WASHINGTON — In 2011, eyebrows shot up when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin used a salty acronym — WTF — to mock the policies of President Obama.How quaint.
Five years later, Donald Trump has blown right past acronyms. He’s in a profanity-laced campaign for the Republican nomination that has seen multiple candidates hurl insults and disparaging remarks at one another and their critics.
In recent days, Trump has publicly lip-synced the F-bomb, blurted out the S-word more than once, hurled an offensive term for coward at rival Ted Cruz, and fired a steady string of put-downs at other candidates whom he labels pathetic, liars, losers, nasty, evil and more.
While Trump started it, other GOP candidates have jumped right into the rhetorical mosh pit, readily trading versions of “liar, liar” in Saturday night’s venomous debate.
Cruz has said Trump is “losing it” and called out his “Trumpertantrums.”
A super PAC supporting Jeb Bush is hoping Trump’s language is a turnoff to South Carolina voters. It’s running a radio ad in the state that strings together clips of Trump’s expletive-deleted language and then asks, “Is this the type of man we want our children exposed to? The time is now for South Carolina to end the Trump charade.”
It’s not that politicians are typically paragons of proper speech and etiquette. They’ve just tended to keep their name-calling and coarseness off-mike.
Now, it’s on the podium — and by design.
“There’s a general taboo-breaking that allows more and more of it to happen faster and faster,” says Robert Lane Greene, author of “You Are What You Speak,” a book about the politics of language. “The first time somebody does it, eyebrows go up and people get concerned, but then the next person doing it is less eye-opening.”
The Democratic nomination contest has been tame in comparison. Hillary Clinton complained of a “low blow” when Bernie Sanders said she was a progressive only on “some days.” Sanders, in turn, rejected Clinton’s accusation that his campaign had engaged in an “artful smear” by insinuating that she was beholden to Wall Street.
As for the GOP campaign, Greene sees the coarseness of the GOP campaign as evidence that “the contest to become the alpha male in the room has become more obvious this time than in previous elections.”
That seems to be just fine with the voters who have put Trump at the top of the polls and handed him a victory in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.