How very vulgar I have been—I am sorry, and I apologize! I am just terrible, and it is all my fault. And I accept the responsibility. And how could I accept my own shame if I had not done so in public? Yet my own vulgarity has been hedged, because I neither sinned nor confessed on television, so there! I am still a snob after all. Odi profanum vulgus et arceo—but not RKO. And I am particularly a snob, if, like Lena Dunham and so many others, I confess and write a memoir about it. Which is what I am doing, even as I word-process and you read. “But what brings you to this confession,” you ask. “How have you been vulgar, exactly? We want to know the lurid details!”
Yes, I know you want the details, but I have to parcel them out in a dribble, just to keep you interested—sort of like Gypsy Rose Lee in her ecdysiast mode. OK, OK, settle down. If there are any further disturbances, I may have to summon the constabulary. You have been warned for the last time.
But to résumé: Before my confession of vulgarity can be broached, we must have a contextual overview, so here we go. There has recently been in the American media and even abroad—in times of war, terrorism, economic stress, and government-sponsored invasions—a bizarre emphasis on vulgarity in the political process. Yet we had not heard of this phenomenon on the political scene before Donald Trump advanced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for the presidency. The argument has been made many times that, because of his vulgarity, Mr. Trump is not fitting or qualified as a presidential candidate. Now without getting hot and bothered about it, we may concede that Trump is vulgar—he makes no bones about that. He is vulgar in thought, word, action, and bearing. He was even professionally vulgar on a “reality show.” We can say that one of his former opponents, at least, is a gentleman with nothing vulgar about him—I refer to Ben Carson, M.D., who has endorsed him. But that is about the most we can say, for otherwise there is an enormous and incalculable gaping void, which is the vulgarity of America herself. I limit my vulgarity and my exposure to it, but I am far from untouched by my environment. Sometimes, I just can’t help myself. I have been vulgar! But kindly observe that in many of my trespasses into vulgarity, I was reacting to my environment.
These are the vulgarities for which I plead guilty and throw myself upon the mercy of the court. One: I have consumed vulgar foodstuffs in the past, and have been saved from this practice. I sometimes ate hot dogs, hamburgers, freedom fries, low-sodium potato chips, Cheetos, and Cheez-Its.
Two: I have consumed vulgar entertainments. I liked Benny Hill, and have been mostly saved from this practice, because Benny Hill was banned from world television by various feminist scolds and their promoters—they were against laughter. In America, almost all entertainment is vulgar, and even a surprising amount of writing is vulgar.
Three: I have watched television in the past, but am now saved from this practice. I have not had a television in years. Television and the social media are destructive forces to be avoided, because they are more poisonous than bad food.
Four: I used to go to the movies with no sense of priorities. Today, I watch with a severe eye only what I elect to watch. If it’s good, then I watch it again—but not on a TV screen, and never as a broadcast.
Five: I have in the past sometimes used intemperate and even vulgar expressions when provoked, and I was almost always wrong. Today, I am much better. I stay away from argument, because so few people are prepared or even willing to discuss anything properly. Besides, the bloggers have discredited all billingsgate.
Six: I have listened to vulgar music and sometimes enjoyed it—rarely so today.
Enough already. Let’s consider the vulgarity of the people who think that Trump is vulgar, but that they themselves are not vulgar. Really? Really! Now how do I know that these people are vulgar?
They are unquestionably vulgar if they are on television, and if they are not vulgar, then they are lacking in some way. Consider the vulgarities of television for a moment—the absurdities of the improbable diverse presentations; the appalling commercials; the porn channels; the pandering to the various groups; the reality shows; the talking heads on Sunday mornings; the yelling and interrupting that blares, as from Sean Hannity; the coarse language and worse thought; the segmented audiences and the flatteries extended to preferred groups; the sucking up to the establishment; the provocation of the excluded; and so on.
There is enough vulgarity to go around, and those with superior and supercilious attitudes—George Will, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham, William Kristol, Ph.D. (the one who smirks and sports double-breasted waistcoats), Charles Krauthammer, M.D. (the one who looks like a turtle), and the rest of them—have no exemption from the stain of the scum upon which they float. Their vulgarity isn’t better than that of bimbos and buffoons and ranters—it is worse, for they have explicitly degraded the reason and authority which they affect to personify. As he appears on TV as opposed to the page, George Will is too often testy and schoolmarmish, but Kristol and Krauthammer are laughable, the both of them. They know this deep down, and that is why they struggle to maintain their challenged dignity. Kristol, being less dynamic, is less predictable, annoying though he is in his conflicted restraint. Krauthammer, being hostile, maxes out the pomposity, but the effect cancels his claim to authority. Each one is an imitation of himself, “done” by some mimic, so that the snooty vulgarity reaches an exquisite high point of a low arc. The telly is unkind to displays of superiority, especially when it is specious. I forget what language it is that asserts, Quod licet Buckley, non licet Suckley, but it signifies, “What William F. Buckley, Jr., got away with, you can forget about.”
But besides the television problem, there is the generalized American problem. The degree of vulgarity is so broadspread in the U.S.A. that it becomes hard to perceive, because there isn’t much of anything else. The vulgarity is our environment—not the Rockies or the Appalachians, not the Ohio or the Mississippi, not the shining seas. The vulgarity is what we look like, what we consume; how we live; our architecture; our style; our conversation and language; our delusions of freedom and grandeur; our obsessive and addictive nature; and our patrimony and our curse as well. I do not find that what is actually wrong with the way we live is ever held up to criticism or even recognition in the media today. Quite the opposite. And I have noticed that the snobs, who are really only wannabes anyway, always mishandle the analysis of the slob phenomenon.
I’m not sure when the slob stuff took off, but Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) is thought to have been an historical marker. Not much later, pop music went into a groove that was denounced by that scrupulous puritan Frank Sinatra. The youthful rebels had never had so little to rebel against, but whatever it was, they were against it. As Marlon said in the movie, “Whatta you got?” But look again. The rebellion of youth was simultaneous with other declines not attributable to them. The rise of tract housing and the modern suburbs was itself ruinous, and Levittown was soon festooned with television antennae. This invasion of the home and of the family was sanctioned by the authority it challenged, and our world has never recovered—rather, it has doubled down on the invasion of the home—an incursion now fortified with boosted technology and governmental arrogance.
The displays of discordant discourtesy in modern existence are constant and grating. The unrelenting grossness, the neglect of manners and even hygiene, the contempt for common sense on the highway—it just goes on and on. And now with the social media, every lowlife thinks he is justified because he has found a niche of like-minded fellow simians who confirm and endorse the vulgarity of his life.
The point is that if contemporary life is vulgar from one end to the other, how is it that Donald Trump’s undeniable vulgarity disqualifies him for the highest office in the land? Doesn’t Trump’s vulgarity identify him with the other citizens of our democracy? Couldn’t Trump’s vulgarity unify the nation in a rapture of identity and equality? Trump’s vulgarity is the best thing that ever came down the pike since chewing gum, T-shirts, sneakers, Botox, the Kardashians, and fast food.
Trump’s vulgarity circles the square not only by unifying the leadership with the multitudes, but by demonstrating what “democracy” and “equality” actually mean as words and ideas and principles, rather than warm feelings about what is good and nice, as when Hillary Clinton talks about “fighting for us” and “fighting for our dreams.”
So, therefore, the vulgarity argument must be dismissed as an adequate or in any way useful handle on the Trump phenomenon. Mr. Trump can be diminished by various angles of attack, it’s true; but an essentially class-based argument is incongruous and uncharitable and even possibly un-American. The phrase “outerborough accent” is a revealing one, and might remind us that, in popular culture, Americans have always admired the fellow with a good heart, even if he didn’t talk real good. Huck Finn might be an example, or even Jay Gatsby; Leo Gorcey, Jackie Gleason, Sylvester Stallone, and Rodney Dangerfield could be others.
In another well-known example—though very interestingly, not an American one—the narrator of Dickens’s Great Expectations learns that gentlemanly affectations, clothes, and accents are superficial matters. Pip finds more humanity from his clumsy friend Joe Gargery and from his criminal benefactor, Magwitch, than he does from his own sister, from Miss Havisham, or from the remote Estella.
If we have models for Donald Trump, they might suggest ways in which he could be seen as a human being. And they might also suggest that the history of his marriages and business ventures is not always to his credit. But neither does this suggest that a chorus of the Ivy League and Oxbridge-credentialed gentlemen has a veto power to dismiss the candidacy of an energizing interloper. Various threats about voting for Mrs. Clinton are revealing, and should be welcomed as purgative opportunities for the cleansing of the body politic.