiry "BULLSHIT," said "hell" 72 times, acted out a love scene between former F.B.I. agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) "couldn't carry" Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's jock strap, and told a reporter, "Don't be rude."
Earlier this year, in an interview with The New York Times, Trump said he "beat the shit out of" his Republican rivals in 2016. At CPAC, he said his enemies were trying to sabotage him "with bullshit." At a rally in March, he said Democrats were "defrauding the public with ridiculous bullshit." "It's bullshit, okay? It's bullshit," Trump said in another speech, aptly describing all of his speeches.
Trump uses profanity for both cathartic and demagogic purposes, as a way to vent his frustrations and to stir up crowds. In 2016, he said it got him "standing ovations." His supporters regard his cussing with the same esteem as the national anthem.
Swearing is supposed to denote authenticity, and Trump's supporters love how authentically boorish he is. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said that Trump "has single-handedly changed the definition of what behavior is 'presidential' from phony, failed & rehearsed to authentic, successful & down to earth." At last, here is a president who is too real to be polite.
In a 2017 Pew survey, Trump supporters cited his personality, not his policies, as what they liked most about him. They like his personality more than his policies for the same reason that men like the nudity in X-rated movies more than the plots: The vulgarity is the point.
Trump's offensive language is the least of his offenses. Compared with his high crimes and misdemeanors, it's frivolous. Still, what the president says matters, because what he says sets the tone for public discourse.
Profanity is proliferating. According to a study by the Parents Television Council, there was 43.5 percent more profanity on kid-friendly TV shows in 2017-18 than there was in 2007-08. Coincidentally, there was also 100 percent more Donald Trump as president.
Trump isn't the only public figure cursing on TV. Last month, during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice said that Trump's abandonment of the Kurds was "batshit crazy." Last week, MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace referred to three people as "chickenshit." And no one cared.
To combat Trump, Democrats are imitating him. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) "doesn't have shit to prove," and on CNN described the "thoughts and prayers" trope as "bullshit." In televised debates, Democratic presidential candidates have said "piss," "shit," and "asses." Cussing is so popular that at a recent debate, ABC had to warn participants to "avoid cursing or expletives in accordance with federal law."
Instead of avoiding expletives, politicians at every level are embracing them. Trump used the word "bullshit" only once in his first two years. He has used it 12 times in the past nine months. According to GovPredict, an analytics firm, federal and state lawmakers tweeted 1,818 profanities in the first six months of this year, compared with 2,578 last year; 1,571 in 2017; 193 in 2016; and 132 in 2015.
For politicians, cursing serves not as a way to convey ideas but as a way to suppress them. Beto O'Rourke's position on gun violence, neatly emblazoned on T-shirts, is that it's "f---ed up," i.e., undesirable. As for whether "radical Islamic terrorists" should be in or out of our country, Trump wants them "the hell out of our country," which is a brash way of saying what everybody but radical Islamic terrorists thinks. As Steven Pinker observes in his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, the use of profanity is "a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to."
Trump, who said he uses profanity "as a way of emphasis" and because he has "fun doing it," objects to its use when it's directed at him. After Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said that Democrats were "going to impeach the motherfucker," Trump said Tlaib "dishonored herself" by using a word he used in a 2011 speech to the Nevada Republican Party. Trump exempts himself from standards he enforces on others.
There was a time when presidents said lofty things in public and obscenities in private. Abraham Lincoln told ribald jokes, but not in the Gettysburg Address. Lyndon Johnson said things like, "He wouldn't know how to pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel," but not on TV. In his recorded conversations, Richard Nixon took the Lord's name in vain and ranted about "sons of bitches," sometimes in the same sentence ("That was a goddamn tough son of a bitch"). Nixon said "crap," "a bunch of crap," "bullshit," "I don't give a shit," and "asshole," but he never excreted profanities in public.
Reading the transcripts of Nixon's conversations, Billy Graham said he wanted to throw up. "Never in all the times I was with him, did he use language even close to that," Graham said. "I felt physically sick and went to the seclusion of my study at the back of the house. Inwardly, I felt torn apart."
Today's evangelicals overlook Trump's obscenities. "It's not something we're going to get morally indignant about," Jerry Falwell Jr. said. "This is not a crisis on the level of Watergate, the Civil War, or the Vietnam War," Ralph Reed, a conservative Christian activist, said. He's right: Saying "bastard" is not like Americans firing canons at each other.
What Trump says in public is worse than 95 percent of what Nixon said in private. When Nixon suggested that Jews were disloyal, he did so privately. When Trump made a similar accusation this summer, he did so in front of reporters. Instead of expecting more from the president, we are allowing more.
The worst thing about the president's foul mouth is that it's not the worst thing about him. In a weird way, his profanities and slurs help him, by diverting our attention. Every revolting thing Trump says is a distraction from every revolting thing he does.
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