Commentary: Of vulgarities, and what makes America great

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – The late Bill Hudnut, a four-term Republican mayor of Indianapolis, had a marvelous saying.

“You don’t make yourself taller,” Hudnut used to say, “by cutting someone else down.”

John Krull, publisher,

I’ve been thinking about Hudnut’s words in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s reported dismissal of other nations as “s***holes.”

As is now the pattern, Trump’s remark provoked controversy. The president’s critics expressed outrage. His defenders said they were offended that others were outraged.

And the president himself sort of, kind of, maybe denied he’d said it, even though there were witnesses who clearly heard him.


Trump’s provocations now have assumed a numbing predictability. He says or does something that breaks with or even violates previous standards of presidential conduct.

His opponents howl.

His defenders grow even more, well, defensive.

Everyone shouts for a while.

And everyone misses the main point.

In this case, few people seem to have noticed that, while Trump and his partisans are trying to dismiss his use of an obscenity, no one is denying that he spoke disparagingly of many developing nations. Or the people whose families come from those countries.

Many of these countries have been allies of the United States. Many also are important trading partners for our country.

If the president ever does get around to trying to make good on his repeated promises to America’s blue-collar workers to protect their jobs by revitalizing our manufacturing sector, he will need those countries. Developing nations – those “holes” – are among the likely markets for U.S. products.

I know the president prides himself on his skills as a salesman.

He’d have to be good to sell to people he’s insulted and alienated, particularly when, in an increasingly competitive world marketplace, those nations have other options besides the United States if they want to do business.

That’s the practical and mercenary argument for not degrading other nations and other peoples who might otherwise be our friends, or at least our customers.

But it’s not the most important reason.

You don’t make yourself taller by cutting someone else down.

The most important reason is that demeaning other people simply because of where or how they were born is un-American.

Contrary to the twisted white nationalist fantasies of the alt-right, we are a nation of mutts – creatures of many bloodlines. My extended family – a typical American one – includes members with ancestors from many places on the earth. But we’re all family.

That’s the way it is with many, perhaps even most, American families.

We became this nation of mutts because of promises we made.

That’s what made us great.

Both our Declaration of Independence, with its bold assertion of inalienable rights, and our Constitution, with its sacred vows of individual worth enshrined in the Bill of Rights, make clear that people matter.

Everyone matters.

We Americans, of course, often have failed to honor these promises. We have enslaved people, established systems of segregation, imprisoned people unjustly, discriminated based on race, gender, sexual orientation, faith and, yes, national origin – no Irish need apply.

Every time we have failed, though, those promises haunted us.

The pledges we Americans have made in our founding documents again and again have become the terms used to indict us and our failures to honor our principles.

To treat every person as equal before the law.

To say that every person has rights.

To say that every person has worth.

To say that every person, regardless of from where he or she comes, matters.

Our struggles to redeem these promises, particularly after we have faltered, represent many of our proudest moments as a nation.

I’m not that upset that the president of the United States uttered a vulgarity. I’ve always found curse words to be marvelously useful tools and great ways to relieve or express frustration. It would be churlish to deny anyone, much less our commander-in-chief, the right to swear.

No, what bothers me is that, cussing aside, President Trump seems to think that there just are some people who aren’t worthy of consideration.

Who don’t matter.

Bill Hudnut was right.

We Americans won’t make ourselves taller by cutting down other people.

The way we’ll be taller is by standing taller.

Particularly in defense of those values that define us as a people.

As a country.

As America.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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