For someone who works on political language, this is a puzzling election, as it is for just about everybody else. Is it a one-off or does it signal a sea-change—is this a black crow or just a gray one? But I think it’s clear that whatever happens in November, we won’t be returning to the kind of political discourse that’s been dominant for the last 40 or 50 years.
This has something to do with phraseology. If we’re hearing less of phrases like “big government” or “traditional values” from the right, it’s partly because Trump isn’t really cut from the standard conservative mold and because everyone is focused on personalities rather than issues, and the more conventionally conservative figures who were using that sort of language were defeated in the primaries. But it’s also because the election has brought home the growing fissures in the coalition of the right and we don’t know how it’s going to be constituted when the dust has cleared.
Certainly people are talking differently now about race and gender. On the left, people are permitting themselves to talk about racism and sexism more directly than in recent times. On the right, things have gotten cruder and more explicit. I think of Trump’s revival of the Nixon-era dog whistle “law and order”—it’s a phrase that gathers inner-city blacks, Mexicans and Muslims together into a single dusky menace. But Trump isn’t really that much of an outlier. There’s a segment of the right that has jettisoned the nods to racial civility that have been generally accepted since the 1960s—who evoke the tyranny of “political correctness” to justify saying things in public that have largely been confined to private discourse.
That takes me to what I see as the most significant shifts in political discourse, which are really tonal rather than lexical. Public and private used to be relatively distinct settings associated with different kinds of language. But that line has been blurring for a long time—really for the last century—and technology has accelerated the process.
In this regard Trump really is an outlier. Never mind how he talks about race, just listen to him label his adversaries with schoolyard epithets like “stupid” and “loser.” Those are words that not even Harry Truman used that way—not because they were vulgar but because they weren’t the kind of values that figured in public life. But lot of people hear that speech as a mark of candor and authenticity. It’s indicative of the way the language of private chatter has bubbled up into public exposure.
I sometimes get the feeling that all of political discourse has become just one long comments thread.