Lenny Bruce has a successor in Senator Gillibrand.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dropped a few f-bombs in a talk last week, sounding like a college sophomore trying to show seniors how cool she is. It was just one more advance in the moral deterioration of our political culture. Madonna’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the Antifa banners, the obscenities student activists scream at college leaders, Stephen Colbert’s “holster” joke… they appall moderate liberals I know, but form a long line of nastiness that looks at this point like a cardinal element of liberalism.
Progressives place the blame on the ascent of Donald Trump, a man they believe is so bigoted and exploitative that the ordinary norms of decency don’t apply. They are right to focus on President Trump, but not for the reasons they think. His bumptious, politically incorrect style has, indeed, evoked from critics vulgarities previously unheard on the mainstream airwaves. But the potential for them long predated Candidate Trump.
It started with the counter-culture in the 1950s and ’60s. Obscenity laws were struck down in 1959 by a New York judge in a decision that demonstrated how our culture had changed. Senator Gillibrand’s profanity goes back to Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Jon Stewart’s and Bill Maher’s raunchy send-ups of Republicans were pioneered by the Smothers Brothers in the Nixon Era (who often slipped obscenities into their scripts just to annoy the censors). When Snoop Dog shoots a clown-faced President Trump with a toy gun in a video, it reminds me of a speech by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver at Stanford University in 1968, when he said of the current governor, “I challenge Ronald Reagan to a duel because Reagan is punk, a sissy, and a coward.… He can fight me with a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat. I’ll beat him to death with a marshmallow.”
The advance of political correctness for the last 50 years has always been reinforced by counter-culture invective. When Dan Quayle challenged the single motherhood of Murphy Brown, she filled her TV set with a rainbow coalition of accusing faces and shot him down with fervid solemnity. Whoopi Goldberg had fun with George W. Bush’s surname, while Hustler magazine did a porn series on Sarah Palin.
Some of these attacks were criticized at the time and the stars apologized, but the line between clever satire and cheap insult has been steadily erased when conservatives are the target. They take the wrong position on social issues, it is understood, and so the more tempered liberals are able to find a moral meaning behind the vitriol that softens its indecency.
Most of the time, beyond objecting to the tone of the attacks, Republicans have responded feebly. They’ve stayed silent or backed off. When Paul Ryan spoke of an eroding “culture of work” in inner cities, people termed it a racist remark and Ryan immediately reached out to his opponents. Moral criticism backed up by counter-culture insult makes for an intimidating mix.
Until Donald Trump. He won’t apologize and he won’t explain. When challenged during the campaign on the endorsement of David Duke, he didn’t follow the script of hasty disavowal. He didn’t even seem to understand why the issue was being raised. One could hear “Who cares what some white supremacist in Louisiana says?” running through his head.
For liberals, that incognizance is precisely the problem. It shows that Trump hasn’t internalized the liberal take on race, which demands that every slight be treated with earnest gravity. More than that, Trump has the (male) ego to refuse shaming. They can make fun of him all they want, scream “F— TRUMP!” all day and night, and he won’t budge.
Given the history of Republican leaders wilting on social positions the moment charges of “-ism” and insensitivity are filed, progressives can only be frustrated and incensed by his obtuseness. A neutral observer would lay the balance of hostility on the side of the protesters, comedians and celebrities, but they have been spoiled by the weakness of prior adversaries and don’t realize their own aggression. Or perhaps they recognize the threat a politician who won’t be intimidated poses to the progressive agenda. If Mr. Trump refuses to concede and still wins, other Republicans may do the same. One of the potent weapons of the Left will fizzle.
That can’t happen. The willingness of Kathy Griffin and Maxine Waters to go as far as they have shows how deeply invested progressives are in the insult tactic. This is going to continue until November 2018 and the midterm elections. If the Democrats win, it will vindicate threats and profanity in American politics.
Wikimedia Commons; inside: Sen. Gillibrand at her "swearing in" in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)