It is remarkable how one candidate’s inability to watch his mouth has quickly degenerated into a whole party’s, and indeed a whole media’s epidemic of potty politics. The Republican campaign, following its leader, has taken American political discourse to the nether level — “down there,” or “wherever.”
It would be commendable if Trump’s associates would seek a higher level and disavow his discourse as unsuited to the gravitas of the position they are seeking. But no. Here’s Rand Paul, tweeting about Trump’s comment about Clinton’s “disgusting” use of the bathroom:
Paul apparently felt the need to publicly share his opinion about how long women should use the bathroom. He said Wednesday on Twitter that Carly Fiorina, who is also running for president as a Republican, had “ZERO trouble making it back from commercial breaks,” so there was no reason Clinton should have had trouble either. This statement seemed to ignore the circumstances surrounding Clinton’s bathroom trip, as well as the fact that not all women’s bodies are identical (Abigail Abrams, International Business Times, Dec. 23).
Fiorina, that shining example for all women, was so thrilled by Paul’s encomium that she retweeted it. All of this provides yet another comparison between the seriousness of the Democratic candidates and their debates, and the deep frivolousness of their Republican counterparts.
When potty politics proved insufficient for Trump, he had to move from the bathroom to the bedroom. So I, and therefore you, are forced to contemplate Trump’s shlong in all its majesty. As you must know if you are not living in a cave on Alpha Centauri, after he pondered Clinton’s bathroom use, he commented that Barack Obama had “shlonged” her in 2008.
Somewhat curiously, the media has found this the more revolting of the two Trumpisms. To me, commenting on a woman’s bathroom habits at length as “disgusting” is far worse than using a coarse Yiddishism to describe the same woman’s loss in a Presidential election. Neither, to be sure, is “To a Nightingale.” But one is deliberately and thoroughly demeaning to a woman and all women, while the other is simply vulgar – neither sexist nor really obscene in 2015. Since Trump might just as well have used it, with the same denotation and connotations, with a man as subject (e.g., “Biden was shlonged by Obama in 2008”), there is nothing particularly sexist about it; there is no real connotation of rape. Nor (pace Steven Pinker) did Trump invent the verbal use of “shlong”: it’s been around forever.
If you grow up in New York, you know these words. You don’t have to be Jewish. You don’t even have to like Jews, as I am sure the D. doesn’t. Yiddish functions as a sort of lingua franca in the Big Apple, particularly in discussion involving the obscene or scatological.
When asked about his vulgarity, Trump responded that he had meant it figuratively. I hope so. It is unlikely that his intention was to suggest that Obama had pulled a snake out of a bag during a debate and thrown it at her, the word’s presumable literal sense. (Yiddish shlong, like German Schlang, has the literal meaning, ‘snake.’) Nor, I think, did he intend what we might call a “first level” figurative meaning: that Obama had whipped out his penis and brandished it at Clinton. Rather, in all probability, Trump meant shlong in a second level figurative sense, the usual one: Obama had behaved aggressively toward Clinton.
It is interesting (and disturbing) that “shlong,” like many of its counterparts, including “fuck” and “screw,” have a double meaning. The problem is not that English has a sexual vocabulary. Every language does, because everyone needs it (except for a few prudes that you and I know). The problem is deeper: why is it that the words that literally refer to a mutually pleasurable and egalitarian experience can be turned metaphorically into expressions of aggression, oppression, intimidation, and hatred?
Take it as homework.
But the real problem of Trump’s language, here as elsewhere, is not that it is sexist or sexual, or even that it is vulgar per se. It is that it is unpresidential. Recall how shocked, shocked Americans were when the Watergate tapes were published (yes, long ago, but still….) and it turned out that Nixon and his men, in the Oval Office, actually used…cusswords! Some people thought that that was the worst revelation of the tapes. This response is silly, but it does represent something Americans feel about the office of the President of the United States: the President must serve as a role model, the ideal male (and now perhaps female): someone who is like us yet a little better than we are.
Therefore it is part of POTUS’s job, one not specified in the Constitution, to know how to behave under all circumstances, and not unlike a psychotherapist, to model that good behavior for Americans. We look to POTUS to guide us to be mensches and specifically public mensches. So it is better if POTUS does not engage in questionable relationships with White House interns; it is better if he does not throw up on the shoes of the Japanese Prime Minister.
And it is better if POTUS does not publicly use bad language, perhaps even more so if the bad language in question is slang, and non-English slang at that. While the President may use slang at times, when appropriate, he or she should still use it more cautiously than the rest of us, and should not use it in his public persona. This is the price of living in the big white house and being driven through red lights in the car with the cool siren. Perhaps in time our communicative expectations of POTUS will move closer to the contemporary norm, but…not yet.
So that is the worst thing about the latest Trumpism, and Trump’s use of language generally: it lacks presidential-level gravitas. The candidates’ debates have several functions, some of which we explicitly understand (statements of how each candidate would deal with current national and global problems) and some of which we do not. We should approach the debates as auditions for a role, the role of a lifetime, a role the performance of which will matter a great deal. If a candidate can articulate, under the bizarre conditions of modern presidential debates, clear positions on what our problems are and how to solve them, that’s a big plus; it means she’ll be able to do so with relative ease once elected. It means she’ll be less likely to embarrass America with malapropisms and blunders. But the most important question we should be asking while viewing the debates is: which candidates present themselves as admirable people, people we can trust, people who represent all Americans in an honorable way, and which do not.
Every time Trump opens his mouth and lets out another infantile and venomous slur, people all over the world must cringe. Increasingly, Americans realize he is incapable of speaking for them or giving them a voice. Increasingly, Americans and others see him as unstable and unpredictable, someone immature, without a center and without rational or coherent beliefs.
Americans cannot afford to think of putting someone like this in the position he is seeking. Nor can we afford to think seriously of putting anyone who supports or even tolerates someone like this in such a position. Republican candidates who, out of fear or an inability to criticize one of their own, cannot come out and denounce him lack the moral strength needed in a president.