When Profanity Hits the Campaign Trail

Trump lowered the bar, and now some Democratic presidential candidates are cursing with unusual abandon. Why?

Beto O'Rourke pictured on Aug. 21, 2019
Joshua Lott / Getty Images

There’s nothing quite like a well-timed expletive to get your message across.

Last week, after yet another mass shooting, Beto O’Rourke released his campaign’s latest T-shirt — a dark gray shirt with the blunt message: “This is f*cked up. This is f*cked up. This is f*cked up. This is f*cked up. This is f*cked up. This is f*cked up.” In a smaller-sized font was the phrase, “End gun violence now.”

Politicians have been caught swearing since the days of George Washington. But according to an analysis by the government research company GovPredict, the number of swear words used by lawmakers on Twitter noticeably jumped after 2016. Counting words like s—, f—, a–hole, and b—-, among others, lawmakers have sworn on Twitter almost 1,900 times this year; in 2016, that number was at 193.

Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive science professor at U.C. San Diego and the author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves,” told TheWrap that the increase in public swearing by politicians and presidential candidates is a culmination of several different factors.

The first is a natural byproduct of how language norms evolve over time and across generations. Younger Americans, Bergen said, find “run of the mill” profanity to be less offensive than older generations, and the Democratic candidates — who range from 37 to 78 years old — may be “censoring themselves less” to appeal to a younger demographic.

“Run of the mill” swear words, according to Bergen, usually include profanity related to sex (e.g., f—), bodily functions (e.g., s—), or religion (e.g., Jesus Christ, holy s—). In a study of UCLA students who were asked to rank the offensiveness of certain words over a decade ago, “f—” was ranked as the 15th most offensive word. (The n-word was ranked the most offensive.)

The “Twitterization of political discourse,” Bergen pointed out, has lent a degree of informality to recorded language not previously seen in prior generations.

“Social media is different from what preceded this, because it’s this weird combination of informal and written [language]. It used to be that most of what you read [from politicians] was formal language. It was in newspapers, it was in books, and so on, it was in letters,” Bergen said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Now, as many politicians are utilizing Twitter to speak directly with their followers and constituents in a more informal way, those modes of communication are still considered part of the public record due to their written nature.

“That might be part of the reason why we’re now seeing so much written profanity,” he said. “It’s just being recorded because this is an informal way to communicate with people.”

President Trump, then, must be acknowledged for the part he’s played in propelling Twitter forward as a forum for statements, insults, and policy decisions. His inclination toward profane language has been critical in changing what’s “allowable in political discourse,” Bergen said.

Though a certain subsection of Trump’s supporters have expressed their distaste for his blasphemous language, Trump’s language prior to his election was already shockingly lewd for a presidential candidate.

In 2016, audio from a 2005 “Access Hollywood” appearance caught the then-reality TV star bragging about how his fame allowed him to treat women like objects: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” Trump said. “Grab ’em by the p—y.” A month earlier, Trump, while a candidate, called former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick a “son of a b—h” for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

The profanity hasn’t stopped since Trump’s election. In 2018, he described Haiti, El Salvador, and other African countries as being “s—hole countries.

He also appears to have a double standard. When Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was quoted in January saying she wanted to “impeach the motherf—er,” he criticized her language as “disgraceful,” “a great dishonor to her and her family,” and “highly disrespectful to the United States of America.”

“It’s a classic move,” Bergen said. “When you are an adherent to a particular belief, or a proponent of a particular candidate, then swearing seems a particular way to you; it seems like they’re being authentic, and they’re being truthful, and they’re energized, and they’re enthusiastic. And if someone who you already don’t like swears, then you view that as evidence that they are out of control, or they’re illiterate, or they don’t understand social norms, so you view it more negatively.”

So where does that leave the current group of Democratic presidential candidates as they compete for the support of large swathes of Americans? Though T-shirts like O’Rourke’s are certainly part of a campaign strategy, candidates might just be exhibiting a human impulse to curse in the face of emotionally heightened situations.

“There are a lot of strong emotions at present surrounding this particular campaign or this particular election, and I think that swearing is a way to signal strong emotions and to evoke them in the people who are listening to you,” Bergen said. “Candidates who want to demonstrate their authentic, emotional commitment to whatever it is that they’re trying to push, they may be looking to profanity to do that for them.”

That’s especially been the case following the numerous mass shootings that have taken place within the last few months in O’Rourke’s home state of Texas. In early August, after the El Paso shooting in which 22 people died, O’Rourke responded to a reporter’s question with exasperation: “Members of the press, what the f—?” Later that same month, speaking to a crowd of supporters in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Odessa, Texas, O’Rourke once again turned to the expletive to make his position known: “What we do know is this is f—ed up.”

Appearing on MSNBC’s morning show “A.M. Joy” with Joy Reid the following day, O’Rourke defended his use of the word. “Profanity is not the f-bomb. What’s profane is a 17-month-old baby being shot in the face,” O’Rourke began, referencing a tweet by the rabbi Michael Latz. “What is profane is losing the life of a high-school student in that shooting yesterday who will not be returning to school tomorrow. What is profane is 40,000 gun violence deaths in this country.”

“What we’ve been saying, the rhetoric we’ve been using, the policies and practices of this country has not been urgent enough as needed, doesn’t meet this crisis,” he continued. “So let’s speak clearly and bluntly and then take decisive action.”

O’Rourke, of course, isn’t the only Democratic candidate who has publicly sworn during the 2020 race: Cory Booker defended Kamala Harris on Twitter two months ago, writing that “she doesn’t have s— to prove,” and criticized “thoughts and prayers” following acts of gun violence as being “bulls—” in a May interview with CNN. Bernie Sanders also made the rounds on social media after exclaiming, “I wrote the damn bill!” during the July Democratic debates. At the June debate, Andrew Yang said the Russians were “laughing their asses off,” while Julián Castro and Pete Buttigieg both used variations of “piss” in the course of the evening.

O’Rourke’s recent use of the f-word has drawn criticism — some call it inappropriate and a ploy for attention. But the blatant irony of this kind of critique settles in next to the sexist and racist profanity that has been used by the country’s current president.

Timothy Jay, a professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a leading scholar on cursing, pointed to the double standard that allows men — like Trump, or Beto, or Cory, or Bernie — the freedom to swear publicly in a way that women often get punished or criticized for.

The difference, however, is that Trump’s profanity is used as a device for insulting others; Beto’s is in response to horrific death.

“There’s something every day that raises your emotions. And I think that’s part of a reaction to treat offensiveness with offensive language,” Jay said. “If you have to use ‘f—‘ to get somebody to listen to you, then that’s what you do.”