The last few months have seen expletives ringing from large sections of the Democratic bench. In a New York Magazine profile this month, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) included one “fuck,” two “fucking”s, one “bullshit,” one “pissed off,” one “they suck,” and a “what the hell is going on DNC Chairman Tom Perez has awkwardly but assuredly brought profanity into his stump speeches, saying at a January DNC Future Forum, “if you don’t have the trust of the community, then you ain’t got shit,” and telling a New Jersey Working Families Alliance event in March that Republicans “don’t give a shit about people.” Kicking off an eight-state “Come Together and Fight Back” speaking tour alongside Senator Bernie Sanders in Portland, Maine last week, Perez turned to the president’s spending proposals—“They call it a ‘skinny budget.’ I call it a shitty budget.” By Thursday, the shop at Democrats.org was selling “Democrats give a sh*t about people” shirts.
Profanity’s caught on among the more junior ranks too. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy began a healthcare-related tweetstorm in February by saying “Let me count thy ways that the leaked GOP ACA repeal plan will totally, completely, monumentally screw you.” Virginia Governor candidate Tom Perriello’s healthcare take started similarly: “Republicans, this is not a damn game.” And California Congressman Ted Lieu maxed out his character limit in March to tweet, “Mr. President: If there was a wiretap at Trump Tower, that means a fed judge found probable cause of crime which means you are in deep shit.”
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It’s enough to make you wonder what the hell is going on.
Politicians have never been saints when it comes to salty language. Roll through the archives and you’ll find John F. Kennedy chewing out an Air Force General over a Washington Post story and Lyndon Johnson giving his tailor graphic instructions on how to ensure the breathability of his pants. Both Presidents Bush have had hot mic incidents on the campaign trail, and in 2004 it leaked to the press that Dick Cheney had told Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to “fuck yourself” on the floor of the Senate.
But these exchanges were supposed to be private, or at least weren’t meant for immediate press write-ups. The incorporation of risqué language into the meticulously planned public statements and personas of upwardly mobile politicians appears to be new. And in a time marked by Trumpian combativeness and a decades-long coarsening of language, it might be a political asset.
Over the course of the 1970s, a political scientist named Richard Fenno accompanied 17 congressmen on dozens of trips back to their home districts to study how they view and interact with their constituents. In the 1977 paper “US House Members in their Constituencies,” which later became a book, he coined the term “home style” to describe the resources congressmen spend in their districts, the way they justify their voting records and most centrally, their manner of self-presentation. The congressmen Fenno interviewed told him getting reelected was a matter of earning trust, and earning trust was a matter of demonstrating qualification, identification (geographically, culturally and otherwise) and empathy. “House member politicians believe that a great deal of their support is won by the kind of individual self they present … to their constituents,” a presentation which, “more than most other people, they consciously try to manipulate,” Fenno wrote. “Contextually and verbally [the politician] gives them the impression that ‘I am one of you.’” (When the Washington Post asked Perez about his cursing, he mentally connected it to his hometown and its reputation for straight talk. “I grew up in Buffalo. We’re a blunt community. We tell it like it is.”)
Research in linguistics and psychology suggests that conditions are right for politicians to make their home styles a little more profane. For starters, says Michael Adams, an Indiana University English professor and author of In Praise of Profanity, “ordinary people use more profanity in public situations now than they used to.” A 2009 study noted that we swear almost as frequently as we use first person plural pronouns. A 2016 AP/NORC poll found that one in four American adults use the f-word daily, up from 15 percent 10 years ago. The number using it “several times a day” doubled.
All forms of media have become saltier, too. The incidence and the severity of curse words on primetime television increased sharply from 1990 to 2005, for both cable and broadcast networks. The use of “ass,” “shit” and “fuck” in books has exploded since the 1960s. And by some estimates, people curse nearly twice as much on Twitter as they do in spoken conversation.
The result, says Mickey Edwards, a retired eight-term congressman from Oklahoma and a board member for the National Institute for Civil Discourse, is a change in “what people are willing to say in public and what others are willing to hear in public.” When the Nixon administration released in book form 1,300 pages of transcribed White House tapes riddled with the redaction “expletives deleted,” the conservative editorial board at the Chicago Tribune wrote, “He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane,” and called for his resignation. The corruption didn’t help his case, of course, but today’s politicians simply don’t need to fear the same reprisals for foul language. After Joe Biden called the Affordable Care Act a “Big fuckin’ deal” over a live mic at the bill’s nationally televised signing ceremony in 2010, a Fox News poll reported 57 percent of registered voters found the remarks “not offensive.”
Edwards disputes that a more permissive environment leads politicians to script their profanities. But as the costs of profanity have lowered, the returns for rudeness have become more obvious. A 2005 experiment found that although people self-report that swearing is a sign of deceit, they actually perceive written witness testimonies with swearwords as more credible than those without.
A fall 2015 Harvard poll of 18-29 year olds reported integrity, level-headedness and authenticity as the three most valued attributes in a presidential candidate—some of which can be easily signaled through swearing. Jeff Shesol, a former White House speechwriter for Bill Clinton and founding partner of West Wing Writers, compares it to the sometimes unconscious, sometimes too-conscious adaptations of retail politics, like dropping the g’s from “–ing” words and picking up a Southern accent. “The surest way I think to show that you’re unfiltered is to use a word the FCC would rather you don’t use on television. I just don’t think it is an accident when you see a whole string of them.” Still, top politicians could have taken advantage of this climate before 2016. Barack Obama’s calling Mitt Romney a “bullshitter” 12 days before the 2012 election didn’t seem to hurt him. In 2013, Republican leaders weren’t running their mouths in opposition.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. Is it possible that it took the tough-talking real estate mogul and his nonexistent filter to make his opponents view swearing as electoral imperative? Trump made “authenticity” a watchword for 2016, and benefitted immensely by defining it on his own unsacred terms. He said the Democrats were going to “sue [Ted Cruz’s] ass off” and that China was “ripping the shit out of the sea.” He said Hillary Clinton “got schlonged” by Obama in 2008, and told his adoring fans, “You can tell them to go fuck themselves,” about U.S. companies who move their headquarters abroad. In a December 2015 New York Times/CBS poll, 76 percent of GOP primary voters said they thought Trump “says what he believes most of the time.” Only 41 percent said the same for Jeb Bush.
On the one hand, Trump might have provided cover for lesser infractions by making them seem tame. Rand Paul’s “dumbass livestreaming” line hardly registered when only two weeks before, Trump had called friendly words between Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush “political bullshit,” and seems flatly uninteresting next to Trump saying the next month that he would “bomb the shit out of” ISIS.
But Trump may also have provided a competitive motive, baiting opponents into an arena where he knew he was unlikely to lose. “Nobody could really match Trump in terms of his breathtaking willingness to say anything and be rewarded for it,” Shesol says. Still, some tried. In a last ditch earned media offensive two weeks before the Florida primary, Rubio began joking about the size of Trump’s hands and what it might imply. It was the only week of the race where he received more television coverage than Trump. It was not enough to save his campaign.
Timothy Jay, a psychology professor and author of six books on profanity, says cursing can also assert power. “Any woman lawyer would tell you,” he says, “if you’re gonna compete in the arena with the big boys, you gotta act and talk like the big boys.” Gillibrand, a lawyer, seems to agree, telling the Hill in 2014, “I do sometimes use colorful language at work, which for whatever reason, seems to express it better.” But there are thresholds of acceptability for swearing, and both Jay and Adams independently said they are more restrictive on women. For example, “piss off” would have been a less stilted thing for Hillary Clinton to tweet at Trump than “delete your account,” but broaching that level of profanity might not have been a live option for the first female presidential nominee. Trump’s brashness, Adams says, “shifted the basis of authenticity to where she couldn’t go.”
But Adams also says that by starting outside of the confines of a presidential campaign, Gillibrand can begin building “the acceptability of women participating in” swearing, and thinks in the long term it helps both herself and other female candidates. “Some of that notion that women aren’t tough enough, strong enough to be commander in chief or whatever, that’s gonna erode a little bit when they’re as salty as the generals.” In short, if Gillibrand really is considering a presidential run, it makes sense to pick a cosmopolitan magazine in her home state three years before the Iowa Caucus, and start dropping bombs.
Whether we should welcome another toughness- and authenticity-centered campaign season is another question. The notion that you must shoot from the hip in order to appear honest or likeable seems lacking, but Shesol says in the short term it has a foothold. “The idea that you can think about your words, choose them carefully and nonetheless say something that is true and authentic is not generally trusted right now.”
Plus, when the Democratic Party is out of power and social commentary puts a premium on evisceration, introducing profanity messaging makes a certain amount of political sense. Unless and until the shock wears off, dirty words from an elected official’s mouth assure headlines and some degree of internet virality, the kind that might reach a younger demographic with a spotty history of getting to the polls in off-years. In Portland, Bernie Sanders told the crowd he’d make enemies when he introduces Medicare-for-all legislation in the Senate. “Insurance companies may not like it, and the drug companies may not like it.”
From the audience a man shouted, “Fuck ‘em!”
“That’s not exactly the words I would use,” replied the Senator. But with a nod and affirming wag of his finger he added, “Not bad. Not bad.”