Pro-Trump Republicans have been deploying the F-word to convey their dislike for the president of the United States, and The Washington Post is appalled.
I’m appalled too, but with a difference.
In a recent story headlined “Biden’s critics hurl increasingly vulgar taunts,” the paper rounded up a slew of examples of people chanting “F*** Joe Biden” in venues ranging “from football stadiums to concert arenas to local bars.” It recounted how anti-Biden protesters have turned out in public to hold signs or fly banners with the same crude message. It noted that Donald Trump’s political action committee is selling a T-shirt bearing Biden’s image above the hashtag #FJB. It described the viral explosion of the MAGA meme “Let’s go, Brandon” — a snarky way of communicating “F*** Joe Biden” without actually using the F-bomb.
The Post acknowledges that “boos, jeers, and insults are nothing new for politicians” and that “former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Trump, were all heckled.” But this is different, it claimed: “The current eruption of anti-Biden signs and chants . . . is on another level, far more vulgar and widespread.”
Seriously? Anyone who didn’t spend the last several years in a sensory deprivation tank knows that Trump inspired such loathing that many of his opponents could scarcely mention his name without attaching it to the F-word.
When Robert De Niro strode onto the stage at the 2018 Tony Awards, his opening words — on live television — were: “I’m gonna say one thing. F*** Trump!” The celebrity-filled crowd erupted in a standing ovation. T-shirts linking the sitting president with the foulest Old English obscenity? Online you can find a seemingly endless array of vendors selling gear emblazoned with the same words De Niro used. Rapper Nipsey Hussle’s F-drenched anti-Trump song “FDT” has been viewed 32 million times on YouTube and was extolled by the Los Angeles Times as “the most prophetic, wrathful, and unifying protest song of 2016.”
Yes, it is appalling that so many Americans can’t express their opposition to the president without resorting to the filthiest, most uncivil words they know. If the Washington Post is roused to call out the sewage coursing through our public discourse, that’s a welcome development. But this hate-filled verbiage has been polluting the political atmosphere since long before Biden became president.
I try to keep up with the times, but on this issue I plead guilty to being resolutely unfashionable and nonpartisan. When the Globe a dozen years ago invited a roster of contributors to identify a cultural undercurrent that had reshaped society and politics in the first decade of the 21st century, my nominee was incivility:
“In our political discourse since 2000, malice has become ubiquitous,” I wrote. “George W. Bush’s critics endlessly compared him to Adolf Hitler. Radio host Glenn Beck mused on-air about ‘killing Michael Moore.’ Sandra Bernhard ranted that Sarah Palin was a ‘whore’ to be ‘gang-raped.’ Televangelist Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez. University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill characterized the 9/11 victims who died at the World Trade Center as guilty ‘little Eichmanns.’ From Michael Savage on MSNBC urging a gay caller to ‘get AIDS and die, you pig,’ to the banner at a San Francisco peace march proclaiming ‘We support our troops when they shoot their officers,’ there seems to be no limit to the venom and coarseness that mark contemporary political culture.”
Now we’re in the third decade of the century, and the vicious crassness with which political disagreements are communicated is uglier and more toxic than ever.
On the subject of offensive speech, I am about as libertarian as they come. The First Amendment protects your freedom to vent the crudest insults you can think of and to drench politicians (or anyone else you despise) with noisome, potty-mouthed contempt.
But freedom of expression isn’t the only value a healthy civic environment requires. Tolerance, courtesy, and temperate standards of public conduct — in a word, civility — matter too. They matter a lot.
Yet civility has been stripped away from vast swaths of our social and political culture, with the result that everything has become a battlefield. For adherents of clashing world views and partisan loyalties, finding common ground has grown nearly impossible. Divergent opinions are treated as deadly threats that must be opposed not with grace and a willingness to hear each other out, but with uncompromising rhetorical ferocity.
On both the right and left today, civility is disparaged as a luxury we can no longer afford. Commentators dismiss it as overrated, as a trap, as a dangerous indulgence, as the last thing we need. Civility is nothing but “a weapon liberals use to force other people to take their sh*t,” scoffs a pro-Trump columnist. “You cannot be civil with Republicans,” warns Hillary Clinton.
I know perfectly well that unhinged rhetoric and malicious insults have always existed in the political sphere. The United States has never suffered from a shortage of harsh campaign rhetoric. But hurling F-bombs at presidents? Treating political opponents as deranged sociopaths with whom there can be no honest debate, only a scorched-earth fight to the finish? No, that isn’t normal. It’s scary.
At an earlier time in our nation’s history, an incoming president implored his countrymen to pull back from their frenzy of mutual disdain.
“We must not be enemies,” Abraham Lincoln pleaded in his first inaugural address. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” His words fell on deaf ears. The bonds of affection did break, with catastrophic and bloody consequences.
Now as then, the issues that divide Americans are profound and urgent. The stakes are high; emotions run deep. All the more reason, then, not to let every dispute become an occasion of rage, not to dehumanize anyone who holds views we don’t share. A capacity for civil disagreement is indispensable to the survival of a self-governing republic. If we no longer have that capacity, we are in more trouble than we know.