The freshman class of Democrats arriving to be sworn in on Capitol Hill had always threatened to shake things up from the very start, overturning precedent and doing things their own way.
But none managed to make good on their promise quite as quickly as Rashida Tlaib, the newly elected US Representative for Michigan’s 13th Congressional district. She managed to alienate her party leadership at the same time as angering her opponents, ignoring any Democratic talking points about staying away from the ‘I’ word in the sort of language that once came with ‘parental guidance’ stickers.
‘We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!’, she said hours after the 116th Congress had been sworn in during an event for activists ironically billed as ‘The people’s swearing in.’
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) January 4, 2019
Cue predictable outrage. Republicans went on the war path accusing Tlaib of flouting standards of behavior expected from public figures. Even President Donald Trump, who is after all famously restrained in his choice of epithets, condemned her comments and said she had disrespected the US.
It was almost as if she was the first politician to utter the F word. She isn’t. And if the first week of 2019 is anything to go by, we are going to hear a lot more of it before 2020 is done.
In fact profanity has a long and proud history in American politics reaching all the way back to George Washington. He may or may not have been able to lie about disfiguring cherry trees but was apparently plenty prepared to swear his head off after the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse in 1778.
‘Yes, sir, He swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees,’ according to General Charles Scott, who described it as much the finest vulgarity he had ever heard.
Its rise in modern times followed the path of popular culture and social norms, creeping into language everywhere despite efforts to keep it out of sight and out of mind. It took the Nixon tapes and the famous phrase ‘expletive deleted’ to let the public in on the secret (even if the phrases in question were more likely to be ‘Christ’ or ‘hell’ than anything stronger).
There is no such reticence now. Where once the use of f-bombs or s-storms might have been seen as a symptom of a lesser intellect or thinness of vocabulary, in these polarized, partisan, anti-intellectual times they are taken as a sign of passion, commitment and drive. What could be more authentic than using the same words in public as private? And what else can guarantee such air time?
GovPredict, an analytics firm, has charted the rise in ribaldry, monitoring the rate at which politicians in Congress and state legislatures swear on social media. It counted 83 instances in 2014. That rose to 193 two years later before rocketing to 2409 last year (when the s-word took on a whole new prominence).
Sure, you could blame Donald Trump’s decivilizing influence, but ask yourself whether any of today’s focus-group driven, data crunching politicians would use such salty language if it didn’t play well?
Beto O’Rourke, whose canny understanding of social media turned him into an unlikely contender for Ted Cruz’s Texas Senate seat, showed how it was done in his midterm concession speech. ‘I’m so fucking proud of you guys,’ he told campaign workers in an address that wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of those throat-lump-inducing locker room scenes in a sports film.
Expletives are not just for outrage but for emoting too.
Maybe it’s a phase – a symptom of a politics that favors authenticity and grit over the cerebral and the polished. Or maybe it is a feature that will last, reflecting the fact that boundaries between private and public can’t exist in a world with smartphones.
But as Rashida Tlaib knows, dropping an f-bomb (or a mofo missile in her case) is the surest way to poke opponents and fire up supporters while putting the other freshmen in the shade on your first day in Congress. That air time is worth a couple of bucks in the swear jar every time.