Thug. Republicans, from the president to self-proclaimed Christian radio talk show hosts, gleefully use the word, and then, when challenged, argue that it's not a racist term because the dictionary doesn't say so. Yeah, well, Merriam Webster was probably a slave owner, too.

They know exactly what they're saying. Their followers know it, too -- followers who storm state capitols with semiautomatics and delight in surreptitiously flashing the white power sign, claiming they just meant, “OK.”

Of course, they're “patriots” — not to be confused with “terrorists” who strategically set up pallets of bricks at construction sites and travel to riots in invisible magic school buses funded by George Soros.

Incidentally, a riot, as defined by North Dakota law, can involve as few as six people. Operator, I'd like to report an uprising at Dairy Queen. Give me sprinkles or give me death.

Definitions change. “Gas lighting” once meant something altogether different. “Sick,” “wicked,” and “bad” are positives. And if someone gets “roasted,” it doesn't necessarily involve Fava beans and a nice Chianti.

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Language evolves quickly. People, less so.

Fargo Police Chief David Todd's explanation for using the words “thugs” and “domestic terrorists” in a departmental email was he wrote those words while still stressed by the May 30 riot. Which makes it sound like he only uses racist language when under duress. Or when he doesn't expect it to go public.

At least he spared us the Kevin Cramer “fat fingers” excuse.

Todd pointed to his department’s outreach efforts to minorities as evidence that he's not racist, but that suggests he needs some outreach himself, because he's not “woke” if he doesn't understand the impact of the word “thug,” especially when the protests are specifically driven by the murder of Black Americans by the police. That's more than tone-deaf. It's a fart in a tuba.

You may not think you're saying something racist, but if that's what people of color are hearing, it is. His fellow officers got the message, too.

The reality is that some very fine people -- cops, teachers, bankers, and even Forum columnists -- can subconsciously (or not) perpetuate systemic racism. If we don't do some self-examination from time to time, believe me, someone will do it for us. Chief Todd, I'm here to help.

Words matter. It all starts at the top -- or the bottom, depending on one's perspective, and no one's coarsened the dialogue more than President Dog Whistle -- the guy whose ads containing Nazi symbolism were recently pulled by Facebook. By Facebook? That's the equivalent of getting tossed out of a biker bar.

Presidents set the tone. Trump has encouraged cops to “get rough.” Message received. Even under intense global scrutiny, black men are still being shot in the back.

In America.

A 2016 poll by Police Magazine showed 84% of officers supported Trump.

Trump's also convinced Republicans, who used to believe in all of the amendments, that journalists are “the enemy of the people.” Message received. Reporters covering protests are often targeted by tear gas and rubber bullets and even arrested.

In America.

Thug. If you spend more time defending that word than defending the concept of equal treatment under the law, you're really something, but you're not really American.

All words matter.

Tony Bender writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum News Service.