According to excerpts distributed to reporters shortly before Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Trump plans to open his speech with what appears on the surface to be a call for unity. In reality, it contains a petty attack on his opposition.
“The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican Agenda or a Democrat Agenda,” Trump will say, according to the excerpt.
Did you catch the slur? It’s a subtle thing, but Republicans have long used the word “Democrat” as an adjective as a way of attacking Democrats. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh reportedly hasn’t used the proper term — “Democratic Party” — for years. In his 2017 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush angered Democrats by referring to Congress’ “Democrat majority.”
According to NPR, the Republican tradition of using the adjective “Democrat” as a slur stretches as far back as Thomas Dewey’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1940. Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist William Safire explained the slur with a question: “Why, Republicans asked for years, should we allow the Democrats to get away with the adjective ‘democratic’?”
It is proper to use the word “Democrat” as a noun but not as an adjective. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat. She is a member of the Democratic Party.
Indeed, Trump himself is quite aware that the adjectival form of “Democrat” is considered a slur. “You notice I say ‘Democrat Party’?” Trump once asked at a rally. “I hate how it sounds; that’s why I say it, because it’s really their name, you know. It’s not the Democratic Party, which flows nicer. Their real name is the Democrat Party.”
Again, it’s a small thing. But it’s important because Trump’s use of this slur helps frame his entire speech. The avowed theme of Trump’s speech is unity, and most of the preview pieces setting up tonight’s address have noted that he makes several references to reaching across the aisle and comity between the two parties. Having gone to such trouble to promote the address in this fashion, the Trump administration no doubt hopes that credulous pundits will repeat these claims on his behalf. But the subtext gives away the game: He has nothing but contempt for his opposition.
You don’t extend someone an olive branch while mouthing a slur.