Vulgarity is the starter pistol in the race to the bottom
A friend of mine who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year — I skipped it — reported to me that the Young Republican men were “wearing their ties down past their [crotches].”
I cleaned up the quote a bit for the benefit of a family newspaper. Though I’m not sure why I should bother when a White House communications director has helped so many staid institutions expand their horizons.
As my National Review colleague Kyle Smith noted, the New York Times has a long history of insisting that vulgarities do not meet the definition of news fit to print. For instance, it is the Times’ standard practice to render a colloquialism for speaking gross untruths that combines the male of the bovine species with the fully processed product of what it consumes as a “barnyard epithet.”
But in the wake of recently hired and recently fired White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci’s profanity-laced, on-the-record tirade with a New Yorker reporter, the Gray Lady went blue. It printed, sans bowdlerization, words and phrases that surely would have been just as relevant to its coverage of President Lyndon Johnson, to say nothing of Bill Clinton.
My point here is not to criticize the Times’ double standards. (There will be plenty of opportunities down the road for that.) It’s to note that politics — or, more accurately, power — has a funny way of changing standards.
Which brings me back to those ties. I’ve been around young conservatives since I was one myself, and it’s always interesting to see how fashion changes. When the first President Bush was in office, blue blazers were a kind of unofficial uniform for young men eager to mimic what then-Bush aide Torie Clarke called “the C-SPAN and galoshes” crowd surrounding the president.
When the second Bush was in office, the cowboy boot retailers near Young America’s Foundation chapters must have seen a huge increase in sales.
And now, because the president of the United States wears abnormally long power ties (presumably to hide his girth), one sees more and more twentysomething men sporting the new cravat codpiece.
This is not a phenomenon unique to conservatives. While it’s an urban legend that JFK’s alleged refusal to wear a fedora to his inaugural killed the hat industry, countless young liberals with political ambitions tried to replicate the way Kennedy talked. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was a kid, he ostentatiously mimicked his distant cousin, Teddy, wearing those pince-nez glasses and shouting “bully!”
So about those barnyard epithets. It’s hard to miss how so many rank-and-file Republicans relish the president’s crude taunts and insults. Nor is it easy to overlook the fact that the president seemed perfectly comfortable with Scaramucci speaking like a “Sopranos” character (claims by the White House press secretary in the wake of Scaramucci’s firing notwithstanding).
Not long ago, it fell to conservatives such as Bill Bennett, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins and Mike Huckabee to denounce vulgarity wherever they saw it. And while these men don’t publicly condone Trump’s language, they essentially roll their eyes at anyone who makes much of a fuss. And among the rank and file on Twitter, Facebook, etc., there’s fierce competition to be as vulgar as possible, or to be as vigorous as possible in defending presidential vulgarity.
Of course, the president is not only changing standards — he’s the product of them. Over the last decade or so, a whole cottage industry of young anti-left sensationalists has embraced the romantic slogan Epater la bourgeoisie! Their crudeness isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
The rising vulgar tide is typically justified either by the need to seem authentic or as genuflection to the sacred right to fight political correctness. Never mind that not everything that is politically incorrect is therefore correct. (William F. Buckley was not P.C., but he had the best manners of anyone I ever met.)
And the competition to seem verbally authentic has spilled over the ideological retaining wall. The Democratic National Committee sells a T-shirt that reads “Democrats Give a S*** About People.” Several leading Democrats have started dropping F-bombs and other phrases, seemingly as a way to prove their populist street cred.
I guess we’ll know this race to the bottom is over when socialist hero Bernie Sanders starts wearing his ties past his fly.
(Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at email@example.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)