The Say-Anything Campaign

Donald Trump has blown apart the boundaries of acceptable American political speech


Before this insane presidential campaign, American political observers knew one thing to be certain: Words have consequences.

Mitt Romney famously lost the presidency in 2012 after saying—at a private, surreptitiously recorded fundraiser—that "47 percent of the people" will vote to re-elect Barack Obama "no matter what," because "47 percent of Americans pay no income tax." (Thomas Piketty may be popular in the United States, but economic determinism is still a political non-starter here.) Then-president Gerald Ford never recovered from his bizarre assertion during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be." Howard Dean sank his underdog presidential hopes in 2004 not even with a word, but a scream.

Donald Trump hasn't just proved an exception to this rule, he's picked up the rulebook, set it on fire, and shot it into space. In the past week alone, the Republican front-runner has asserted that Islam hates America, called for sending 30,000 U.S. troops to fight ISIS, and suggested that a reporter who several witnesses saw being manhandled by Trump's campaign manager "made the story up." And that was just last Thursday.

Since then, as they usually do, things have ratcheted up to the point where Thursday seems like a distant, more innocent age. On Sunday, the billionaire populist said that he has "instructed" his people to look into paying the legal fees for a supporter who sucker-punched an unsuspecting black protestor at a recent rally. He also tweeted a warning to Democratic contender Bernie Sanders to "Be careful," or else "my supporters will go to your [rallies]." Given the mounting levels of violence perpetrated by Trump fans, and occasionally encouraged by Trump himself, such talk can reasonably be interpreted as a threat.

America hasn't seen this level of violence-haunted political anxiety since Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in 1981. With the Republican nomination process heading for a possible brokered national convention, analysts are making nervous comparisons to 1968, that blood-stained year of convention violence, race riots, political murder, and war.

So it might not seem the most appropriate moment to welcome the shattering of political consensus. Yet amidst the considerable darkness, even while the country slowly sucks itself into the authoritarian black hole of a Trump vs. Hillary Clinton race, there are reasons to celebrate the removal of the strict boundaries around what is considered to be acceptable American discourse.

Start with the ritual, bipartisan preference for war to confront the world's thorniest problems. The two "establishment" politicians still in the presidential race—Clinton and Ohio Gov. John Kasich—are unapologetically interventionist, with Clinton absurdly defending the U.S.-led overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi as "smart power at its best," and Kasich advocating regime change in Syria and North Korea, in addition to a "massive" land war against ISIS. This type of fantastical, unconstrained rhetorical belligerence has been a minimum requirement for any legitimate GOP presidential contender since 9/11.

Until Donald Trump. While the casino owner has advocated policies that make even the most hardened warmongers shudder—killing the family members of suspected terrorists, threatening unlawful orders on military personnel, and seizing oil production from Iraqis—he has also stated flatly that the Iraq War was a "big, fat mistake" that "destabilized the Middle East." Instead of ritually venerating the Bush administration's heroic record after Sept. 11, Trump shot holes in it, pointing out (a bit rudely, perhaps) that the attacks did happen on Bush's watch, and that his national security team "lied" while making the case for war. Not only did Trump utter these heresies, he did so in South Carolina, a heavily military state where the 43rd president is still very popular. One week later, after what might be the last-ever round of pundit predictions that this time Trump really went too far, the GOP novice breezed to a 10-point victory in South Carolina.

But it's not just Trump this campaign season breaking the "Overton window," as the narrow field of acceptable political discourse is often referred to (as coined by policy analyst Joseph Overton). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won the early caucus state of Iowa despite campaigning against the economically dubious but locally popular federal mandate for ethanol production, something no major-party candidate had ever managed before. Bernie Sanders has made the word "socialism" viable in a mainstream American political context for the first time since the 1950s, and argued for a number of policies—from marijuana legalization to a $15 minimum wage to single-payer health care—long considered to be political suicide.

In fact, as typically happens in American politics, the boundaries of permissible policy ideas were broken by the people first, the politicians last. As recently as November 2010, the idea of a state legalizing marijuana for recreational use sent the entire political class into a round of uncontrollable giggling. Not in Bible Belt Mississippi, mind you, but stoner California. Now, adults can legally smoke pot in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and the District of Columbia, with many more states looking to join the parade.

As Americans embrace the empowerment of decentralized technology, and reject traditional partisan tribes, all politics have become noticeably more volatile, especially wherever there's a broad gap between the people and their supposed political betters. Those gaps have produced overnight phenomena that always catch pundits by surprise: The Tea Party revolt against big-government conservatism, the Occupy Wall Street revolt against liberal bank bailouts, the ballot-initiative backlash against the bipartisan Drug War, the cultural (and later, legal) rejection of discrimination against homosexuals, and now a populist uprising against the very notion of you can't say that.

The bad news is that now, some people will say (and much worse: do) some truly awful things. But the good news is that the country's elites actually have to defend and justify their positions rather than lazily depend on conformity and the status quo.

For the moment, the desperate Republican establishment hopes it can hold off the Trump takeover in part by pointing out that, for example, he cusses like an unpresidential boob. But that approach may amount to fighting yesterday's war. "I think it's better," the candidate said last week, "than any ad I've ever taken [for] myself."