One thing all Americans finally can agree upon is that public discourse has coarsened irretrievably in the era of Donald Trump and largely at his instance. We may argue over how bad that is, or whether it is bad at all. Some will make the case that the language of the parlor serves no better than the language of the street in the halls of government or in the public prints. Prudes may just need to get over it.
Maybe there is another that we can agree upon: Facts are not sublime in public discourse anymore. Truth is what you prefer it to be, not what could be proven by observation or even casual research.
The weekend tumults over the president's allusions to "shithole countries" where dark-skinned people come from and his claim of having a great relationship with the dictator of North Korea have taken us clearly to those points.
After avoiding it for 65 years, I cringed to type the s— word for print and so, I assume, did the editors at the Associated Press and many journals and the producers of television and radio shows, just as they verbally minced last summer when they had to report explicitly on Trump's crude boasts about his sexual assaults on women in the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape.
Trump is not the first president to use what he called locker-room language in everyday discourse and, in fact, no president might have passed such a test. But he is the first to force vulgarity into the public dialogue, even if it was not his plan.
He also is the first president whose celebrity career was built upon prurience — his lecherous calls to the radio shows of shock jock Howard Stern to talk about sex with his wives and girlfriends and about women's private parts, his prowling for publicity in the New York tabloids and People magazine about his affairs, and the big spread he arranged in a British girlie magazine with suggestive nude photos of his girlfriend and future first lady in his jet. While the shithole controversy was raging, news outlets reported that Trump's lawyers in the campaign arranged pay for two porn actresses to keep silent. Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon was quoted in "Fire and Fury" as complimenting a Trump lawyer for "taking care of" a hundred such women during the campaign.
But who really cares? Even the religious right has adopted a moral reality stance.
When the Supreme Court forced the disclosure of the content of Richard Nixon's secret Oval Office tapes, the phrase [expletive deleted] became part of the news lexicon and a source of comedy. But these were personal conversations, not big conferences where public policy was being decided and where the discussion was certain to become public.
Trump made his comments about the "shithole countries" of Haiti and in Africa at a big gathering of congressional leaders searching for a new immigration policy. Accounts of the racist language spread as the senators and congressmen reported to their colleagues. It reached the media within the hour. The White House was thrilled, because it would go over well with the base.
Then came the realization that the whole world observes every tic at the U.S. White House. Derogating vast parts of the world and their people as filthy and unworthy cast America in a bad light with every nation. Trump's new best friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told him so bluntly at the end of the meeting and then confirmed Trump had used the foul words.
The White House first said the president's meaning was misunderstood, but the senatorial twins of David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, after first saying they didn't hear Trump saying the "precise words" mentioned by Illinois's Dick Durbin, said flatly that Durbin had made up the vulgarity. Then Trump embraced the lie. Perdue and Cotton didn't back down. Cotton said he was as close to Trump as Durbin was, which a White House photo showed to be false.
Next to Trump and Durbin was Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Trump's favorite Senate candidate. McSally is the former fighter pilot who stood up in a Republican conference and roared "Let's get this f––––– thing done" and then posted: "I'm a fighter pilot and I talk like one. That's why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done."
Then came the White House explanation. Cotton and Perdue told officials on the QT they had heard "shithouse," not "shithole." See, they hadn't lied.
Then Trump said The Wall Street Journal had misquoted him on North Korea and that he had said "I'd" instead of "I" have a great relationship with Kim Jong Un. It furnished the tape. My old ears hear "I." But if you hear "I'd" then his remark makes no sense. He would have a great relationship with the tyrant ... if what?
So there is never proof of the truth.