WASHINGTON – The 2016 White House race has turned into a bleeping profanityfest.
Rand Paul has used obscenities. Jeb Bush has tested out some four-letter words. Even mild-mannered Ben Carson, in a nationally televised debate packed with rival Republicans, dismissed government subsidies as a “bunch of crap.”
But the king of the cursers has been Donald Trump, the celebrity billionaire atop the Republican heap whose trash talk has taken U.S. politics to a new low.
Not only has he raised the profile of the outsider candidate, he appears to have made profanity and, more significantly, coarse personal attacks, acceptable elements of the campaign lexicon.
In November, Trump said he would “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State extremists, to wild applause.
Asked whether he would bring back water-boarding against terrorism suspects, he leaned on his lectern, looked out at the crowd and said “you bet your ass I would.”
Sen. Rand Paul in November accused defenders of mass government surveillance of touting “bullshit.”
Bush, seen as a more even-tempered statesman, has gotten in on the act too.
“We are Americans, damn it!” he proclaimed, somewhat unnecessarily, in New Hampshire.
Even avuncular Sen. Bernie Sanders has blurted out salty language, telling Democratic rival Hillary Clinton that he was sick of “hearing about your damn emails.”
But their foul-mouthed excesses pale in comparison to The Donald’s vitriolic personal attacks.
Trump’s Twitter feed is a perpetual insult generator. This week he called conservative pundit Glenn Beck “dumb as a rock.” Others are labeled “clown,” “moron” and “stupid.”
On Tuesday Trump blasted Ted Cruz, his closest GOP competitor, as a “liar” who just “looks like a jerk.”
His sexist language has been notable, particularly when he said Clinton “got schlonged” by Obama in their 2008 nomination battle — repeating his use of an obscene neologism coined from a Yiddish term for penis.
The demeaning rhetoric is a worry, according to University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman.
“Those are more striking, frankly, than the (obscenities),” he said.
“Those are things that I noticed, and I think many people are like me in this respect.”
National U.S. publications like the New Yorker readily print the “F” word, and cable television and the Internet has largely desensitized Americans to vulgar language.
“Most of these words have lost most of their impact, and so nobody really notices, except maybe to chalk it up to (Trump’s) generally more straightforward and unfiltered way of talking,” Liberman explained.
Machismo could also be playing its part in a crowded race. And Trump’s tell-it-like-it-is bluster helps convey an impression of strength in the face of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or jihadis.
Previous campaigns have seen their share of profanity. Republican 2008 nominee John McCain could turn a phrase, as could president Richard Nixon.
But the vulgarity and aggression on this year’s campaign trail appear to have reached new heights.
Some have been all too eager to fight fire with fire.
In December, low-polling Sen. Lindsey Graham, fuming over Trump’s command of the race, offered succinct advice on CNN for how to make America great:
“Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”