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talkingUnlike some of the US presidential candidates, I’ll try to keep this clean, though I warn you now that it won’t be easy. Do I asterisk or not? Give you a hint of the word or try to maintain your purity? Then again, do I lace the entire thing in steaming hot obscenities because that’s what the people seem to like?

You see, we really need to talk about bad language. Not specifically in our culture, though **** knows, there’s enough of the salty stuff around in our schools and kindergartens to deafen a Merseyside docker. The world is more vulgar today than it was just a decade ago. This week’s news that the fashion label French Connection is un-retiring its notorious branding was greeted with a bored sigh rather than the outrage that accompanied its original launch in 1991. Back then we seemed to know and respect our boundaries. The **** ugly label ‘FCUK’ was successful because it broke a taboo. Now profanity is commonplace, from t-shirts to the title of coffee bars, and it has even reached the political mainstream where the grown-ups should really know better.

Last night, Donald Trump (who else?) was gusset-deep in the mud for repeating an insult about Ted Cruz that a member of his audience had shouted at a rally in Manchester. He said he wasn’t allowed to say what the woman had yelled but he ended up saying it anyway, calling Cruz a ‘p***y’. ‘That’s terrible. Terrible!’ he continued, though clearly enjoying it as much as the audience who were screaming with delight. He then admonished the woman because, he said, that’s what the media expected him to do. Yet anybody who has watched enough Trump rallies would recognise the shtick. Picking out the vulgar heckle then expressing shock followed by the admonition: he’s done it all before and the only thing to change this time was the severity of the unsayable.

Managing to say these unpalatable things has been Trump’s chief trick during these elections. Trump can use words that would normally end a political career but, since he’s self funding, he can say what the **** he likes and often does. His track record for cursing during political speeches goes back, at the least, to 2011 when he f-bombed his way through a speech in Las Vegas, concluding with the memorable message to ‘Chi-nah’:

Listen you mother******s, we’re going to tax you 25 percent!

This campaign has been much more muted and I only noticed the verbal trumps starting in January when he cursed one of his sound engineers for a bad microphone during a rally in Pensacola, Florida. ‘Whoever the hell brought this mic system, don’t pay the son of a b****,’ he said, beginning a rant that was possibly the first for this election. ‘You know, I believe in paying, but when somebody does a bad job like this stupid mic, you shouldn’t pay the b******. Terrible. Terrible. It’s true.’

At the time it seemed a momentary blip and perhaps Trump thought so too, except his outburst was greeting with wild enthusiasm by his supporters. Not one to miss a popular gimmick, swearing soon became de rigour on his campaign stops. ‘I would bomb the s*** out of ISIS’ has become one of his most popular refrains and could well trump ‘making America great again’ as the defining phrase of his nomination. It would be quite apt if it did. Just when you think that he’s reached the edge of the acceptable, Trump goes a little further, recently mouthing ‘f***’ during a rally. He didn’t actually say the word but the context was: ‘You can tell them to go f*** themselves.’ You didn’t need to have to be a qualified lip reader to recognise what he mouthed. Perhaps he recognises the limits to what he can say but, equally, perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps this is a hint of ‘greater’ things to come.

George Washington said that ‘the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.’ He was, of course, absolutely ****ing right but profanity has a dark magic of which politicians are only too aware. Even Bernie Sanders got into the act yesterday when responding to the accusation that some of his supporters, nicknamed the ‘Berniebros’ by opponents, were subjecting voters to sexist insults. Talking to CNN he said:

Look, we don’t want that crap. […] Look, anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things is—we don’t want them. I don’t want them. That is not what this campaign is about.

Gentle compared to Trump, perhaps, but look how it sounds compared to Hillary Clinton responding on Sunday to criticism of Madeleine Albright who had said there’s ‘a special place in hell’ reserved for women who don’t support Hillary.

Well good grief, we’re getting offended by everything these days. Honest to goodness, I mean, people can’t say anything without offending somebody. She has a life experience that I respect.

The response might be a bit too ‘Jane Austen’ but we should be under no illusions that Hillary can’t swear like a marine. In the January 1994 edition of the American Spectator, David Brock reported a story in which Hillary was reported to have complained to a marine charged with raising the flag over the White House. Consider this coming from the Democrat’s moderate hopeful:

‘Where is the goddamn f ***ing flag?’ […] ‘I want the goddamn f***ing flag up every f***ing morning at f***ing sunrise.’

The ‘goddamn’ prefixing the ‘f***ing’ makes for cursing worthy of a First Lady. Yet it also highlights the discrepancy at the heart of the current election. Trump might be reducing politics to a profane level but, at this time, the genuine is more welcome than the genteel. Would we respect Hillary Clinton if she marched up on stage and announced that ‘what has happened in Flint Michican is nothing less than a monumental cluster***’? I suggest that we just might. It would at least be more genuine than the ‘honest to goodness’. It would be the Hillary we suspect we know but so rarely see.

None of US should hold any illusions about the Oval Office whose walls and Presidential rug are probably a billious yellow for a reason. Nixon was a walking encyclopaedia of profanity as was Lyndon Johnson who was supposed to have once told the Greek Ambassador to ‘f*** your parliament and your constitution’.

Tough words suit the tough office and that is why Trump is finding such mileage in the un-Presidential verbiage. It immediately sets him apart from the rest of his the field. Swearing is part of the vernacular of the American blue collar and by resorting to the occasional curse, he knows he’s establishing a level of trust with the core base.

So, when Trump promises to ‘bomb the s*** out of ISIS’, he is expressing much more than a weakly formulated military plan. When Ted Cruz promises to carpet bomb ISIS it opened him up to criticism by America’s military who pointed out that it’s impossible to wage conventional war across an asymmetrical battlefield. Cruz might have been trying to follow where Trump leads but he doesn’t quite understand the difference in the two messages. Cruz’s ‘carpet bomb’ and Trump’s promise to ‘bomb the s***’ are diametrically opposite. Cruz is formulating his arguments inside the traditional paradigm of presidential politics. Trump, on the other hand, is engaged in the rhetoric of futility. It’s the language of the drunk trucker leaning against a bar or the guy sitting operating a crane and cursing the radio shockjock. It is the language of people tired of all the clever excuses and sick of rhetoric. America might well be set on voting for a President that speaks their own language and next year’s State of the Union might be reduced to grunts and snarls.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.



4 Comments on "The politics of political profanity"

  1. At least you can argue David that these American politicians are trying to strike a chord with elements of the US electorate. Some americans undoubtedly swear there is no getting around it (though most Americans I have met I have to say are shocked by the language the British use). What I am failing to understand is the strategy of British politicians using phrases such as ‘I sure would’ and ‘Hell yes I’m tough enough’. Just which demographic are they aiming at? surely John Wayne fans aren’t really the crucial pivot on which UK electoral success rests. Perhaps I’m wrong, maybe secret research in key marginals shows that it is the undecided members of the local line dancing clubs that hold the balance of power. Prepare to see Davey boy donning a stetson imminently as he attempts to sway them to vote to remain in the EU.

    Swearing is a funny thing, the more it is used the less it becomes swearing, in the 1980’s a number of comedians got laughs just by littering their acts with expletives, it just doesn’t have the impact now. I remember reading of how badly the experiment of mixing British and Australian troops together in Singapore went, the Aussies were considered very rough and ready by the British and one Aussie recounted being punched in the face by a British soldier because he had called him a ‘silly bugger’. To the Aussies that was an everyday insult, nothing serious, to the British it was seemingly at the same level as calling someone a c*** would have been forty years ago. Perhaps in time the Derek and Clive (Moore and Cook) sketch “This bloke come up to me” will just have people scratching their heads at why it was considered edgy.

    • Such a strange mixture though, these god fearing Christians but who also love a good cuss. I agree it’s to speak to people in their language and perhaps that’s a good thing. Politics is in trouble when Cameron can do and say anything he likes because it will have zero impact on his rule. When the media manipulate public opinion entirely, then politics is made a fraud. All the ‘fancy’ words of politicians mean nothing when people no longer feel like their vote matters. It’s why I have some sympathy for Trump supporters. He is offering them an easy fix and his language amounts to a great big cry of ‘let’s fix this f***ing thing’. At one level it’s so easy: if China are stealing your jobs, then stop trading with China. I suppose, then, that cursing de-intellectualises the debate.

      As to ‘hell yes I’m tough enough’. I think that was Milliband’s problem. There was no demographic to which that sounded right except the demographic in his head.

      And I’d hate to see the day when Derek and Clive are no longer offensive. Without the puritan centre all these transgressive things wouldn’t be as much fun as they are.

  2. I heard once again on TV last night Trump say “ I would bomb the s*** out of ISIS” and “It is Time to make America great again” To me he sounded like a latter day demagogue whipping up his supporters into a frenzy .I get the sense if he said “We will nuke Russia” he would be wildly applauded. I just wonder where all this is coming from? Is it partly the Obama Presidency, a feeling he was too soft on Iran and Cuba and has not got to grips with IS? Is it a feeling of impotency for the last 8 years that has given Trump the chance to say “To hell with the rest of the World America is now coming back with a vengeance” If he wins the republican nomination and the election I guess pragmatism may take over but his wild rhetoric worries me

  3. This country will go down with a profane-laced whimper, not with a bang.

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