It is worth watching the video of Donald Trump repeating on stage a vulgar word for women’s genitalia while holding a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire.
It’s not only because the moment represents a new frontier in political discourse — although it does — or because it shows the Republican front-runner endorsing the implication that the among the worst things you can do is refer to a man using a part of a woman’s body. Or even that it equates female parts with weakness. (Biologically speaking, this is debatable.)
It’s because the incident shows how well Trump has mastered absorbing his audience’s basest emotions and skillfully mirroring them back from his powerful position. Being willing to follow his supporters there is a key to his success.
The moment began when Trump mentioned that his rival, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, had been asked about waterboarding. As Trump criticized Cruz’s answer for being too diffuse, mockingly bobbing his own head back and forth as if he was considering both sides of the answer, he stopped himself in mid-sentence. He had heard a woman shout something in the audience.“She just said a terrible thing,” Trump said in exaggerated horror. Then he suggested he was too delicate to repeat it himself: “You know what she said? Shout it out, because I don’t wanna —” The woman repeated it, and Trump chuckled. Then he faux-scolded her, like she was a wayward child, but his delight was unmistakable. “You’re not allowed to say, and I never expect to hear that from you again. She said — I never expect to hear that from you again!” The moment was building.
Then Trump said it: “She said he’s a p—y! Terrible. Terrible. That’s terrible.”
As the audience began to roar, Trump shook his head and threw his hands up in the air, more in sorrow than in anger, pretending that he was so offended that he was about to walk off the stage. He didn’t need to say any more. Repeating the word “terrible,” Trump grinned ruefully, as if overcome by his audience’s verve, as they began chanting his name.
No comedian could have read his audience better. But this is not stand-up comedy, it’s a presidential election. While there is, among adults, no need to clutch pearls, and Ted Cruz is no delicate flower, there are policy implications to Trump’s willingness to reach out and channel the id of his people. Today, asked to explain his words on MSNBC, Trump said, alternately, “We were all just having fun. It was a great moment. I got a standing ovation” (on “Morning Joe”) and “Everyone wants to be so totally politically correct. And it’s honestly, it’s a problem for our country. We’re doing things we shouldn’t be doing” (to Tamron Hall).
There’s a reason politicians generally prefer to dogwhistle when they call their opponents less than masculine or otherwise insult them. When societies informally police speech, we aren’t just setting acceptable verbal boundaries, but also the borders of political acceptability, and there are usually costs to crossing them. (Just ask Todd “legitimate rape” Akin.) But Trump has already gleefully crossed all of both verbal and political lines, and he just becomes more popular. To his supporters, he is just telling it like it is. That translates into both words and policy, so that we’re not “doing things we shouldn’t be doing,” and it takes political proposals to places that were once beyond the pale.
Mexicans are allegedly “rapists,” immigrants have supposedly destroyed the country, so it’s time to build an $8 billion wall. ISIS exists, so it’s time for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” A woman who questions you too harshly for your liking is just on the rag, and it’s time to boycott the debate.
To listen to Trump, this is what everybody really thinks, and only an elite fringe is preventing us from doing something about it. When he says any of it from his position of power, he normalizes it. And if you don’t actually believe what he says, if you don’t believe it’s “political correctness” that is forcing you to play along and deny what everyone really knows, you’re probably just a p—y.