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    HomePoliticsTrump normalized politicians swearing in public. Why it matters.

    Trump normalized politicians swearing in public. Why it matters.

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    WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Dick Cheney had just finished posing for the annual Senate class photo in June 2004 when he infamously dropped the f-bomb at then Sen. Patrick Leahy. It made national headlines.

    Leahy had been critical of Cheney’s ties to Halliburton, an oil services company that won lucrative contracts related to the Iraq war. After Leahy had approached Cheney on the Senate floor that day, their exchange ended with Cheney saying, “go f— yourself.”

    “It seems like yesterday, but in reality, it’s a relic, a vignette by comparison to today’s – what I guess I would call – daily gusher of vitriol and vulgarity,” said Kevin Kellems, Cheney’s former press secretary. “Pretty tame by comparison, but it certainly drew a lot of attention.”

    But inflammatory rhetoric and the use of expletives in politics – once considered scandalous to use in public – has now become the norm among lawmakers and political candidates.

    Experts USA TODAY spoke with said several factors have contributed to this dynamic, including the increased polarization between both parties, the rise of social media and the desire to appeal to everyday voters. And they credited person in particular with making profanity mainstream: former President Donald Trump. 

    Trump has routinely used profane language since launching his 2016 presidential campaign and in many ways has altered the traditional norms for political dialogue. But the data shows his influence hasn’t been just on his own party. 

    An analysis conducted by Quorum, a public affairs software platform, found that the number of f-bombs thrown around by congressional lawmakers on X, formerly Twitter, including retweets, has increased from 0 in 2015 to 205 in 2023. The word “hell” was used 79 times on X by lawmakers in 2015, and that increased to 1095 in 2023.

    “Language is always changing, including what is and isn’t viewed as appropriate,” said Melissa Baese-Berk, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago. 

    Growing movement towards profanity

    Though lawmakers have always cursed in private, there was a certain level of decorum they were expected to uphold in public, particularly during the 20th century when politics began to get viewed as a profession, said Lindsay Chervinsky, a historian. That’s why politicians rarely let profanity slip in speeches or interviews.

    Kellems, a former aide for Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar from 1988 to 1996, said he can’t recall a “single, mildly offending term” used by the lawmaker at the time. 

    That took a turn, however, as political polarization in the country increased around the 1990s and 2000’s amid global wars and other issues, experts said. There was also a growing cultural acceptance towards profanity and slang as more Americans began to experiment with flamboyant language.

    “That doesn’t mean that politicians started swearing in public in front of the electorate,” said Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “But that’s the kind of the background where you can see how things have loosened up enough.”

    Then Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2004 used the f-bomb when addressing former President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war. Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card said he was disappointed Kerry used that language.

    President Barack Obama once called Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, a “jacka–” for interrupting Taylor Swift’s speech at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009.

    Hot mic moments also became more frequent, such as in 2010 with the signing of the Affordable Care Act, when then vice-president Joe Biden whispered into Obama’s ear, “this is a big f—ing deal.” He was also caught calling Fox News reporter Peter Doocy a “stupid son of a b—-” during an event in 2022. Biden later called and apologized to Doocy.

    And then there’s Trump

    Trump, however, changed the dynamic in terms of acceptable language for politicians, experts said.  He explicitly ran against “political correctness” in 2016 and took swearing mainstream, according to Jennifer Mercieca, a political communication expert. 

    In 2017, Trump attacked NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, calling them “sons of bi—–.” He referred to Haiti and African nations as sh–hole countries in 2018, according to multiple news organizations and at least one lawmaker in the meeting. At rallies and in formal speeches, he would often throw around words like “hell,” “damn” and “crap.”

    Stephanie Grisham, who worked on Trump’s first presidential campaign and later became his White House press secretary, said some of his language attracted people because they felt he spoke like they did.

    “The first time I heard him say he said sh–… I remember being like, okay, that’s awesome, because now it’s not just this boring, stodgy old Republican way. It’s kind of this new, fresh way to get people’s attention,” she said. “I was like, this guy seems normal.”

    But his profanity would rile up his supporters in negative ways. One of the most popular campaign t-shirts worn by Trump supporters promoted the slogan “Trump that B—-” directed towards Hillary Clinton in 2016. Slurs like “b—-” reflect and reinforce cultural hostility towards women’s political leadership, said Karrin Anderson, a communication studies professor at Colorado State University.

    Grisham said that Trump’s language has become more incendiary over time, advancing from profanity to statements like immigrants are “poisoning the blood of the country.” He’s most likely influenced lawmakers in Congress to use that rhetoric too, experts said. Last year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., a “little b—-” on the House floor.

    But a Quorum analysis found that Democrats used more profanity than Republicans on X including retweets in 2023. Democrats used sh– 161 times and hell 620 times, while Republicans used sh– 70 times and hell 472 times.

    “As social media platforms like Facebook and X have become increasingly integrated with political culture, legislators have grown more adept at leveraging these channels to connect directly with their constituents and communicate in a more genuine, unfiltered manner,” said Erin Mills, chief marketing officer at Quorum. The group’s co-founder, Alex Wirth, had previously worked under the Obama administration as an intern at the office of the Chief of Staff and as a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.

    Though lawmakers USA TODAY interviewed said they couldn’t comment on the specific Quorum data, some attributed a rise in profanity overall to a rise in anger in national politics.

    “Maybe people are just more pissed off,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. “I mean, we just had an insurrection a couple of years ago…when you have white nationalists trying to destroy the government, people are going to drop the f-bomb every now and then.”

    What this means for the nature of politics

    With the 2024 general election around the corner, Mark Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington, expects to see “attacks, threats and heated language” increase.

    “We have moved pretty far past a witty rejoinder, like Reagan’s “I refuse to exploit the youth and inexperience of my opponent” in 1984 to “Let’s Go Brandon!” in the 2020s,” he said. “It is difficult to imagine what the bottom of this rhetoric looks like, but every time I think we have found it, I am proven wrong.”

    Just last month, Biden reportedly called Trump a “sick f—” behind closed doors – comments that Trump quickly fundraised off of. At a rally in Rome, Georgia, earlier this month, Trump said everything Biden touches “turns to sh–.”

    Smith added that the exit of veteran lawmakers, especially in Congress, likely means those replacing them will be far more likely to engage in this sort of behavior.

    Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., says he remembers someone smirking or saying something relatively more mild “would be once considered very controversial” but sees “no barrier now.” He’s not always “proud” of the profanity he uses today.

    “But sometimes I use it to perhaps make a point,” he said.

    In September, Fetterman lashed out at Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., on X for criticizing the way he dressed, saying, “How about you get your sh– together and do your job, bud?”

    Likewise, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., notoriously cusses in front of reporters and in formal settings. Last year, he criticized phone scammers as clowns who need to “go get a damn job” during a Senate committee hearing.

    Though Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said he tries not to use profane words other than “damn” in public, he’s used “sh–” and “crap” on X. It’s hard, he said, because “we speak in the language our constituents are speaking, and if you don’t, you can’t reach them.”

    But many lawmakers agree there needs to be more effort to work together in a civil manner.

    “I think that it’s going to require more restraint on our part to avoid that type of dialogue,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthy, D-Ill.

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