Maybe we should look at the presidential campaign as vaudeville. Our grandparents loved vaudeville, so maybe we can learn to love it, too. (I'm not holding my breath.) The Irish and the Jews more or less defined vaudeville, and we've got the lean Jewish guy from Brooklyn, the straight man always "fighting the system," playing off the brash Irishman just off the boat whose blarney and bombast have wowed the town. Alas, there's no toe-tapping song-and-dance man in white ducks, hats, spats and two-tone spectators. A production by George M. Cohan, this is not.
It's an ironic turnaround in ironic times to watch politics embrace show biz, playing to huge audiences with extravagant attacks and over-the-top humor with enough razzle-dazzle to fray the bunting in the rafters. It's silly obscenity over serious substance. That's what Donald Trump did when he encouraged someone in his audience to repeat a naughty synonym for "cat" as a put-down for a rambunctious rival. He aimed for the shock, a staple of the current breed of standup comics who push vulgarity deep into the envelope.
What used to be relegated to cable late-night now draws mainstream media attention and words that once offended women are spoken now by women and men together. The Golden Globe awards this year were the foulest of mouth ever, riddled with expletives you wouldn't want a sailor friend to hear. Raunchy is in, among comedians like Amy Schumer who dropped the c-word minutes into the show. Raunch can sometimes work in skillful hands, but breaking through the crass ceiling for its own sake degrades us all, becoming the base line not to cross in both entertainment and politics. No politician has shown greater vulgarity than Donald Trump defining "potty mouth" down.
His un-eloquent use of vulgarity demonstrates how language has lost its shocking power to emphasize the significant and important. There's no question that he taps into legitimate anger and frustration felt by voters, but as George W. Bush, campaigning for brother Jeb in South Carolina, argues, exploiting voter rage does not mean that "we need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and frustration." Ronald Reagan knew what he was doing with his appeal to the best in the shining city on the hill. The Donald appeals to the worst in a dung hill. It's working for him; voters in the cheap seats can't seem to get enough of it. His poll numbers continue to climb. But it speaks volumes about how much the culture has coarsened us.
Cable television once liberated us from the sentimental, treacly sitcoms of an earlier era that devoted prime time to the processed white-bread family. In today's prime time, cynical heroes and graphic sexual depictions have smothered the finer sensitivities and sensibilities. Internet "factoids" and monosyllabic messages on Twitter further debase the critical ability needed to distinguish truth from falsehood, proving that "a lie can travel from New Hampshire to South Carolina before the truth can get its boots on." The fact checkers say the rest of the Republican field is struggling mightily to lace up their boots.
But we can't blame the Donald for the culture we've all made. We're bombarded from every direction with verbal noise, graphic vulgarity, and "the stench of mendacity," as Big Daddy called it in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." The Donald blows up enough balloons of mendacity to satisfy Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades stretching from here to eternity. He may pay Saturday night in the primary in South Carolina for blaming September 11 on George W. Bush and calling him a liar about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But that's not the way to bet. Saying the unsayable can sometimes liberate others to say what they've always wanted to say, and in giving his voice to personal prejudices against Mexicans and Muslims, and now nearly everybody in the Bush family, he reinforces that itch in just about everybody.
It used to be that vulgarians were funny because they said things that prompted frowns and raised eyebrows. Part of the guilty pleasure of hearing them was that they were things that nobody could say. Now every shocking insult and jibe is mashed up and manipulated before it's transmitted, and the source and sensibility is quickly forgotten. Others embrace it as their own. The Donald's outrageousness has become ordinary, and sometimes it's hard not to laugh at his outrageous ordinariness. Unfortunately, the joke's on us.