For years, Bill O’Reilly has inveighed against the coarsening of American culture, attacking TV shows, musicians, and entertainers for purveying vulgar content. In doing so, he built a following among cultural conservatives, who’ve watched with dismay as cable, the Internet, and most every other modern entertainment trend has made it increasingly difficult to shield their children from the bawdy and crass.
I wonder what those viewers thought about Thursday night’s episode of The O’Reilly Factor, which aired immediate after a Republican debate in which Donald Trump told millions of viewers that he has a big penis. “He hit my hands,” the GOP frontrunner declared. “Nobody has ever hit my hands. Look at those hands. Are those small hands? And he referred to my hands, if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee it."
This infuriated one of Bill O’Reilly’s regular guests. But not the Fox News host. Here’s his exchange with Bernie Goldberg, a former CBS News correspondent and media critic:
Bernie Goldberg: Donald Trump said something that I can’t say on this channel––what he really meant when he talked about the size of a particular body part, because that would be vulgar. I can’t say it. But Donald Trump said it. And he’s running for president of the United States. And he didn’t only say it on national television. He said it during a presidential debate. Bill, I know you care about kids. You’ve talked about that a lot. Imagine if a family is watching this debate with their 12-year-old daughter and she asks, “What did he mean by that about size?” Is there anything––anything that would embarrass his supporters? Mainly his supporters on conservative television and radio who have fallen madly in love with Donald Trump, and who slobber over him in just the same way as liberals in the media slobbered over Barack Obama?
Bill O’Reilly: All right. I see it differently. I didn’t take offense by it. I think Trump is doing what he always does: appealing to regular people, playing off the Rubio thing, so if you’re gonna criticize Trump you’ve got to criticize Rubio. He did it first.
Goldberg: Do you realize what he said?
O’Reilly: Of course I realize what he said. But it was done in a jocular way.
Goldberg: But you couldn’t say it.
O’Reilly: Of course I wouldn’t say it. It’s not my style. But I know what he’s doing. And all of the gals and guys who support him chortled––word of the day––they chortled when he said it. I wasn’t particularly offended by that. But that’s okay. You and I disagree.
Goldberg: He’s running for president!
O’Reilly: But it’s a different era. It’s a different time. He’s running for president as a populist, not a Republican or a Democrat.
Goldberg: How come, how come you’re so concerned, as you rightly should be, about the coarsening of the culture? You always talk about that. And how crude and vulgar we’re getting. But you don’t care about this?
O’Reilly: I am. I told him––you saw what Trump said to me at the top of the program. I’m a negative guy now in his mind, all right? I probably won’t even get him to come in anymore because I have challenged him on his demeanor. All right, I have. But I’m fair. I didn’t think that was that big a deal.
Personally, I don’t care how much Trump tells us about his reproductive organ––I could listen to a whole stump speech on its size, its classiness, and how many jobs it has created and still find it far more vulgar that the Republican frontrunner intends to order the United States military to murder innocent people.
But vulgarity in media has never been high on my list of concerns (even though I sympathize with parents who find it harder to police the media their young kids consume).
What I am struck by every bit as much as Bernie Goldberg is that a vulgarian like Trump is doing so well among evangelicals, who typically assign greater import to clean culture; and that Trump’s behavior doesn’t bother Bill O’Reilly, who crusades against other vulgarians. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where a Trump presidency doesn’t result in a culture even more coarse, boorish, and indecent than ours.
So why aren’t more culture warriors upset by Trump’s shameless promotion of his apprentice?
The distinctions that O’Reilly draws are bogus. When rappers or network television writers or other entertainers that O’Reilly has criticized are vulgar, it is precisely because it sells––like Trump, they are being populist, “appealing to regular people,” and operating in “a different era” than the one O’Reilly preferred. And does anyone think O’Reilly would’ve defended Obama after a similar remark?
I suspect one salient difference between Trump's allusion and the sorts of vulgarities that The O’Reilly Factor regularly criticizes is that the guy who was vulgar on the debate stage is a lot like O’Reilly: a white, male, 60-something New Yorker with a big ego who, perhaps not coincidentally, has been a friend of O’Reilly’s for years. He’s “just being Donald” because O’Reilly doesn’t see him as an “other.”
Then again, Trump gets away with all sorts of behavior that would ruin any other candidate.
Regardless, America’s cultural conservatives can expect a lot more of the same if Trump is elected. That is, they can expect Trump to be vulgar, and for some of the people who still complain about such things to make peace with Trump’s vulgarity.
(Recall that Jerry Falwell Jr. has already endorsed the man.)
Eight years ago, we elected a president who showed the black youth sitting in a grammar-school classroom that he or she could be president one day. Now, finally, the trust funder who touts his penis size at debate meets can dream of the White House too.
Make America great again!