Is Crass the New Clever?

It’s not easy to be clever.  It takes a sharp wit and an investment of time to craft something memorable.  Why go to all that effort when potty-mouth propensities get you the attention you crave?

The era of the talking point appears to be over, replaced by the era of the taunting point.  In political circles these days, the Don Rickles approach is in vogue.

If the 2016 Presidential Primary race has proven anything it’s that statesmanship is dead and buried. It’s given way to vulgarities and the kind of low-brow name calling and insults that were once reserved for the hallways of high school.  The question is, why isn’t anyone being sent to the principal’s office?  Without any perceivable downside to getting down into the verbal gutter,    candidates realize that a strategically placed expletive or two can catapult them to the top of the Twittersphere.  So what if kids are forced to cover their ears or leave the room?  They don’t vote anyway.

Why is this happening?  Putting on my communication coach’s hat for a moment, allow me to share a couple of theories.  Politicians realize that the electorate thinks that anyone running for office never tells the truth.  It’s now seen as all spin, all the time.  So how can candidates make people believe they’re “telling it like it is”?  A few four-letter words sprinkled in can create the illusion that:

*  they’re speaking from the gut instead of from their key message briefing documents

*  they’re telling you something that’s not just politically correct and carefully vetted by a team of consultants,

*  they’re just like you and me – average folk who cuss when they’re fed up

*  and by God, that they’re passionate as all Hell!

It’s hard to believe that just four short years ago Mitt Romney wouldn’t even say the word Hell, favoring instead the sanitized and nerdy alternative: “H-E-double hockey sticks.”

Another likely reason for the rise of R-rated lingo is, of course, Donald Trump.  Never have the network censors had to stand so vigilantly ready at the bleep button as when Trump has some political opponent fixed in his crosshairs.  Suddenly televised debate audiences are watching for the same reason we watch Ricky Gervais host the Golden Globes: to see someone get eviscerated.  This is the example Trump has set for everyone else. And follow his lead they have, after all, politicians’ favorite game is follow the leader.  Trump has cynically calculated that when Americans are presented with a choice between hearing a candidate’s plan for saving social security or witnessing a sophomoric and scathing smackdown of a rival, most will opt for the latter every time.  If you doubt this to be true, just compare WWE’s ratings with the PBS News Hour –  it’s lamentable how lopsided it is.  Once Trump’s opponents discovered that cursing and calling people “fat,” “ugly,” or “stupid” (or most of the Mexican population “rapists”) made his poll numbers soar rather than plummet, profanity proliferated.

As The New York Times pointed out in their November 2015 article entitled, “Foul-Mouthed and Proud of It on the ’16 Campaign Trail,” plenty have gotten into the act.  Rand Paul called any trade-off between safety and liberty nothing but “bullshit.”  The normally mild-mannered Ben Carson has even gotten into the act, calling government regulation “… a bunch of crap.”  And then there’s Crass Christie, er, I mean Chris Christie.  In an apparent effort to make his post-Superstorm Sandy hug with Barack Obama fade from the memory of arch conservatives, the New Jersey governor has taken criticism of a sitting incumbent to a disrespectful extreme.  In December, Christie called the President “a feckless weakling.”  In January he referred to him as a “petulant child.”  And completing the triumvirate of trash talk, Christie promised in a recent debate to kick the President’s “rear end” out of the White House in the fall.  What a classy guy.

This feeble attempt at appearing macho and decisive is clearly a calculated move by these candidates to use language to show how different they are from Barack Obama, who has been accused over the past eight years of being too reserved, too thoughtful and too professorial.  Nothing like a little locker room language to drive home that point.

Is this just a passing phase or is this kind of crudeness here to stay?  We can only hope at next year’s inauguration, after all the jockeying for votes is over, that the victor places his/her hand to swear on the Bible and sticks to the oath of office.

Bill McGowan
About the author: 

Bill McGowan is the Chief Executive Officer, Clarity Media Group Inc., and the author of “Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time”, published by HarperCollins in 2014.  Bill has been an Anchor and Producer for Dow Jones, CBS News and MSNBC, and has contributed several articles to Follow Mr. McGowan on Twitter.