On Sunday, a day after the mass-shooting tragedy in El Paso, Texas, a reporter asked the Democratic presidential candidate and El Paso resident Beto O’Rourke whether there was anything President Donald Trump could do “to make this any better.” It was not a very good question. O’Rourke answered it like this: “Uh, what do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know.” O’Rourke threw up his hands. “Like, members of the press: What the fuck?”
It is a common theme in the politics of the moment: Some things are so obvious, so outrageous, that the only reasonable response to them is profanity. Some things—in fact, so many things—are more important than mere politeness. On the Monday following the bloodshed in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio, a demonstrably bigoted president read from a teleprompter about the evils of racism. In response to that speech full of doublespeak, Cory Booker’s presidential-campaign manager tweeted an ostensibly private text message from the candidate: “Listening to the president. Such a bullshit soup of ineffective words. This is so weak. We should quickly condemn his lack of a real plan.”
During the same speech, the president mistakenly expressed his sympathies for the people of … Toledo. After the blunder, Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio tweeted, “Toledo. Fck me.” Ryan, also a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, had declared on CNN on Sunday that Republicans “need to ... get their shit together and stop pandering to the NRA.” His spokesman explained the tweet to The Washington Post like this: “It affected him, being at the vigil with the community ... I think those emotions just kind of came through, and those frustrations came through.”
There is nothing new, the ghost of Lyndon B. Johnson would point out, about politicians dropping profanities. But it used to be that cursing was mostly confined to the private spaces of politicians’ lives—that expletives made their escape into the public sphere as the result of investigative reporting, posthumous biographies, or some kind of mistake. The public knows about Richard Nixon’s propensity for profanities in large part because of the Watergate investigation, which led to the release of the tapes he had recorded in the Oval Office. Andrew Jackson’s habit of cursing was revealed through much more prosaic means: The president, the story goes, kept a pet parrot, which picked up the obscenities of its owner. At the president’s funeral, one startled attendee reported, the bird “got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.”
The bird was a primordial version of a hot mic. It made public the stuff that was meant to be private. It anticipated, in its way, the gaffes that would come in the next century: Vice President Joe Biden, during the signing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, caught summarizing the accomplishment, into the ear of President Barack Obama, as “a big fucking deal.” John Major, then the British prime minister, caught describing three of his cabinet members as “a shower of bastards.” Then–presidential candidate George W. Bush, during a Labor Day rally in 2000, caught referring to a New York Times reporter as a “major-league asshole.”
It wasn’t that long ago that distance and detachment were considered assets in leaders—such that, for example, a front-runner on the campaign trail could see his chances for election effectively evaporated by a single, unhinged scream. The machinery surrounding politicians worked to protect that distance. (When reporters wrote about John Nance Garner’s famous dismissal of the vice presidency as “not worth a pitcher of warm piss,” they replaced the final word with spit—preserving some decorum, maybe, but compromising everything else.)
The current collection of political profanities, however, as seen on TV and on Twitter, suggests something more than the collision of the private and the public. The profanities deployed by the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination suggest performance. They suggest strategy at work. They are logical extensions of Beto live-streaming his dental visit, or of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doing the same while she makes mac and cheese. They suggest access, and intimacy. An f-bomb dropped from a dais suggests the toppling of the barriers that once separated the politician from the populace—the private leader from the public one.
But it does something else as well. Used to refer to mass shootings and the White House’s enabling of white supremacy, profanity shows the extent to which anger operates as currency in today’s political context. It acknowledges how many of this age’s tragedies have been enabled by leaders who have cared too little, and given too few damns. It insists that, if you are alive and awake in the America of the present moment, the only reasonable response is rage. As Heather Heyer put it before she was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
Profanity is an extremely efficient conduit of anger. It demonstrates rawness, and realness—the kind of personal authenticity that politicians of the moment are striving to convey to their audiences. And because the definition of profanity is socially constructed and mediated, those seemingly earnest f-bombs make another kind of promise, too. They hint at systemic change. They imply a shake-up at the foundations. The old pieties have gotten the country to where it is; to violate them might also be, the logic goes, to transcend them.
Which is also to say that profanity is a kind of rhetoric. “When people are trying to be persuasive,” my colleague Olga Khazan wrote in 2017, “swearing can help them drive their point home.” One study, Khazan noted, found that the use of damn—in a speech about lowering tuition—made the utterer seem more persuasive to the audience. Another study, she reported, this one conducted among Italian adults, found that voters formed a more favorable impression of politicians who swore in written communications than of those who did not. There is human warmth in profanity. There is an honesty in its insurgency. On Monday, Stephen Colbert discussed Beto O’Rourke’s WTF moment in El Paso. “It’s all well and good to offer thoughts and prayers,” Colbert said—“but sometimes you want shouts and swears.”
Little surprise, then, that cursing is getting commodified. In 2017, Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, declared that President Trump “doesn’t give a shit about health care.” Soon after, the Democrats added an item of merch to their online store: a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Democrats give a sh*t about people.” Bernie Sanders, during the Democrats’ July 30 presidential-primary debate, responded to a comment about Medicare for All by shouting, “I wrote the damn bill!” His campaign, right on cue, began selling merchandise that bears the phrase.
The gutting photograph of the migrant father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande “should piss us all off … and spur us to action,” Julián Castro said in the first Democratic debate, in June. “We have no idea which of our most important allies [Trump] will have pissed off worst between now and then,” Pete Buttigieg said the next night, speaking of the start of the new presidential term. Andrew Yang, noting the Kremlin’s interference in the previous presidential election, also declared that Russians have been “laughing their asses off about it for the last couple of years.”
But using profanity is a privilege that is not evenly distributed. The double standards that constrained President Obama’s ability to express anger were so widely known that they became the stuff of wry comedy: Luther, his anger translator. Onion headlines such as “In the Know Panel Analyzes Obama’s Furious, Profanity-Filled Rant at Nation.” Writing about male candidates’ use of cursing in 2015, The New York Times noted, “Across both parties, female candidates in the race—Carly Fiorina and Hillary Rodham Clinton—have little reputation for using such language.” That dynamic hasn’t much changed.
Kirsten Gillibrand, who in 2017 told a crowd at NYU that, if lawmakers are failing to help people, “we should go the fuck home,” has generally stopped making such declarations during her 2020 presidential bid. Kamala Harris used to be known for her swearing (“A 52-year-old former prosecutor with a profane streak,” the Times called her in a 2017 profile); that language, too, has subsided. Harris, The Washington Post recently noted, “has been loath to even quote the president when it comes to his remarks on ‘shithole countries,’ instead saying ‘S-hole countries’ on the campaign trail.” In a Monday interview with MSNBC, she reportedly stopped short of saying “bullshit,” saying “B.S.” instead—and then apologized for saying “B.S.” on the air.
So many biases and bigotries can be exploited under the guise of politeness; “civility,” with all its semantic slipperiness, can be easily weaponized. In January, Rashida Tlaib, the newly sworn-in representative from Michigan—and the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress—spoke about Trump, telling a crowd at a MoveOn event, “We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.” The reaction was swift and predictable. Tlaib’s fellow politicians made appearances on cable news, professing their disdain for the profanity. “I don’t really like that kind of language,” Tlaib’s fellow representative Jerry Nadler put it. Senator Joe Manchin, appearing on Fox News, called the word she had used “horrible,” “disgusting,” “awful,” and “deplorable.” He then apologized, on behalf of Tlaib, to “all Americans.”
Manchin offered that apology while a man who has used pretty much every iteration of profanity, often in the name of normalizing racism and misogyny, occupies the White House. Manchin offered that apology while so many things that are deeply and urgently offensive—much more offensive, certainly, than the word motherfucker—are being carried out in the name of American greatness. If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Profanity, the term itself, comes from the Latin for “outside the temple”; it is meant to denote the desecration of that which is holy. It is meant as a measure of shared values. As the heated curses swirl on the road to 2020, they bring with them a question, and a dare: What will the Americans of this moment choose to hold sacred?