By Masha Gessen
Five and a half years ago, I filed a story for the Times in which I used the word “dickhead.” I had met with Vladimir Putin, and he had used that word. The Times struck it from the story. I disagreed with the decision, because I thought that Putin’s use of the word conveyed important information, but such was the Gray Lady’s policy. She seems to have loosened her policies for Donald Trump’s use of the word “shithole” to describe Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa.
Many second-day analysis stories have focussed on what Trump’s use of the word tells us about the man’s inner essence. Opinions range from “This is nothing new, we have always known that he is a racist” to “Finally, we can definitively say that he is a racist.” This reaction reflects a very American preoccupation with a person’s perceived innate qualities; the assumption is that it’s always important to know who a person is before making judgments about how the person acts. But that is not the story here. Trump’s racism isn’t news, and we are very unlikely to learn anything new about the inner workings of Trump’s mind and soul, which seem remarkably uncomplicated. What is news is his public behavior and the way it is changing the country.
Back in 2012, I thought that Putin’s use of the word “dickhead” was important not because it reflected a deeper truth about his person—I’d long known that he was a vulgarian, and so did anyone else who cared—but because his behavior was significant. There is a bigger taboo against using curse words in Russian culture than there is in America. The fact that Putin cursed—not merely in the Kremlin, and not merely in mixed company, but in conversation with a person whom he would have perceived as a middle-aged, highly educated Jewish lady from central Moscow who, in accordance with cultural myth, should have fainted upon hearing a swear word—highlighted the extent to which norms of public behavior had eroded during his twelve years in power.
Similarly, Trump’s remarks tell us less about his private thoughts than they do about our public sphere. I, for one, would have been happy to see the Timesrelax its obscenity standards because of the understanding that real human speech is always part of the story, and people curse—more often than not, under circumstances in which cursing is appropriate. But that’s not what happened here: the story was so shocking precisely because it was so inappropriate for the President to say what he thought out loud, in a White House meeting.
Trump’s transgression is twofold. First, his vulgar remark broke a taboo against racist speech. This was in keeping with his campaign-trail rants against “political correctness,” a term so widely denigrated in the culture that no one dares mount a public defense of it. The argument in favor of political correctness, however, is very simple: no matter what you think or feel inside, there are just certain things that should not be said. This is political in the sense of politics as the process of negotiating how we live together in a community, a city, or a country.
Trump made his remark while carrying out the duties of President, in a meeting with elected officials—and this was his second transgression, political in the electoral sense of the word. We invest electoral representatives with a kind of historical and moral aspiration: it is their job to speak and act in ways that reflect the way the public would like to see itself. At most times, we want political leaders to sound like smarter and better versions of themselves, and of us. That Putin’s public vulgarity has worked so well for him with Russians reflects the opposite impulse: to wallow in crude, aggressive awfulness. Once again, the news is not that the President of the United States is a foul-mouthed racist—we knew that, and we also knew that this was the reason some people voted for him. The news is that he insists on dragging the rest of us down with him.
Trump’s “shithole” remark presented the media with a starker version of the daily Trumpian Twitter conundrum. To fail to report his tweets or his “shithole” remark is to fall down on the job of reporting the news. To report it is to participate in the ongoing degradation of the public sphere.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer, has written several books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.