The Trumpification of Political Discourse

Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib may have delighted the far-left with her coarse words for the president—but she’s also mirroring his style.

Rashida Tlaib of Michigan on the House floor before being sworn into the 116th Congress
Rashida Tlaib of Michigan on the House floor before being sworn into the 116th Congress (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Thursday was a day of historic firsts. The first indigenous woman elected to Congress took the oath of office. So did the first Muslim congresswoman, and some of the first openly gay and bisexual members of the House and Senate. It was also quite possibly the first time a president has been publicly called a “motherfucker” by a sitting member of the House.

During a reception hours after her swearing-in ceremony, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib told a crowd about her desire to oust Donald Trump, relaying a conversation she had with her son after her election in November: “[W]hen your son looks at you and says, ‘Mama, look, you won. Bullies don’t win.’ And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t, because we’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!’”

The expletive set off a furious response from pundits and politicos—and it also helped underscore a rapidly emerging pattern. Some incoming progressive Democrats are repeatedly disregarding norms and breaking with their party in order to criticize the president and speak to their passionate base. Curiously, it’s an approach to politics that mirrors the tactics of the man they’re up against. Tlaib’s comments could foreshadow an intensifying drumbeat of norm-breaking on the left similar to the one that Trump has already imposed on the GOP.

The congresswoman, who promised to push Democrats to impeach Trump during her campaign and recently laid out her explicit support for impeachment in the Detroit Free Press, stuck by her comments in several follow-up tweets and in a statement released Friday. “The Congresswoman absolutely believes he needs to be impeached,” the statement said, without mentioning her language use.

Clearly, this isn’t typically how a member of Congress talks about the president in a public setting, and particularly in an age where representatives’ every movement has the potential to be caught on camera. Trump himself responded to the comments during a press conference on Friday afternoon, saying that Tlaib “dishonored herself” and “dishonored her family” with her remarks, which he described as “highly disrespectful to the United States of America.” And the New York Democrat Jerry Nadler, the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN, “I don’t really like that kind of language.

“But more to the point,” Nadler said, “I disagree with what she said. It is too early to talk about [impeachment] intelligently. We have to follow the facts. We have to get the facts.”

Tlaib, then, on her first day in office, didn’t just violate the convention that members of Congress speak respectfully of the president. Her push for impeachment flew directly in the face of Democratic leadership’s strategy for the next two years. Newly elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have made it clear that they believe the best way for their party to win back the Senate and the White House in 2020 is to avoid talk of impeachment, and instead lean into bread-and-butter policy issues like health care and taxes.

Foul language aside, Tlaib’s public comments about impeachment suggest that she and perhaps some of her cohort don’t plan to fall in line on the issue. This group of outspoken progressives, which includes Tlaib, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, and Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, have unusually loud microphones for House freshmen, giving them outsize influence over public debate. If they make clear that they’ll continue Tlaib’s norm-busting approach and throw their base the red meat it desperately wants—threats of impeachment, insults to Trump and the Republican Party—it could deepen the fissures within the House Democratic caucus, and the party writ large.

The biggest question in the coming weeks and months is how this group of progressives plans to govern—and the degree to which they’ll ignore their party in order to get what they want. This week, the country might have gotten a preview.

“I will always speak truth to power. #unapologeticallyMe,” Tlaib wrote on Twitter on Friday.