THE FIRST RECORDED instance of the word ‘fuck’ in the English language, it appears, occurred sometime in 1528. It had occurred twice before, at least in other languages—hidden encoded in a 1500 satirical Latin poem and as ‘fukkit’ in a 1513 Scottish poem. In 1528, in a copy of the moral conduct guidebook of a monastery, an anonymous monk scrawled out the words ‘O d fuckin Abbot’. Back in the 1500s, the real obscenity for the monk was not the word ‘fuck’, but the word starting with ‘d’, probably ‘damned’, which he refused to spell out. Half a millennium later, in a world of varied new swear words, where extreme obscenities have lost their power to shock and ‘damned’, the more obscene companion of the word ‘fuckin’ in the 1528 scrawl, has lost all its bite, the f-word continues to remain steady. It is a versatile word that can be used to convey a variety of thoughts.
But when Robert De Niro steps on to the stage—mouth in a snarl, teeth clenched, mean eyes looking upwards, hands held up as if to claim victory at the end of a boxing bout, even though he is visibly old now—and delivers the four-letter word in that delicious way learnt through decades of work in gangster movies, it can mean only one thing. ‘Fuck Trump.’ His F-bomb, delivered at the Tony Awards and censored on TV, was a call not to talk it out, but a sort of primitive tribalistic call to settle matters through a fight.
In that moment, it appeared De Niro had found the mojo that has all but disappeared from his on- screen roles. It is clear to anyone that De Niro isn’t all that interested in his work. He does quickie parts in cartoonish films these days, from roles in Little Fockers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows to Dirty Grandpa, that probably have more to do with his pay cheque than an interest in cinema. It is as though he knows he is nearing his finish line. Someone born on the other side of the century would never know the kind of electric appeal he brought to the movies in the 70s and 80s, especially his partnership with Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, and other iconic performances in films like Godfather 2 and The Deer Hunter.
But the election of Donald Trump has ticked something in him. It has given him a macho and combative stance that once made him so appealing in his films. When you see De Niro saying ‘Fuck Trump’, you see the psychotic, mohawk-sporting Travis Bickle at the violent blood-splattered end of Taxi Driver, the person who has just asked his mirror image, “You talkin’ to me?”
Other personalities from the cultural Left have been equally critical of the US president, but in a way that is more accommodating of the concerns of those who find resonance in Trump, and certainly in less profane terms. De Niro, in contrast, has been at Trump’s throat for some time, calling him various things, from ‘a punk’, ‘dog’ and ‘pig’ to ‘baby-in- chief’. A while ago, he even expressed an inclination to“punch him in the face”. Now, in his latest attack, he reaffirms that there is no mellowing down. His F-bomb is a ‘fuck it’. It is ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
Characteristically, Trump couldn’t let this one slide and tweeted that De Niro had had his head knocked too often by real boxers in movies.
It is somewhat embarrassing how all of this is playing out: two men in their 70s, one a president and the other arguably the most iconic actor of this generation, swearing at each other.
De Niro’s call to arms is not going to make Trump lose an election. It might even do the opposite. When you say ‘fuck’ and nothing else, it’s merely amusing; at best, a piece of trivia, like the monk’s frustrated scrawl in the guidebook.