The coarser, meaner, keener political discourse of the 2016 primary season– embodied by Donald Trump’s frequent use of profanity on the campaign trail– has had a long parallel presence in the popular culture. Trump’s antics in the current campaign spotlight the ways Trump may only be the symbol of an emerging frankness in both politics and pop culture, a candor we might have expected in the ongoing collision of new media and old.
On Monday night at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., Republican frontrunner Trump repeated an audience member’s use of the word “pussy,” the well-known vulgarism for a woman’s genitalia, to describe his primary opponent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
If that were an outlier, a one-off uttered in the heat of the moment, it probably wouldn’t have aroused so much attention or concern. But Trump has crossed the line of decorum before. The Donald has otherwise legitimized street talk on the stump in a way that’s called into question whether he recognizes behavioral boundaries in seeking the presidency — or whether those boundaries even exist in today’s lightning-fast media environment.
Last Thursday night, at a rally in Portsmouth, N.H., Trump referenced corporations that have moved operations offshore to avoid U.S. taxes and said, “And you can tell them to go fuck themselves.”
At the same rally, Trump condemned China’s building of an island in the South China Sea, apparently reaching for the environmentalist vote when he said, “They’re ripping the shit out of the sea.”
In December, Trump said Hillary Clinton, his Democratic counterpart also seeking her party’s nomination, got “schlonged” by then-candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign — with Trump employing a Yiddish term for “penis.” He used the same term earlier, in a 2011 interview with The Washington Post, to describe the defeat of a GOP candidate by a Democratic opponent.
And last September, at a New Hampshire campaign event, Trump dismissed the visibly cordial relationship between Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both Trump’s rivals for the nomination. “They hate each other,” Trump said. “They hate, trust me I know. They hate so much. They hate more than anybody in this room hates their neighbor. But it’s political bullshit, do you understand? It’s true.”
For observers of how politics and pop culture have intersected over the years, none of this may even be a surprise. In movies and non-broadcast television, the use of profanity, either gratuitously or as a shorthand way to explore character identity, happens so often it scarcely raises an eyebrow anymore.
In a political context, Netflix’s “House of Cards” has changed the game, with President Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) using gutter language against his political adversaries. Over the show’s first three seasons, one of Underwood’s habits has been to turn to the camera and deliver a monologue to the audience. Last September, on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Spacey explained just who he was talking to in such monologues: “The truth is, when I’m looking directly at that camera, there’s one person and one person only and that is Donald Trump.”
For one veteran television watcher, Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Trump’s outbursts aren’t surprising, but they are emblematic of a new kind of campaign repartee.
“If what we knew about effective political rhetoric used to fit in a hypothetical book of 1,000 pages, its now 2,000 pages,” Thompson told TheWrap. “On the basic level generally — this is Campaigning 101 — coming out and presenting oneself as completely arrogant normally would not be considered a good thing. You’re supposed to look like one of the guys, show some degree of humility. Trump’s proven that all wrong; he presents that arrogance and a number of people have responded positively to it.”
“Whether he’ll be successful in the endgame — if the presidency is his endgame — there’s a lot more cards to be played,” Thompson said. “When he gets into larger and larger arenas, that dynamic may change.” Trump finished behind Cruz in Iowa last week, but he solidly won the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
“Popular culture has always paid attention to political leaders,” Thompson said. “They pay way more attention to that than other things. Trump by far gets the most mention on late-night comedy; there is a sense when you get a political leader talking in ways that seem outrageous and challenging the standards of political rhetoric, low as they are, reporters and news outlets will pay attention to that. When he went on ‘Saturday Night Live’ [in November], he was embracing the very things they make fun of. Pop culture has made that possible.”
“Social media has played a big role in this,” Thompson noted. “Any candidate can bypass the usual press conferences and go directly and immediately to tweeting and posting in social media. It’s a more promiscuous way of getting messages out without the usual gatekeeper.”
“The rules of social media are, there are none,” Thompson said. “We talk about ‘lowering the bar,’ but with social media there’s no bar to lower. The level of civility, the use of the English language … it’s a very different form and open to a vast amount of people who didn’t have voices before. That’s partially a blessing. But the almost-infinite opinions come with more noise. The Internet has completely changed the signal-to-noise ratio.”
For Thompson, what’s happening is as much an evolution of communication as anything else. Given the volume of public forums, the number of available soapboxes from which to speak, the biggest surprise in the furor over Trumpspeak isn’t that it’s happening, it’s that we should be surprised that it’s happening.
“In the 21st century, what constitutes political discourse has changed,” he said. “It’s more frank, more raunchy, it doesn’t have the veneer a lot of public communication once had. The mores and the nature of our culture have changed.”