The Politically Correct Presidency of Donald Trump

To a remarkable degree, the president discusses the world as he would prefer it to be, rather than as it is—and insists that others do the same.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

During the 1990s and again over the last several years, the United States engaged in an intense, wide-ranging argument about the contested concept of political correctness. For its most incisive critics, political correctness was a problem insofar as it elevated deference to political sensibilities overstating or acting on the truth.

Last year, numerous supporters of Donald Trump declared over the course of the presidential election that they supported the billionaire in part because they were tired of political correctness, a phenomenon they associated with the political left. A small portion of those voters were itching to engage in hateful speech. In contrast, many others merely hoped that if elected, Trump would govern as a hard-headed businessman who spoke plain truths about problems that the United States faces. No longer would politically tinged falsehoods shape the president’s words or actions.

Alas, that isn’t what happened.

Yes, President Trump is gleeful in offending the political sensibilities of his opponents on the left and right. Sometimes, as with his attacks on the Iraq War, his irreverence  is even useful. But Trump’s lodestar isn’t truth. It is an alternative dogma shaped by his peculiar coalition. And it distorts his words and actions as much as any Washington politician. Rather than address the problems that face America, political correctness be damned, Trump constantly utters falsehoods to gain political advantage, coddles Vladamir Putin, and panders to the sensibilities of Breitbart News, the website formerly run by Steve Bannon, his chief strategist.

Since his political correctness is informed by different orthodoxies of thought, it is aimed in a different direction, but its most dangerous attribute is exactly the same: It is grounded in a refusal to deal with the world as it is. What’s more, complaints from across the political spectrum are long overdue, because Trump’s political correctness is already causing him to fail at governing.

This may be most consequential in the realm of counterterrorism.

The United States ought to be on guard against acts of terrorism perpetrated by radical Islamists. And it ought to be on guard against terrorists with other motives, too. Given the scale of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda’s ambition to top it, and the rise of ISIS, many intelligent observers have concluded that Islamist terrorism is the sort that poses the biggest threat to the West. If that judgment is correct, there is little doubt that the next biggest threat to the West, judged using the same standards, is the one posed by right-wing extremism.

The body count illustrates why that threat is not to be ignored.

The second most deadly terrorist attack in American history occurred on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used a truck bomb to blow up an Oklahoma City federal building, killing 169 people and injuring hundreds more. A New America Foundation study released in June 2015 found that right-wing terrorists killed 48 people on U.S. soil in the period after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For example, on June 17, 2015, the white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. And Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old with ties to neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups, killed six and wounded four in a 2012 shooting attack on a Sikh temple.

In Europe, Anders Behring Breivik, an anti-Muslim and anti-feminist radical, killed eight people with a bomb in Oslo, Norway, then shot 69 people at a youth camp for future leaders of his nation, hoping to draw attention to his right-wing manifesto. After extensive study, the Terrorism Research Initiative attributed 303 deaths to right-wing extremist terrorism in Western Europe from 1990 to 2015.

Most recently, on January 29, “Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old, allegedly burst into the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City and killed six Muslims at prayer,” The Economist reports. “The victims included a university lecturer, a pharmacist and a halal butcher. More than a dozen other worshippers were wounded.” A friend of Bissonnette said the killer was “enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement.”

During Barack Obama’s presidency, critics repeatedly charged that Obama was unable to effectively keep America safe because he refused to use the term “Islamic terrorism.” They saw his reticence as political correctness run amuck. Obama retorted that he of course understood the nature of the threat, but that he chose his words carefully to avoid legitimating the religious claims of extremists or helping them to drive a wedge between moderate Muslims and the West. “There is no doubt, and I've said repeatedly, where we see terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda or ISIL, they have perverted and distorted and tried to claim the mantle of Islam for an excuse for basically barbarism," Obama said. "What I have been careful about ... is to not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world, including in this country, who are peaceful … who are fellow troops and police officers and fire fighters and teachers and neighbors and friends."

Obama ordered lethal action against terrorists inspired by a radical interpretation of Islam on hundreds of occasions. Drone strikes approved by his White House killed thousands of people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda or ISIS in majority Muslim countries (along with hundreds of innocent people in those same countries).  Regardless, some Obama critics argued that to adequately protect America from a terrorist threat, a president had not only to act, but to name the threat explicitly.

Trump has yet to name right-wing extremism.

He said nothing about the attack in Quebec City. His press secretary, who did mention that attack, suggested that it showed the need for recent security measures taken by the Trump administration, though those measures were targeted narrowly and exclusively at stopping foreign threats from seven majority-Muslim countries. It was as if the press secretary could only conceive of Islamist terrorism.

That is the politically correct posture under Trump.

And Trump hasn’t just failed the conservative “call terrorism by its name” litmus test. It appears his White House will act to reduce right-facing counterterrorism efforts.

“The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism,” Reuters reports, citing five people briefed on the matter as sources. “The program, ‘Countering Violent Extremism,’ or CVE, would be changed to ‘Countering Islamic Extremism’ or ‘Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,’ the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.”

Those groups will nevertheless remain a threat.

Just three months ago, in fact, “Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen were charged with conspiring to detonate a truck bomb in a Kansas apartment complex where more than 100 Somali immigrants lived,” Nick Wing of Huffington Post notes. “All three were members of a white supremacist group called ‘The Crusaders.’ The group espoused ‘sovereign citizen, anti-government, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant extremist beliefs,’ according to an FBI agent’s affidavit … All pleaded not guilty.”

Once one understands that Trump is inclined to pander to the Breitbart-loving wing of his base, in place of the progressives to whom Obama and Clinton tried to appeal, examples of political correctness within the Trump administration abound. Trump’s executive order on travel into the United States didn’t flow from a rigorous analysis of flaws in the existing system, or a diligent attempt to study, understand, and improve upon any shortcomings in consultation with people who’ve worked within the system and understand how it operates—rather, it was a rushed attempt to placate those who want a Muslim ban. While popular at Breitbart, it was executed in a manner so blind to opportunity costs that it likely made America less safe.

Trump’s tweet, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag—if they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” was not a response to an epidemic of flag burning. Indeed, it likely resulted in more American flags being burned than would’ve otherwise been the case. And given the First Amendment and relevant constitutional law, it did not articulate penalties that can realistically be imposed. It was, in other words, factually dubious but politically correct, given a coalition that includes nationalists with authoritarian inclinations.

With regard to Russia, Trump seems to be taking great care to avoid micro-aggressing against its leader. On the alt-right, Vladamir Putin is something of a hero. When confronted by Bill O’Reilly with the charge that Putin is a killer, a reference to attacks on his domestic political opponents, Trump bizarrely retorted that the United States is not so innocent and that America has lots of killers itself. In fact, domestic political opponents are not murdered in America. Trump’s words made no sense as an attempt at clarity, but they make perfect sense if one understands the way Trump has tied his political fortunes to Putin. Rather than say what is true about Putin, Trump says what is politically correct.

In this case, a side-effect is moral nihilism.

Now consider the unusual White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Its failure to mention Jews, the group for whom the Final Solution was developed, struck many as incompetence until CNN asked if the omission was deliberate.

Hope Hicks, the White House Director of Strategic Communications, declared that “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” She then referenced all the non-Jews killed in the Holocaust, as if it would’ve been politically incorrect to explicitly mention Jewish victims. Politico later reported that “the State Department drafted its own statement last month marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day that explicitly included a mention of Jewish victims, according to people familiar with the matter, but President Donald Trump’s White House blocked its release.”

The White House’s behavior doesn’t make much sense if it prizes common sense over political correctness. But it makes perfect sense if a White House staffer wanted to maintain plausible deniability while catering to the sensibilities of the alt-right, a community where diminishing the relative suffering of Jews in the Holocaust is politically correct––transgressing against Holocaust norms gives them a special thrill. Or even if the original omission was inadvertent, but the White House didn’t want to offend those sensibilities by changing the statement.

While Bannon’s project involves trying to foster white identity politics in countries across the West, Trump himself cares less about the alt-right than an even smaller constituency: himself. He often strays from facts in deference to his own sensibilities.

Prominent among them is vanity.

The plain truth is that Trump lost the popular vote by a wide margin. The politically correct fiction among Trump and his subordinates is that voter fraud cost him the popular vote. And Trump has called for a massive, nationwide investigation into the matter, though he won the election, the Republican Party won both the House and the Senate, and there is no evidence of significant fraud. Rather than adhere to facts, Trump grasps at conspiratorial fictions to coddle himself.

The plain truth is that Trump’s inauguration was less well-attended than the inauguration of Barack Obama eight years prior. “On the morning after Trump’s inauguration, acting National Park Service director Michael Reynolds received an extraordinary summons,” the Boston Globe reported. “In a Saturday phone call, Trump personally ordered Reynolds to produce additional photographs of the previous day’s crowds on the National Mall, according to three individuals who have knowledge of the conversation. The president believed that they might prove that the media had lied in reporting that attendance had been no better than average.” He pressured this underling to reach a false but politically correct finding.

What’s more, “Trump also expressed anger over a retweet sent from the agency’s account, in which side-by-side photographs showed far fewer people at his swearing-in than had shown up to see Barack Obama’s inaugural.” The tweet was factually accurate. The photos weren’t misleading. But they were incorrect, politically speaking.

I believe that a majority of Trump voters don’t give a damn about Breitbart and its ideological project. And they don’t care about Trump’s vanity either.

They wanted a leader who acted on and spoke the plain truth.

But Trump can’t handle the truth. He cannot squarely face the degree to which he is disliked. And Bannon or other advisors seem to have somehow persuaded the president that shamelessly pandering to the alt-right serves Trump’s interests. In fact, it makes him more disliked.

A critic of political correctness who planned to vote Trump told me, months before the election, “it's almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion.  Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend. Say things online and they'll try to find out who you are and even get you fired. Being anti-PC is not about saying, ‘I want you to agree with me.’ It's about saying, ‘Hey, I want to have a discussion and not get shouted down because I don't agree with what is considered to be politically correct.’”

Now that Trump is in power, it is almost impossible to have a constructive political disagreement with the president. Criticism gets one labeled a failing liar who peddles fake news, or a “so-called judge.” It provokes a reaction as intense as the public ire of the president. His surrogates are trying to get people fired for what they say about him. For Trump, it’s not about having a discussion, it’s about agreeing with him. As he admits, he says nice things about people who say nice things about him. And he reverses course not based on the truth, but on if others criticize him.

As if unaware of sounding like a parody of a catastrophizing college student, Trump even went so far as to complain that Mike Pence was criticized in a safe space:

He would have Americans believe that a 57-year-old man with a Secret Service detail was unsafe because cast members of a Broadway show made a statement criticizing him!

Trump displays all the flaws attributed to “Social Justice Warriors”—thin skinned, quick to take offense, a bullying presence on Twitter, aggressively disdainful of comedy that pokes fun at him, delighting in firing people—just without any attachment to social justice. On matters as grave as counterterrorism and as inconsequential as the size of crowds, Trump is more contemptuous of the truth, and as driven by what is politically correct, than any president of recent years. That shouldn’t bother those who only complained about political correctness as a cover for bigotry. But everyone who complained on principle, knowing a country cannot thrive when disconnected from reality, should demand better.