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A Party Embraces Vulgarity
I have tried for some time to avoid commenting on a topic that I felt should be so far beneath our political discourse that to give it the oxygen of attention would be to play into the strategic hopes of those who are seeking to debase our democracy. But as Yoda, the wise sage of Star Wars, might say if he was trying to fight those who have turned to the “dark side” of our national polity, ignore it no longer I can.
The issue at hand can succinctly be summed up in three words: “Let’s go Brandon.” If you have no idea what I am talking about, consider yourself fortunate. For reasons too mundane to fully outline here, “Let’s go Brandon” has become a favorite chant and rallying cry for many Republicans as a stand-in for another three-word chant that you may also have heard : “F- Joe Biden,” with F-, for the purposes of decorum in this newsletter, standing for a four-letter vulgarity. Search for “Let’s Go Brandon,” and you will start finding it everywhere - all over social media, a song with a ton of downloads on iTunes, at political rallies, and among snickering Republicans in Washington.
In a compelling column in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank uses the phrase to dive into the stark differences between the seriousness and propriety of the two political parties at this moment. He writes:
“Democrats clear the way for passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that will provide broadband Internet and lead-free drinking water to every American, and better roads, bridges and ports for all to enjoy. And Republicans reply: Let’s go Brandon...
Could the contrast be any greater? Half of America’s leaders are trying to govern, and the other half are hurling vulgarities.”
The entire piece is worth the read, but for our discussion here I would like to delve a little deeper into what I think these vulgarities really mean, what motivates them, and what should be our - particularly the media’s - response.
Politics has never been a genteel pastime. The volume of vulgarities I heard covering the White House, Congress, and politics at the state and local level over the decades would rival any comedy special on HBO. In the passionate pursuit of power, discourse, especially behind the closed doors where the real action takes place, is often reduced to words that can be spelled with only four letters, or their adjectival equivalents. And no matter what side of the political divide you might be on, there have likely been moments when you are reading something or listening to an opposing politician speak and you have been moved to at least think of obscenities, if not utter them out loud. There have certainly been many Democratic politicians who have sworn about Republicans. But what we are witnessing here is fundamentally different.
“F- Joe Biden,” or the slightly less explicitly obscene but no more clever “Let’s go Brandon,” is about much more than political passion or anger. It’s about weaponizing the vulgar dehumanization of our entire democratic - small d - experiment. Joe Biden is not only a person; he is the President of the United States, whether your tinfoil-shrouded conspiracy brain cares to recognize that fact or not. How many times have we heard Republicans sanctimoniously preach about how Democrats don’t “respect” the office of the presidency for such things as President Obama not saluting properly or wearing a tan suit?
To be sure, many Democrats have said some form of “F- Donald Trump.” There was even a rap song to that effect. We all have a right to free speech. But when Republican elected representatives say “Let’s go Brandon” to end a speech on the House floor, like Bill Posey, a Republican from Florida did, or wear a “Let’s go Brandon” facemask, like South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan did, or when Ted Cruz can’t get enough of it, something else is going on. This is a movement that has engulfed the party, and party leaders think they can use it to effectively rally their voters. The sad truth is that they are likely right.
It’s not surprising that the “F- Joe Biden” chant began at sporting events, because it is just the kind of thing that happens when tens of thousands of often inebriated fans get riled up over a game, feuling a group-enforced hatred for an opposing team. Adults who should know better sometimes get carried away. But this isn’t a game. This isn’t something where you act stupid on a Saturday afternoon and then can go back to your normal life once the beer and heartburn from the hot dogs have worn off. This is our national identity.
During the 2020 campaign, Republicans had a hard time demonizing Biden. Back to the sports analogy, he was like a player on your rival team that seems to be a good person and never makes offense. But now that he is president, those who want to undermine his power are eagerly following the ethos of the bums in the bleachers, and actively stoking vulgarity.
The hypocrisy is stunning. This is the political party that had a Republican candidate for governor of Virginia run an ad featuring a mother (who just happens to be a Republican activist) talk about how her son’s apparently innocent sensibilities were offended when he was assigned Toni Morrison’s classic novel Beloved in his high school’s AP English class. Learning about the horrors of slavery and the Black experience in America? No, we have to protect our youth from that. But having your six your old hear grown men and women use one of the vilest words in the English language to attack the president at a sporting event? That’s apparently patriotic free speech. And a hoot at that.
This chant perfectly encapsulates the rot and unseriousness of the Republican party - like the smart-alec in the classroom who adds nothing but juvenile taunts and distractions. And let’s be honest, it isn’t just this chant. Go back to the t-shirts sold at Trump rallies in 2016 and what they said about Hillary Clinton, or for that matter the merchandise showcased at Trump rallies today.
The unseemliness of this is so grotesque that I think many in the Washington press seek to ignore it. Or they report on it as a special phenomenon to explain to their readers. But that is to fundamentally misjudge this moment in American history. Immature vulgarity, fueled by bigotry, misogyny, sanctimony, privilege, unseriousness, flippancy, and ignorance, is what is animating the former president, his base, and thus by extension the entire Republican party over which he rules.
It’s easy for the more “respectable” Washington Republican officials to wave away the crassness in the face of questions, just like they tried to distance themselves from Trump's tweets, back when he was still on Twitter. But this is more than just words. Hateful speech has a way of becoming violent action, Just remember how the insurrectionists on January 6 were riled up to storm the Capitol.
This is Donald Trump allowing the basest of human instincts to triumph over reason. It is a party that marches, in almost lockstep, under a banner of misplaced victimhood, of vilifying those who are different, of denying the truth, and having the chutzpah - fueled by privilege - to announce a hateful ignorance to the world with raw vulgarity, or the meekest fig leaf of innuendo. Let’s go Brandon? How about let’s go America?