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Trump's Public Expletives Another Break With Presidential Decorum

President Donald Trump addresses a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Oct. 10, 2019.

This story contains language some readers may find offensive.

WHITE HOUSE — At political rallies, on social media and during interviews, U.S. President Donald Trump is putting profanity in the public discourse to a degree unmatched by any previous American leader, according to some experts.

“It is unprecedented in its publicness,” said Benjamin Bergen, a professor in the department of cognitive science at the University of California-San Diego and director of the school’s language and cognition lab.

An analysis of Trump’s expletives show they have become more frequent in recent months, part of a trend of trash talk that began with the Republican candidate back on the campaign trail in 2016.

Coarse language

Trump, at a political rally Friday night in Lake Charles, Louisiana, declared the Democrats know they cannot beat him next year, “so they’re pursuing an illegal, invalid and unconstitutional bullshit impeachment.”

The previous evening, Trump told supporters at a rally in Minneapolis that 2020 Democratic presidential contender and former Vice President Joe Biden “was only a good vice president because he understood how to kiss (former President) Barack Obama’s ass.”

During the 100-minute event, the president also used the phrase “son of a bitch.”

The president’s coarse language has compelled the media establishment to print and broadcast words previously deemed unsuitable for its audiences.

CNN, on October 2, changed its policy following a Trump tweet in which he accused Democrats of “wasting everyone’s time and energy...,” adding a familiar epithet in all capital letters.

That was nearly identical to a comment he had made at a political rally in Michigan several months earlier.

“We should show and say it because the President sent it out just that way,” according to a memo sent to CNN’s staff following the widely quoted tweet.

The New York Times has always considered itself a publication fit for family reading, as well as the American newspaper of record.

Obscenity-laced tirade

When Trump’s newly hired communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, went on an obscenity-laced tirade against the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, in a phone conversation with a New Yorker magazine reporter in July 2017, the newspaper’s editors printed it all.

“We concluded that it was newsworthy that a top Trump aide used such language,” tweeted Clifford Levy, the Times associate managing editor. “And we didn’t want our readers to have to search elsewhere to find out what Scaramucci said.”

The outburst cost Scaramucci his job after fewer than 11 days in the post.

In August, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke used the F-word in accusing Trump of inciting racism and gun violence after a mass shooting in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, Texas. The former congressman brushed off criticism, tweeting: “Profanity is not the f-bomb. What is profane is a 17-month-old baby being shot in the face.”

The sensitivity about such language is an aspect of Anglo-American culture that associates “strong with bad,” Bergen tells VOA. “And it could be that we’re observing because of this democratization of media a shift in the direction where profane words are no longer viewed as bad much, but as merely strong.”

Past presidents

FILE - Former President George W. Bush, right, shakes hands with former Vice President Dick Cheney during the groundbreaking ceremony for the President George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Nov. 16, 2010.
FILE - Former President George W. Bush, right, shakes hands with former Vice President Dick Cheney during the groundbreaking ceremony for the President George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Nov. 16, 2010.

Fewer than 20 years ago, public profanity uttered by a U.S. president was something sensational, as when George W. Bush, chatting with his running mate, Dick Cheney, at a campaign event, referred to New York Times reporter Adam Clymer as a “major-league asshole.”

It was the country’s first president, George Washington, as a Revolutionary War general in 1776, who issued an order to his troops against cursing, stating, “The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army, is growing into fashion.”

Andrew Jackson had a pet parrot who a clergyman at the late president’s 1845 funeral recalled “let loose perfect gusts of cuss words,” horrifying mourners.

Civil War-era President Abraham Lincoln “was the most well-known for telling smutty stories; most of those were not reported, and those which were usually came out in severely edited fashion,” Allen Guelzo, the director of initiative in politics and statesmanship at Princeton University’s program in American ideals and institutions, tells VOA.

“My suspicion is that even 19th-century politicians used more of a fund of profanity and vulgarity than is reported, since the reporters, conscious of the delicacy of their readers and eager not to lose subscribers, simply edited out or softened coarseness when it was uttered,” says Guelzo, who also is a senior research scholar at Princeton’s Humanities Council.

Expletives used

Lyndon Johnson, during the 1960s, was regarded as particularly creative in stringing together expletives in the Oval Office.

Twenty-first-century Trump faces criticism for engaging in insults at the level of a schoolyard bully.

FILE - U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., attends a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 2, 2019.
FILE - U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., attends a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 2, 2019.

When the president mocked one of his opposition party nemeses as “little Adam Schitt,” the congressman, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, replied, according to The New York Times, “The last time that happened, the person who did that had their mouth washed out with soap by his mother.”

The open question is whether such utterances will help or hurt Trump in the 2020 election.

“It’s definitely true that people view individuals who swear as being more honest, more authentic and more engaged, more enthusiastic about whatever it is that they’re talking about,” said Bergen, author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.”

“The trope is that the outsider is the one who’s going to tell the truth. And it’s possible that swearing could help to convey a little bit of a patina of honesty,” Bergen said.

Other candidates

So, should the eventual Democratic Party nominee get down in the gutter with the incumbent?

“I don’t see much benefit from it,” Bergen said. “People do have very divergent attitudes about profanity. It would be a shame to cut out a whole segment of the population who is offended by the words that you use rather than the message that you’re trying to convey.”

It also remains to be seen whether Trump has permanently veered presidential discourse onto a coarser road.

“I think this is the same question that everyone is asking about everything that’s happened” since Trump took office, Bergen said.

“Part of the answer may come from what happens in the next electoral cycle,” he said. “Are voters going to choose someone like a Trump with his more accessible use of this profane language or are they going to choose someone like one of the top three Democratic candidates (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders), who have more traditionally grandparents’ language styles?”