It’s odd. A few months ago, I made a prediction that Donald Trump would bring the “n-word” back into public use by the end of this year, or next year at the latest. At the time, I thought it would play out like this: some right-wing figure would use the insult, and Trump would come to his defense, e.g. “Bad word choice by X, but it’s just a word. He’s no racist, he’s a great guy, loves all Americans. No need for this lynching by the PC brigade!”
And then we’d see “serious” discussions in the “serious” media about whether the use of the word should automatically banish someone from public discourse or get them fired, or if there is “perhaps some room for nuance and context on this issue.” No doubt there’d be a somber think piece in the NYT: “Is it Time to Speak the Unspeakable?” Maybe it would be Ross Douthat or David Brooks weighing in, or perhaps Bari Weiss would commission one of her “dark web intellectuals” to write it; Jordan Peterson, for example. I can see it now: “What if, as Trump says, the n-word really is ‘just a word?’ For as we know, any word or object or ritual that is placed under a taboo acquires immense power in a culture. Perhaps it’s time to strip this crude pejorative of the power we have given it, by ending the knee-jerk hysteria that ensues every time it’s used.”
That’s how I thought it would go, following the pattern we’ve seen over and over in recent years, with so many tropes of white nationalism entering mainstream politics and media as subjects of “debate” and “discussion,” often triggered by Trump dog-whistles – or his outright appropriations of racist rhetoric. For we are bound to get there at some point; indeed, the n-word seems to lie at the very heart of modern conservatism.
When people decry how “the PC police” are throttling free speech, I always want to ask them: “What is it you want to say that you feel you can’t say today? I mean, really, what is it? After all, you can take the most extreme political positions and be given a national platform by vastly powerful media empires, or by the political party that controls all three branches of government and most states as well. You can start a gutter news site, spewing lies and hatred about minorities, and be given millions of dollars by oligarchs like the Mercers. You can refuse to serve somebody in your store or even give them a prescription if they somehow offend your ‘religious sensibilities.’ And so on and so forth. So again, I ask: in what way – in what specific way– do you feel throttled or thwarted or oppressed in expressing yourself? Again: what is the specific thing you feel can’t say?”
And I think it comes down to this: they want to say the n-word. They want to be able to call black people that word, in public, in print, on the web, wherever, and not face any consequences for it. That seems to me to be the very core of “anti-PC” ideology. (And of course, if they could use that word again, then all the other racist, sexist, ethnic slurs could come back as well.)
I’ve always felt this was a key element to the wide-eyed adulation we see at Trump’s rallies. He’s already licensed them to express so many other nasty, brutal, primitive feelings they used to bottle up in polite company, and they sense that one day he will finally give them permission to use the n-word. Then they can throw off the last restraints of empathy, reason and decorum, and let the beast that lives in each of us run free, rabid and ravaging, soothing all their anxieties, self-loathing and doubts with the false certainties of hatred, the false promises of “supremacy,” the false self-regard of “specialness” – and the powerful intoxicant of projection, putting everything that’s wrong in your life, and in the world, onto the back of a Judas goat to be mocked, rejected and sacrificed.
I still believe that’s going to happen, but it looks as though the mechanics – and timing – of the scenario might be a little different. It seems more likely now that some instance of Trump himself using the word will emerge; after all, even his most faithful Wormtongue, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said she couldn’t “guarantee” there was no tape of Trump saying it. But this will not derail the process described above; it will only accelerate it, skipping over the interim step of Trump defending someone else and go directly to him defending himself for using the word. This will also accelerate the acceptance, for Trump’s supporters will fall all over themselves to find ways to defuse the controversy by downplaying, “contextualizing,” dismissing – and finally doubling down on it: “Yes, he said it; so what? It’s just a word. In fact, his critics are the real racists, because they believe blacks are so weak and pitiful that they need special protection from a word.”
The usage of the n-word won’t become widespread in serious public discourse, of course; it will still retain a taint of vulgarity. After all, even when I was growing up in the rural, segregated South, it was considered unseemly to bandy the word about in public (or in our household, even in private). But it will come back. It will cease to be a career-killer. And it certainly won’t “destroy” Trump politically, any more than “pussy-grabbing” or the Charlottesville fascist-praising or any of his other verbal outrages have done.
Yet the further degradation of public speech will not be the worst of it. It will be, as noted, the license that it gives to the worst instincts and elements in our society. It will open the door to a whole new level of hell.