Last week, behind closed doors, Donald Trump apparently called the House health care bill mean. Unlike pretty much everything else the president has done since taking office, this description played to great popular acclaim. The word was like a wisp of a song that got caught in the country’s head—a tune by Taylor Swift, perhaps: Why did the Grand Old Party have to be so mean?
On Thursday, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer upped the rhetorical ante, critiquing the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act by dramatically scribbling an -er on a piece of poster board.
Also on Thursday, Barack Obama wrote a Facebook post decrying the “fundamental meanness at the core of this legislation,” noting the act would snatch coverage away from 23 million Americans.
While we wait for the bill to pass and plunge whole swathes of the nation into crisis, let’s muse for a moment on this childlike descriptor. Mean. It contains the requisite letters to compose the word men, which is great if you’re racking your brain for epithets for a law that identifies womanhood as a costly preexisting condition. It rhymes with green, which is the color of the dollars that insurance and drug companies will bathe in as old people, pregnant people, and people with mental health issues lose their access to affordable health services. Mean also carries the slightly archaic connotation of miserliness or selfishness, and of shoddiness, too. I don’t need to belabor the salience of those qualities as we watch a measure scotch-taped together out of the cruel fragments of Scrooge McDuck’s id work its way through the House of Representatives.
When Trump used the word mean, it seemed at once inadequate and innocent—a plaintive plea from the mouth of a babe. The president’s moral imagination is a Chinese violin with only two strings: nice and mean. The House bill plucked the second one.
When Schumer used the comparative meaner, it seemed full of foolishness. The Democrats were so absorbed in and amused by their lame performance of outrage that they turned genuine moral indignation into kindergarten-grade insult comedy. That bill was mean. This bill is mean-ER. We’ve got your votes, amirite?
Obama’s meanness, however, felt just right, drawing attention to Republicans’ small-mindedness as well as their cruelty. The effect was similar to Hillary Clinton’s reclaiming of nasty. Sometimes it takes an adult to reveal a six-year-old’s unintentional eloquence.