Beto O’Rourke just can’t stop swearing.
“When candidates say, ‘At least Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are pretending to be interested,’ s***, that is not enough,” the former Texas congressman and 2020 aspirant wrote on Twitter Sunday. “Neither is poll-testing your message. Gun violence is a life or death issue—and we have to represent the bold ideas of people all over the country.”
That comment comes hard on a cadre of cursing by O’Rourke in the wake of a series of mass shootings in recent months.
Following the murders of more than 20 people in El Paso in a shooting apparently motivated by hatred of Hispanics, O’Rourke was asked by a reporter whether he thought President Donald Trump bore some responsibility for the deaths. And he said this:
“What do you think? You know the s*** he has been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I mean members of the press – what the f***.”
Then, after another mass shooting in West Texas, O’Rourke doubled down:
“Not sure how many gunmen, not sure how many people have been shot,” he told a crowd in Virginia. “Don’t know how many people have been killed, the condition of those who have survived. Don’t know what the motivation is, do not yet know the firearms that were used, or how they acquired them. But we do know that this is f***ed up.”
And in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash the following day, O’Rourke did it again. “A hundred killed daily in the United States of America. We’re averaging about 300 mass shootings a year. No other country comes close. So yes, this is f***ed up,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke’s profanity has been so pronounced that in advance of the third Democratic presidential debate in Houston last week, ABC and the Democratic National Committee sent an email to the 10 candidates and their campaigns with a simple message: Don’t curse.
“We will not be broadcasting on any delay, so there will be no opportunity to edit out foul language,” read the email. “Candidates should therefore avoid cursing or expletives in accordance with federal law and FCC guidelines.” (O’Rourke managed not to swear during the debate.)
While Beto seems to be leading the cursing charge, he’s far from alone. President Trump himself regularly peppers his campaign stump speech with the word “bullsh**.”
Since he took office, Trump derisively referred to immigrants from El Salvador and Africa as hailing from “s-hole countries.” And let’s not forget how Trump described his own behavior during an “Access Hollywood” interview in 2005 that emerged in the final days of the 2016 race.
(Sidebar: Trump often takes issue with the use of profanity by his political opponents and their allies. Trump referred to model Chrissy Teigen as musician John Legend’s “filthy mouthed wife” on Twitter in September. Attacking the “Squad” – four freshman Democratic congresswomen of color – Trump tweeted this in July 2019: “This should be a vote on the filthy language, statements and lies told by the Democrat Congresswomen, who I truly believe, based on their actions, hate our Country.” You get the idea.)
In fact, according to GovPredict, a public affairs company, swearing by all politicians – those running for president and those who aren’t – has soared in 2019. As of September, lawmakers have sworn – and I am not talking about “darn” – more than 1,900 times on Twitter so far this year. That’s almost 10 times as many curses as the 193 GovPredict counted from lawmakers in all of 2016.
So, why all the profanity?
I have two theories.
1) The 2016 campaign – and Trump’s victory – fully ushered in the reality TV age of American politics. Politicians have been swearing behind closed doors since, well, we’ve had politics. One notable exception? George Washington. The first president put out a “general order” during the Revolutionary War condemning the “foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing.”
But what Trump did is take the private personas of politicians and make them public. He made it OK to be exactly what you are at all times. And that includes swearing!
2) It’s hard to break through in this political climate. One of the last tools for a politician to do so is to curse. Because people are – still – so unused to hearing politicians cuss, they tend to sit up and pay attention in ways that they might not otherwise.
Swearing is also seen as an authentic expression of emotion – something all politicians in this day and age are going for. Imagine O’Rourke saying, after the latest mass shooting, “this is messed up.” Not exactly the same power, right?
What O’Rourke is trying to do by leaning into his cursing – not to mention his support of a mandatory buyback program for AR-15s and AK-47s – is send a very clear signal that, on this issue, the status quo is no longer enough. That simply advocating for new policies or offering hopes and prayers or even condemning opponents of more gun control using traditional, accepted political rhetoric, is unsuitable for the depth, breadth and seriousness that the plague of mass shootings poses to our culture.
Will it work? Honestly, who the hell knows?