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Sticks and stones

House Democrats kick off Congress with rowdy insults and regrettable policy

Sticks and stones

Rep. Hank Johnson (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Starz)

From the pulpit of the historic Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., offered a decidedly unfriendly assessment of President Donald Trump during an NAACP event on New Year’s Day: “Americans elected an authoritarian, an anti-immigrant, racist strongman to the nation’s highest office.”

Johnson wasn’t finished.

“The Jewish people know a thing about tyranny,” he said. “Hitler did not start the Nazi Party, but he took over the party with charisma and leadership. … Much like how Hitlertook over the Nazi Party, Trump has taken over the Republican Party. It’s now known as the Trump Republican Party.”

Welcome to the 116th Congress. 

Johnson wasn’t the only member of Congress using caustic language during the first week of the new session. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., known for being one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, told a group of supporters that she’d help impeach Trump—and she used the F-word to describe the president.

Many noted the obvious irony: Democrats have called out Trump for his offensive language in the past. Indeed, Johnson told his audience at the NAACP event that Trump once had characterized all Latinos crossing the border as rapists and drug dealers. The congressman then offered an equally sweeping assessment of Americans who voted for Trump:

“Donald Trump’s supporters are older, less educated, less prosperous, and they are dying early,” he declared. “Their lifespans are decreasing, and many are dying from alcoholism, drug overdoses, liver disease, or simply a broken heart caused by economic despair.”

That’s probably quite a newsflash to many Trump supporters. 

WORLD has called out Trump for using offensive language in the past, and that criticism stands. But it’s also worth noting when his political opponents do the same. (Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, the newly elected congressman and former Navy SEAL, rebuked Johnson for insulting the tens of millions of Americans who voted for Trump.)

It’s also worth noting that the headlines about bad language may have dimmed the spotlight on bad policy. Democrats used their first day as a majority in the House to pass a spending bill to end the partial government shutdown, and they slipped in a noteworthy provision: They wanted to repeal the Mexico City Policy and its ban on using federal funds for abortion overseas. The bill also increased funding for the United Nations Population Fund by $5 million. The White House rejected the proposal.

Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a self-described democratic socialist, proposed an income tax rate as high as 70 percent for the wealthiest Americans. She claimed the funds would pay for her “Green New Deal” aimed at eliminating fossil fuel use in the next 12 years. She told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, “If that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”

Andrew Harnik/AP

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Wildly unrealistic is probably an equally appropriate term: The proposal also calls for “upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety.” (I don’t know how many buildings exist in the United States, but there are about 136 million housing units.) 

And, for good measure, the proposal throws in a single-payer healthcare system.

A piece in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend pointed out that Congress has had socialist members in the distant past, and that some of the plans considered radical then eventually became mainstream. (Take the minimum wage, for example.) 

And while it’s unlikely Ocasio-Cortez’s plan will gain enough steam or wind power to move ahead anytime soon, the climate activist group Sunrise Movement claims that 40 House members support the plan. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who just threw her hat into the 2020 presidential contest, has signaled her support for such an idea.

That means that while the sticks and stones of insulting language—used by Democrats or Republicans—might not break any bones, bad policy can do a lot of damage. Words do matter, and offensive rhetoric should draw criticism, but with the circus of the new Congress and the 2020 elections beginning, it’s important to keep an eye on what both parties are proposing in the middle of the noise.

As a postscript, Rep. Johnson stood by his comments about Trump and the Americans who voted for him. The congressman was more introspective in 2013 when he used an analogy about cage-fighting between “giants and midgets.” The next day, Johnson profusely apologized, saying he had learned that “the m-word is no longer socially acceptable” and he was sorry for using an analogy that some find offensive: “It’s a learning moment for me, and perhaps for many people.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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  • AlanE
    Posted: Tue, 01/08/2019 03:36 pm

    I remember when it was a sign of poor vocabulary development when you couldn't think of a way to describe something without using profanity. Wait, maybe it still is! :-)

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 01/08/2019 06:36 pm

    Bad words corsen rhetoric, and calling political opponents evil cheapens it.  We all need to tone it down.

  • DWBrown
    Posted: Tue, 01/08/2019 08:32 pm

    Isn't johnson the congressmen that said since Haiti has so many buildings on one side of the island and very little on the other side it may flip. So tired of bitter people and the bitter children they raise in our Country that offers them so much potential.