“It is newsworthy that he wrote it and tweeted it out, and we should show and say it because the president sent it out just that way,” an internal CNN memo advised on Wednesday, according to the New York Times.
Before Trump’s “bullshit,” there was his “shithole countries,” and before that, there was “grab them by the pussy” — all disseminated and debated in public as if they were the names of tax bills. Not to mention Trump’s rallies, where cusses fall from his mouth liberally.
The Washington Post takes a cautious approach to profanity but decided early in the administration that the vulgar utterances of the president or his spokespeople should be reported in full.
Democrats are swearing, too, now, as if in retaliation. “F-- me,” Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) wrote in an Aug. 5 tweet about the president, who had just misidentified the site of a mass shooting. (Ryan left the vowel out, if that makes it any more decorous.)
Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke routinely drops f-bombs when he talks about gun violence, and his campaign sells T-shirts quoting his curses. Cory Booker’s campaign manager tweeted an image of a text of Booker swearing about Trump, as if we needed to see it that badly.
The Democratic National Committee reportedly warned the candidates not to curse at last month’s televised debate. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg both said “damn” anyway.
The Parents Television Council, which historically has been concerned with cleaning up Hollywood and Super Bowl halftime shows, is urging news broadcasters to be mindful of the words they quote when children might be watching.
“We are also calling on our elected and appointed officials across the political spectrum to recognize the exemplary role they play for children and to tone down the profanity and to use smarter words,” the council’s president, Tim Winter, said in a statement to The Post. “Perhaps our nation can use this sudden infatuation for harsh profanity as a learning moment and identify words that can more precisely identify our sentiments.”
Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter thinks our sweary public discourse reflects evolving standards of decency as much as the president’s potty mouth.
“What genuinely registers as profane to most Americans is now slurs rather than references to bodily matters such as sex,” he said. “It’s natural that serious public figures will use the classic four-letter words ever more to signal authenticity. But Trump’s unmonitored speech has mainstreamed such words in the media even faster of late, in that the urgency of reporting the appalling things he says requires that ‘shithole country’ and ‘I’m fucked’ end up all over the news.”
No other president has cursed like Trump: publicly, constantly and even somewhat creatively, as when he dubbed Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “little Adam Schitt.” On Saturday, he tweeted that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was a “pompous ‘ass’ who has been fighting me from the beginning.”
His predecessors were hardly altar boys, but they tended to swear sparingly or exclusively in private. Abraham Lincoln liked to tell a joke about George Washington’s effect on an Englishman’s bowels. George W. Bush was once caught on a hot mic calling a reporter a “major league asshole,” and Barack Obama joked to the U.S. women’s soccer team: “Playing like a girl means you’re a badass. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used that phrase.”
The White House tapes that helped bring down Richard Nixon were full of curses and racial slurs, but it notably took congressional intervention and a subpoena before the public could hear any of them. Trump just gives his profanity away — freely seeding it across the cultural landscape.
“This is very different. We’re coming to a point where it’s not unusual at all to hear politicians and TV hosts cursing,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “If the president is doing it, that becomes totally legitimate, totally normalized. There’s no hot mic needed because they’ll just do it right in your face.”
This story has been updated.