Should Democrats impeach President Trump? For that matter, should they, as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) so eloquently suggested last night, “impeach the motherf---er”?
These questions might seem one and the same. But they’re not. The furor over Tlaib’s profane call for a constitutional reckoning touches the intersection of two fights: There’s the objection to speaking of impeaching the president at all. Then there’s the objection to speaking of it — or anything else about him — so foully.
Neither objection stands, though the former is far less silly than the latter.
Impeachment is a legitimate topic. Tlaib herself has laid out a cogent case that the country is in crisis, and that Trump’s known offenses, from hush money to emoluments, are enough to launch an inquiry even without a report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Congress has the power to do something. Talking about using that power is hardly norm-smashing. Whether doing so is politically clever at this moment is harder to gauge, but at least it’s a useful conversation. Freaking out about “motherf---er” is not.
The argument from the pro-civility crusaders is that talking this way is sinking to Trump’s level. That’s wrong. It not only misses the meaningful difference between words and actions, but it doesn’t even grasp the difference between words and other words.
“Motherf---er” is filler; it means little more than “someone more unpleasant than ‘unpleasant’ can convey.” Saying you grab women “by the p---y,” on the other hand, is truly damaging: It turns members of that gender into something to be played with. Calling immigrants an infestation dehumanizes them.
“Motherf---er,” in short, is about civility. “Shithole countries” is about character. Democrats who conflate the two weaken themselves. They minimize the abuses of the Trump administration, and they invite the president to go on committing them without expecting anything more than an anemic reprimand. Democrats, he understands, won’t ever really fight back.
Then there’s the charge that embracing crude rhetoric is a gift to the president and his supporters. It alienates those wishy-washy suburbanites whom Trump regularly scandalizes, the thinking goes, and it energizes his most fervent fanatics.
But Trump’s most fervent fanatics are already just that: fervent and fanatical. They don’t need nasty language from Democrats to get them chanting MAGA. As for those suburbanites, it’s insulting — and even dangerous — to suggest that voters will base their behavior on whether a freshman congresswoman said a bad word rather than on whether the president tears parents from their children or tells his defense secretary to assassinate Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Linguistic timidity might not be worth bemoaning at such length if it were only about language. A better politics isn’t necessarily a more profane politics. But the left half of the left wants to push broader boundaries, and it’s no wonder they worry when the rest of the party starts to pull instead.
The liberal vanguard Tlaib belongs to seeks massive change, from Medicare for all to a grand climate bargain. They see no hope for compromise now, so they look to a future of Democratic control, when ramming transformation through will require breaking things. The party establishment so far has shown small desire to do so. And that, Tlaib might say, is a motherf---ing shame.