The Return of Public Vulgarity

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally at Clemson University's livestock arena in Pendleton, South Carolina, on February 10. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

A couple months ago, Donald Trump was unflatteringly compared to a man who noisily defecates in the corner of a room in which a respectful drinking party is going on. Are other Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency substantially any better?

We probably all remember the scene from Luis Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: People sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper, "Where is that place, you know?," and sneak away to a small room in the back.

So are the Republican candidates' debates—to prolong the metaphor—not like this reunion in Buñuel's film? And does the same not hold for many leading politicians around the globe? Was Erdoğan not defecating in public when, in a recent paranoiac outburst, he dismissed critics of his policy toward the Kurds as traitors and foreign agents? Was Putin not defecating in public when (in a well-calculated public vulgarity aimed at boosting his popularity at home) he threatened a critic of his Chechen politics with medical castration? Was Sarkozy not defecating in public when, back in 2008, he snapped at a farmer who refused to shake his hand, "Casse-toi, alors pauvre con!" (a very soft translation would be "Get lost then, you bloody idiot!")?

And the list goes on. In a speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on October 21, 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that Hitler had only wanted to expel Jews from Germany, not to exterminate them, and that, rather, it was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem, who somehow persuaded Hitler to kill the Jews instead.

Netanyahu purported to describe an exchange between the two men in November 1941 in which al-Husseini told Hitler that if he expelled the Jews from Europe, "they'll all come here [to Palestine]." According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked, "What should I do with them?," to which the mufti replied, "Burn them." Many of Israel's top Holocaust researchers immediately problematized these statements, pointing out that the exchange between al-Husseini and Hitler cannot be verified, and that the mass killings of European Jews by SS mobile killing units was already well underway by the point the two men met face to face.

We should be under no illusions about the meaning of statements like those of Netanyahu: They are a clear sign of the regression of our public sphere. Accusations and ideas that were till now confined to the obscure underworld of racist obscenity are now gaining a foothold in official discourse.

The problem here is what Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called Sittlichkeit: mores, the thick background of (unwritten) rules of social life, the thick and impenetrable ethical substance that tells us what we can and cannot do. These rules are disintegrating today: What was a couple of decades ago simply unsayable in a public debate can now be pronounced with impunity.

It may appear that this disintegration is counteracted by the growth of political correctness, which prescribes exactly what cannot be said; however, a closer look immediately makes it clear how the "politically correct" regulation participates in the same process of the disintegration of the ethical substance. To prove this point, it suffices to recall the deadlock of political correctness: The need for PC rules arises when unwritten mores are no longer able to regulate effectively everyday interactions—instead of spontaneous customs followed in a nonreflexive way, we get explicit rules, such as when "torture" becomes an "enhanced interrogation technique."

The crucial point is that torture—brutal violence practiced by the state—was made publicly acceptable at the very moment when public language was rendered politically correct in order to protect victims from symbolic violence. These two phenomena are two sides of the same coin.

We can discern a similar phenomenon in other domains of public life. When it was announced that, from July till September 2015, "Jade Helm 15"—a large U.S. military exercise—would take place in the Southwest, the news immediately gave rise to a suspicion that the exercises were part of a federal plot to place Texas under martial law in a direct violation of the Constitution. We find all the usual suspects participating in this conspiracy paranoia, up to Chuck Norris; the craziest among them is the website All News Pipeline, which linked these exercises to the closure of several Wal-Mart megastores in Texas: "Will these massive stores soon be used as 'food distribution centers' and to house the headquarters of invading troops from China, here to disarm Americans one by one as promised by Michelle Obama to the Chinese prior to Obama leaving the White House?"

What makes the affair ominous is the ambiguous reaction of the leading Texas Republicans: Governor Greg Abbott ordered the State Guard to monitor the exercise, while Ted Cruz demanded details from the Pentagon.

Trump is the purest expression of this tendency toward debasement of our public life. What does he do in order to "steal the show" at public debates and in interviews? He offers a mixture of "politically incorrect" vulgarities: racist stabs (against Mexican immigrants), suspicions on Obama's birthplace and university diploma, bad-taste attacks on women and offenses to war heroes like John McCain.

Such tasteless quips are meant to indicate that Trump doesn't care about false manners and "says openly what he (and many ordinary people) think." In short, he makes it clear that, in spite of his billions, he is an ordinary vulgar guy like all of us common people.

However, these vulgarities should not deceive us: Whatever Trump is, he is not a dangerous outsider. If anything, his program is even relatively moderate (he acknowledges many Democratic achievements, and his stance toward gay marriage is ambiguous). The function of his "refreshing" provocations and vulgar outbursts is precisely to mask the ordinariness of his program.

His true secret is that if, by a miracle, he wins, nothing will change—in contrast to Bernie Sanders, the leftist Democrat whose key advantage over the academic politically correct liberal left is that he understands and respects the problems and fears of ordinary workers and farmers. The really interesting electoral duel would have been the one between Trump as the Republican candidate and Sanders as the Democratic candidate.

But why talk about politeness and public manners today when we are facing what appears to be much more pressing "real" problems? Because manners do matter—in tense situations, they are a matter of life and death, a thin line that separates barbarism from civilization. There is one surprising fact about the latest outbursts of public vulgarities that deserves to be noted. Back in the 1960s, occasional vulgarities were associated with the political left: Student revolutionaries often used common language to emphasize their contrast to official politics with its polished jargon. Today, vulgar language is an almost exclusive prerogative of the radical right, so that the left finds itself in a surprising position as the defender of decency and public manners.

That's why the moderate "rational" Republican right is in a panic: After the decline of the fortunes of Jeb Bush, it is desperately looking for a new face, toying even with the idea of mobilizing Bloomberg.

But the true problem resides in the weakness of the moderate "rational" position itself. The fact that the majority cannot be convinced by the "rational" capitalist discourse and is much more prone to endorse a populist anti-elitist stance is not to be discounted as a case of lower-class primitivism: Populists correctly detect the irrationality of this rational approach; their rage directed at faceless institutions that regulate their lives in a nontransparent way is fully justified.