WASHINGTON – Front-runner Donald Trump is in a profanity-laced campaign for the Republican nomination that has seen multiple candidates hurl insults and disparaging remarks.
In recent days, Trump has publicly lip-synced the F-bomb, blurted out the S-word more than once, hurled an offensive term for coward at rival Ted Cruz and called other candidates pathetic, liars, losers, nasty, evil and more.
Cruz has called out his “Trumpertantrums” and dismissed the billionaire’s insults as “hysterical.”
Even Jeb Bush, whose 90-year-old mother recently said he was too polite, belatedly joined in. Bush, a favorite target of Trump’s taunts, tweeted: “You aren’t just a loser, you are a liar and a whiner.”
Politicians have tended to keep their name-calling and coarseness off-mic. Now, it’s on the podium, and by design.
“There’s a general taboo-breaking that allows more and more of it to happen faster and faster,” says Robert Lane Greene, author of “You Are What You Speak,” a book about the politics of language.
Trump is playing to voters who have a disdain for anything associated with the establishment, including the whole idea of appearing “presidential,” says Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar. That makes it hard for Trump’s rivals to fight back using traditional tactics.
“If you are trying to be a boxer playing by Marquess of Queensberry rules and you’re coming up against a mixed martial arts guy who doesn’t even abide by the rules of mixed martial arts, do you sink to that level?” Ornstein asks. “There’s no easy way to respond, because if you’re trying to show you’re different from this vulgar guy, then he’s going to beat you up.”
That seems to be just fine with the voters who have put Trump at the top of the polls. About a quarter of Republican voters in New Hampshire said “telling it like it is” was the most important quality to them in selecting a candidate, and two-thirds of those voters went for Trump.
A super political action committee supporting Bush is hoping Trump’s language is a turnoff to voters in the next voting state, South Carolina. It’s running a radio ad there that strings together clips of Trump’s expletive-deleted language and asks, “Is this the type of man we want our children exposed to?”
Trump has promised he’ll tone things down if he gets closer to the presidency, saying, “when you’re president, or if you’re about to be president, you would act differently.”
He has framed his blunt language as a harmless rejoinder to political correctness run amok, saying, “Every once in a while you can have a little fun, don’t you think?”
But Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on political communication, said Trump has “hijacked” political correctness to justify his routine use of personal attacks. That’s causing other candidates to mirror his tactics and creates a worrisome diversion from a needed discussion of ideas, she said.
Many Americans are drawn to Trump, Greene says, because he talks like “the guy next to them on the bar stool.”
“Some people find the guy next to you on the barstool obnoxious, but a lot of Americans ARE that guy.”