Some folks on Twitter and elsewhere have tried to defend Donald Trump, or at least minimize last night’s impact, by saying we already had all this on tape. He called Mexicans rapists. He called Rosie O’Donnell a pig. He said racist things about a judge, Miss Universe and a thousand other people. But the rest of the world has gone nuts about this? What is up with that?
To me the answer is pretty simple. There are curses that everyone more or less tolerates. Schmuck. Asshole. Turd face. Horse fucker. Even calling someone a murderer, rapist or son of a motherless goat won’t automatically get you shunned by society as long as you stay on the right side of slander and libel laws. But then there is a whole other category of insults. You know the ones. Fag is maybe the only one I can safely print, even just to discuss it. The rest you know by their first letters alone. C-. N-. Unless you are Tyrion Lannister then your reputation will not survive saying those. Something about those words makes them stand out from anything else you can say to someone.
I think an important clue is to look at what happens to a terrible ethnicity-based insult when the ethnicity goes mainstream. At one time being Irish or Italian had real consequences in America. Back in the day a vulgar term for Irish had weight. Those vulgar terms were a way to put someone in their place. It said you have privileges that they don’t. You can shut them out or hurt them. Can you imagine someone getting turned away from an apartment today because they are Irish? Of course not. That has a lot to do with why barely anyone even remembers the old insults. There is no threat there. The Jewish insults still have some weight. In related news, Twitter tells me that there are thousands of people out there who still have a weirdly singular hatred for Jews. Maybe millions. Meanwhile the twentieth century provides an indelible reminder that no amount of assimilation should make Jews feel entirely safe from threats. Saying the K-word today does not have anywhere near the impact of when I grew up (the local ritzy golf club started letting in Jews beyond its token one-family limit when I was in high school, in the early 90s). Nonetheless if you say the k- word today it will mean something, to me and to your reputation.
That is the one thing our short list of unforgivables has in common. They all imply a threat. Black people can still be turned away from a mortgage. In many places a white person can still expect the overwhelming benefit of the doubt if he shoots a black man in the street, where a black man would be convicted before any detective opens the case. A woman can be assaulted or raped at any time, and too often the justice system just heaps on the shame and abuse. I thought I was sufficiently jaded about rape and ‘justice’, until I found about the disgraceful state of rape kits nationwide. These are easy convictions. In many cases the perps are already in custody. In many, many cases catching the perp quickly would have saved three, ten or more women from being assaulted later.
Donald Trump did not ‘insult’ women or make ‘vulgar’ statements about women. He talked about making threats and then acting on them. He bragged that they had no defense against his assaults, and no recourse afterwards. Imagine that Trump called a black man the n- word and then beat him with a cane. Aside from being an anachronism in this age, would it be so different?
Donald Trump committed unforgiveable acts in his life. In 2005 he bragged about it. People may not get that explicitly, but fundamentally they get it. You cannot uncross this line.