How to Take 'Political Correctness' Away From Donald Trump

The Republican front-runner is exploiting popular anger against the policing of ordinary conversation—but also violating norms that protect America’s basic liberties.

Randall Hill / Reuters

A few months ago, US Weekly, the celebrity-gossip magazine, published, “Donald Trump's Craziest Quotes From His 2016 Presidential Campaign and Beyond.” Quotes like “Heidi Klum: Sadly, she's no longer a 10” and “I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks” were featured alongside the GOP front-runner’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”  

Did those quotes really belong in the same listicle? Yet kindred coverage is everywhere. Mildly distasteful quips are conflated with calls for authoritarian crackdowns. In the press and on social media outrage is aimed at both in roughly equal measure.

A Martian following election coverage via GoGo in-flight WIFI would never know that Trump’s pledge to revenge-kill family members of terrorists—a war crime—violated more important Earth-taboos than his calling a campaign rival “a pussy.” Watching CBS or NBC or ABC, the Martian would likewise conclude that Trump calling Ted Cruz “a pussy” was worse than calling Mexican migrants rapists. Only the former comment was censored. The broadcast rules that produced those results remain in place.

Trump has been running against “political correctness.” This has sometimes meant attacking taboos that prevent real discussions, foster social exclusion, and signal snobbery. One key to taking Trump down is pointing out that he is also violating norms that are essential to American democracy. And that is a different offense. Every “crazy” Trump quote may be “politically incorrect,” but those labels conflate all categories of controversial rhetoric as if their substance is equally wrong. Neither impoliteness nor tone-deafness nor crude insults are to his credit. But a pol who seeks to gain power by demonizing ethnic-minority groups and threatening their core rights is engaged in a special category of leadership failure.

Too few Americans see that distinction. And Trump benefits from their dearth of discernment. It frees him from the burden of carefully deciding which taboos ought to be challenged and which safeguard life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead of careful critiques, he rants off-the-cuff, knowing that the bad press will look basically the same regardless of whether he attacks Rosie O’Donnell or the taboo against torture. His supporters are as inclined as the press to treat every utterance as an undifferentiated instance of political correctness—as if the appropriate degree of political correctness is all that’s at stake this election cycle.

As Trump himself has put it, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

That is the frame he requires to thrive.

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Over the weekend, Rod Dreher published his reflections on a just-concluded candidacy. “Was Jeb Bush acting out of conscious humility when he refused to engage Trump at the gutter level?” he asked. “I suspect it’s more the case that people of his class and breeding (if we can say that still) have internalized a code of honor that considers that kind of vulgar display to be contemptible, and beneath one’s dignity to engage. How could one tell the difference between the strength of character through which a man refuses to dishonor himself, and weakness?”

Several reader comments beneath that post offered unusually thought-provoking theories on why Trump is able to excel despite his undignified manner and lack of decency.

One commenter proposed that decency is no longer an option for Americans:

When an entitled elite has ensconced itself so securely in power that it cannot be removed decently, because it has to firm a grip on all the levers of political influence, what alternative is there but to remove them indecently? Not that I’m claiming Trump sees it that way, merely that those supporting him are reaching out for the only tool with a chance of succeeding. Those to blame are those who left them no decent alternative.

Another cast Trump as the more honorable candidate:

I think there is something refreshing about Trump disrespecting Bush to his face, in public... as opposed to running a smear campaign where his lackeys dig up dirt and release it to the press, all with plausible deniability for the candidate. I wouldn’t necessarily call it honorable, but I prefer Trump doing it himself to letting a super PAC do it on his behalf.

It’s hypocrisy to make a show of your personal character on stage while running a campaign that is not above dishonorable behavior behind the scenes.

The most insightful commenter argued that Trump would not have succeeded at rejecting so many long-held norms if the political establishment hadn’t long ago destroyed those norms:

Our norms of civic decency were evolved for a reason. Watching Trump violate those norms is a really good reminder of why we evolved those norms in the first place.

On the other hand, those norms have been profoundly subverted and corrupted for a while now, and used as often as mere cover for all manner of awfulness.

An an example, we’re all very accustomed to politicians “lying” the way that lawyers lie – which is to say, shading, obscuring, and hiding the truth, suggesting, and implying, relying heavily on euphemism and omission, walking right up to the line without ever quite crossing. That is the refined, college-educated way to lie. When Trump just lies brazenly, and then shrugs indifferently when called on it, it’s a really tacky and unfortunate way to be. But it also kind of throws into relief that what he’s doing isn’t really very far off from the not-quite-lying-but-actually-totally-lying that is handled constantly with more refined rhetoric.

One gets the sense from our current political class that, for example, torture and unconstrained drone strike assassination isn’t actually morally wrong as long as you adopt a furrowed brow and a constipated facial expression, sigh loudly, and say in your most patronizing voice, “This hurts me than it hurts you. I’m sorry I have to do this.” It’s adopting the “serious” tone that matters, not the actual content of your actions.

And it is profoundly ugly when Trump just gleefully says, more or less, I love torture and we’re going to be doing a lot of it. BUT, on the other hand, it’s not so clear at all that his stance on those things would really be any more assertive than people who adopt more pleasant, civil, “serious” rhetoric on these topics. And so again his sin becomes his rudeness and general obnoxiousness, his low classness, not the content of what he claims he’s going to do.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, I think Trump can exist because our norms have become hollowed shells of what they purport to be. Our norms have been gamed. It feels very much like we’ve gotten to a point where people in many of our institutions, in positions of authority, follow the letter of the law about civic decency, but have almost entirely abandoned the spirit of the law. Trump just takes the last little leap and ditches the letter of the law too.

My hope is that people rediscover why we had those norms, and rediscover the spirit of them, not just the dead letter. And if Trump serves as a midwife to that process, then thank you Donald Trump. I guess I have to hope that, because the alternative is Idiocracy on an accelerated time line.

* * *

Early in the Republican primary race, Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked this during a televised debate:

Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don't use a politician's filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You've called women you don't like 'fat pigs,' 'dogs,' 'slobs' and 'disgusting animals.' ...Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?

Weeks later, America got a preview of exactly how Trump would respond in a general-election to Hillary Clinton charging that he has engaged in a “war on women.” He would likely point out that she gladly took his campaign contributions and attended his wedding with a smile on her face. Then he would say, as he has already said, “She's got one of the great women abusers of all time sitting in her house, waiting for her to come home for dinner.” He might also mock her for excoriating his ugly language, while standing by a man who settled a sexual-harassment lawsuit, has been accused of rape, and who exploited a young intern and then acted like that intern was a crazed liar to save himself. To repeat the commenter, “Trump can exist because our norms have become hollowed shells of what they purport to be.”

If Donald Trump wins, it won’t be because voters are blind to his flaws. It will be because many surveyed all the other candidates and concluded that they’re no better.

I disagree with that assessment.

Sure, Trump breaks some taboos that ought to be broken––the Iraq War was a huge catastrophe, and I’m glad to hear a Republican front-runner say so, even if he is lying about his own supposed opposition to the war circa 2002. But that doesn’t excuse his disregard for other norms at the heart of a liberal democracy. Personally, I have distaste even for his comparatively venial sins. It’s to his discredit when he hints that an anchorwoman who asked him a tough question was menstruating or reverts to childish insults. He gets away with such behavior, in part, because other candidates have respectable images to protect, and he does not.

At the same time, I think that Clive Crook is on to something when he describes why his West Virginia neighbors who intend to vote for Trump are leaning that way:

They don't think much would change one way or the other if Donald Trump were elected. The political system has failed them so badly that they think it can't be repaired and little's at stake. The election therefore reduces to an opportunity to express disgust. And that's where Trump's defects come in: They are what make him such an effective messenger.

The fact that he's outrageous is essential... Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they're superior—the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It's a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.

Let’s refine that point.

Some “politically correct” codes of conduct, like “Muslim Americans should be treated as equal citizens whose rights are not at all abrogated because some of their co-religionists are terrorists,” help to prevent the U.S. from perpetrating horrific injustices against innocents and serve to uphold the guarantees of our founding documents. Other “politically correct” codes are little more than arbitrary etiquette that people educated at selective colleges use to feel superior to others, to engage in “tone policing” that they don’t recognize as such, and to attack ideological adversaries. (A third “politically correct” code insists that one shouldn’t criticize a police officer, a soldier, a veteran, religion, U.S. foreign policy, or Israel.)

In between the core norms that are vital to democracy and the most frivolous demand for political correctness there is a lot of contested territory. Trump’s rise represents large swathes of that territory being seized by people who reject elite pieties.

To counter Trump and the forces he represents, his rivals need to develop smart, targeted attacks on dumb norms that are as effective as Trump’s carpet-bombing approach. And citizens who oppose Trumpism are going to have to take a careful look at everything that falls under the rubric of political correctness; study the real harm done by its excesses; identify the many parts that are worth defending; and persuade more Americans to adopt those norms voluntarily, for substantive reasons, not under duress of social shaming or other coercion. Trumpism cannot prevail in a contest of logic and rationally differentiated controversies; but in a contest of emotion, tribal loyalty, and stigmatizing out-groups, I’m no longer sure that it can be beat.