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On Calls to Impeach the Motherfucker

The Democratic Party needs a “dialectic” between the words of Tlaib and the words of Pelosi

“We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.”

Thus declared Rashida Tlaib last Thursday night while speaking at a MoveOn event just hours after being sworn in as a new Congresswoman.

A shitstorm of controversy ensued.

Across the political spectrum Tlaib was denounced for her “vulgarity.” The New York Times headline reporting on her statement neatly summed up the response of many Democrats: “Rashida Tlaib’s Expletive-Laden Cry to Impeach Trump Upends Democratic Talking Points.” Tlaib was called to task for her “profanity” and for her boldness in calling for impeachment before the Mueller report is concluded or Congressional investigations are undertaken.

It may or may not be a good idea for Democrats to move directly to impeachment. Tlaib herself makes a very strong case for the move in a January 3 op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press on why “now is the time to start impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.” But she is hardly alone (see, for example, David Leonhardt’s New York Times “The People vs. Donald Trump: He is Demonstrably Unfit for Office. What are We Waiting For?”). And yet it might well be wise, on both legal and political grounds, to proceed more slowly, and to wait for Mueller’s investigation to be concluded. That is a legitimate political question. But the hysterical reaction to Tlaib’s statement is wildly out of proportion to her words. Let me count the ways.

(1) Tlaib never said that the impeachment of Trump was the only thing she thought should be done. She simply said that Trump should be impeached, i.e., tried by the House of Representatives, for serious violations of law and for dereliction of his constitutional duties. She explained herself very well in her op-ed:

“President Donald Trump is a direct and serious threat to our country. On an almost daily basis, he attacks our Constitution, our democracy, the rule of law and the people who are in this country. His conduct has created a constitutional crisis that we must confront now. . . Each passing day brings new damage to the countless people hurt by this lawless president’s actions. We cannot undo the trauma that he is causing to our people, and this nation. Those most vulnerable to his administration’s cruelty are counting on us to act — act to remove the president and put this country on a path to true justice. . . his is not just about Donald Trump. This is about all of us. What should we be as a nation? Who should we be as a people? In the face of this constitutional crisis, we must rise. We must rise to defend our Constitution, to defend our democracy, and to defend that bedrock principle that no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States.”

This is outrageous? Really?

It is obvious that it was not her reasoning that disturbed so many, but her use of the term “motherfucker” in her videotaped remark, a signal of a very strong hostility to Trump and an intention to fight him without any pretense of “bipartisanship” or “civility.”

(2) Trump is a motherfucker.

Indeed, no one of whom I am aware has disputed this. Many people have questioned the probity of saying this, or perhaps even the vulgarity of thinking it. But who could deny that it is true, and that the term “motherfucker” appropriately conveys the baseness, vulgarity, and hatefulness of Trump? No less than Merriam-Webster attests that the term, used in many different ways, typically means “one that is formidable, contemptible, or offensive — usually used as a generalized term of abuse.” In the post-truth world in which we live, it is refreshing for a politician to tell it like it is. And Trump is a motherfucker.

(3) Yes, the term “motherfucker” is an obscenity. Perhaps if Rashida Tlaib were a woman more refined, genteel, polite, prim, prudish, or puritanical — all antonyms for “obscene” — she would have used the descriptor “despot” or “potentate” or perhaps even “bad man.” But let’s get real. We live in a world thoroughly suffused with obscenity, vulgarity, and excess. And no one epitomizes this more than Trump himself, a nasty, vulgar, cruel, and contemptible man — a motherfucker if ever there was one. Trump has taken incivility to new political heights in his public comments about opponents, and journalists, and Latinx immigrants and Muslims and women. And Rashida Tlaib, and a great many of her women colleagues, are not in politics to “be nice.” They are there to make a difference. Why not tell it like it is?

There is surely no moral or ethical reason why not. Is there a political reason?

(4) Chris Cillizza, a liberal commentator for CNN, has succinctly stated the political objection behind the moralistic outrage expressed by the many public scolds who can’t even bring themselves to type the word motherfucker (how many times have you seen “mother*****” in recent days? You’d think we lived in Victorian England or the Salem of Cotton Mather or something):

What Tlaib did on Thursday night might feel good for Democrats. It might make them feel as though they are regaining some of the fire and the fight they lost when Trump won in 2016. But it almost certainly is the wrong strategy if Democrats want to beat Trump in 2020. Why? Well, put as simply as possible: Never wrestle with a pig because you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Now, it might be true that pigs always enjoy mud wrestling more than their opponents do.

But sweet entreaties rarely work with pigs. It is thus apparently often necessary to wrestle them if you wish to obtain their cooperation. I would imagine there are some who might even enjoy such wrestling. (Having grown up in Queens, New York, I’ve never been within ten feet of a pig. But I am well acquainted with the joys of cursing out motherfuckers who get in your face.)

The problem with Cillizza is that he fails to appreciate the important role that so-called “incivility” or “vulgarity” can play, and also fails to appreciate the importance of considering context when evaluating speech.

Tlaib’s promise to “impeach the motherfucker” was an honest, impassioned, and energizing comment made in a very particular context: a celebratory MoveOn rally on the very day that the Democratic “blue wave” was certified in Congress. In such settings, such talk can be both cathartic and mobilizing.

Moralizers like Cillizza talk as if Tlaib’s off-the-cuff comment was intended as a policy statement, when it is quite obvious that it was not. Tlaib didn’t say “impeach the motherfucker” in her op-ed or in a televised interview or in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. In any of those contexts, such a statement would seem unwise — though it is impossible to state in advance the circumstances in which it is sometimes very wise to flout convention in order to provoke or to get attention. But at a rally?

Was the statement angry? Yes. Was it divisive? Absolutely. That was its point — to state sharply, in a crowd of supporters, Tlaib’s strong opposition to a president who clearly represents a danger to the republic.

We need such strong opposition. We need for more decent citizens to be mobilized by appeal to their emotions. The most appropriate rhetorical means of doing this will vary from situation to situation. And this will sometimes involve referring to Trump as “a motherfucker.” Such references will never suffice; and it’s not like Tlaib stood up at the rally, said “impeach the motherfucker,” and then sat back down. The reference peppered a speech in which much else was said.

Such references are not likely to appeal to hard core Trump supporters — but nothing will.

Such references are also not likely to appeal to “swing voters” who might be important for the Democratic Party’s electoral strategy.

But no one has proposed that this language ought to be a central, party-approved talking point for all Democrats moving forward in all settings.

Rashida Tlaib is not Nancy Pelosi, who speaks for all Democrats in the House, and is now the most prominent Democratic political leader in the country. She is not Tom Perez, who speaks for the DNC. And she is not one of the dozen Democrats who, contemplating a run for the Presidential nomination, are now carefully mincing every word they speak.

Rashida Tlaib is a passionate new and young legislator who comes to the House after years spent as a civil rights activist, and she is an Arab-American woman who has been threatened, and harmed, by the xenophobic language and policies of Trump (I am also certain that she endured some vicious attacks from the right in her Congressional campaign). She has a right to her anger and her excitement at being elected. And she represents, and articulates, new energies that will play an important role in revitalizing the Democratic Party if the party is to be revitalized.

To be clear: I am not saying that “anything goes” in the effort to mobilize one’s base.

But it isn’t Tlaib who has disparaged entire groups of people or incited violence at massive campaign rallies. It is Trump, and his Fox News and Republican Party enablers.

These people are motherfuckers.

And Tlaib is right to say so. This is not all that she says! And if her saying it gets people to pay attention to her, and then to read her op-ed, and listen to what she says about a wide range of issues having to do with constitutional democracy, economic justice (she is a member of Democratic Socialists of America), and human rights for Palestinians, then this is all to the good. For Tlaib is a woman of substance, as most activists are.

It is good for brave and bright young “rising stars” of the Democratic Party like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to flout convention, and speak their minds, and energize their own base. That is why they ran for office, and that is why they were elected.

We should not expect them to act like Nancy Pelosi, the 78-year-old woman who has been in politics all her life, who has served in the House of Representatives for 32 years, and who, as the only woman to ever serve (twice) as Speaker of the House, is a proven leader and master tactician on the national stage. It is reasonable to expect more probity from Pelosi, because she has a very different role, with a unique set of responsibilities as the national leader of a fractious party seeking to regain power in 2020.

And it is thus worth noting that while many Democratic leaders and pundits have scolded Tlaib, Pelosi has refused to do this. Her response, when asked about Tlaib’s comments at an MSNBC town hall, was perfect. “I do think that we want to be unified and bring people together. Impeachment is a very divisive approach to take and we shouldn’t take it…without the facts,” she said. Regarding the language of “impeach the motherfucker,” she said: “Generationally, that would not be language I would use, but nonetheless, I don’t think we should make a big deal of it.”

While Pelosi did not endorse Tlaib’s words — of course she didn’t! who would expect her to? — she offered a political defense of them. She noted that they were “nothing worse than the president has said.” More importantly, she countered the simplistic “logic” of the Cillizzas of the world that such harsh language would backfire by making conservatives angrier, noting that while Tlaib’s language perhaps “consolidates his base, but I don’t think they need much consolidation.” Pelosi knows that it makes no sense to regard Trump’s hardcore base as potential swing voters, at least not in the short-to-medium term. And that “being nice” for their sake is simply a way of submitting to their abusive agenda.

Most importantly, she declared that she was “not in the censorship business…I don’t like that language, I wouldn’t use that language, but I wouldn’t establish language standards for my colleagues.”

For my colleagues. Pelosi is sharp. She knows that her party needs the energy of people like Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez, and needs the support of the constituencies that they mobilize. She knows that the Democratic Party is now in a political battle that far exceeds questions of legislative tactics or bipartisan appeals. And so she refused to put her junior colleagues “in their place” because their place is exactly where they are.

What the Democratic Party needs now, above all else, is this “dialectic” between the words of Tlaib and the words of Pelosi, between the outrage and political determination of a new generation of politicians with new ideas about how to energize the party by mobilizing core constituencies, and the experience, in the legislature and on the national stage, that only more senior leadership can offer. This leadership is important legislatively but also electorally. But it is equally important that it be pressed, provoked, and sometimes challenged. Such contention, enacted in a spirit of “agonistic respect,” is the only way for the Democratic Party to move forward.

Should the motherfucker be impeached? I am not sure about it yet, and I suspect it is wise to defer judgment on that a bit longer, for legal and political reasons, while the Mueller investigation is supplemented by House committee investigations.

But I am certain that the motherfucker needs to be politically defeated, along with the motherfuckers like McConnell, Graham, McCarthy and Jordan who enable him, and the larger group of motherfuckers who comprise his hardcore base.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to, Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One , is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.

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