Political correctness, Donald Trump, and the pathological politics of cruelty

Hawaii Delilah, Nov. 3, 2016

In July 2015, I made a bet with several friends that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination.  Most of them happily took on the wager, assured that there was no conceivable way that the flamboyant real estate businessman and television reality star would actually attain that goal.   Setting aside the fact that I now have a lot of free dinners in my future, the fact is that my friends were merely making reasonable judgements about the Republican primary contest based on past precedent.


As  one friend, a lawyer from New York, said to me, “That’s not how it works.  He [Trump] will be like Michele Bachman or Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich and have his place at the top of the polls for a month or two, then things will settle out.”  My friend was convinced Marco Rubio would be the nominee because he was the young star of the Republican Party and presented as moderate, his actual record notwithstanding.  Other friends posited the view that Jeb Bush’s war chest would win the day – even though I pointed out that money for advertising was no longer a determinant of election outcomes.   Later on, I had other people express alarm that the likes of John Kasich would pose a serious threat to Hillary Clinton due to his folksy image and congenial persona that obfuscated his more problematic policy positions.   Overall, the general consensus was that Trump would be the “flavor of the month” or maybe two months, and then fade away, making room for a more moderate  choice with a serious chance to win the general election.  As my New York lawyer friend had  implied — that’s how things work. 

My thinking, however, was that was how things worked — in the past tense.  I was certain that the old rules would not apply in this election cycle.  Throughout, I was convinced the Republican nominee would be Trump because, as I pointed out to my friends, the Republican base would not accept anyone else.  After making the “rational” choice for two cycles in a row, in the form of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and still losing — to a black man with a Muslim immigrant father, no less — the Republican base was finished with obeying the party’s establishment elite.

The fundamentals were already in place for a shift back in 2008 when John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, tapped into Republican rage.  During her election rallies, she venally pilloried Obama for “palling around with terrorists” to raucous applause by rally attendees.  John McCain himself was confronted by the ugliness of his party’s base at a town hall; he could barely conceal his shock when he had to repudiate a Republican voter and note that Barack Obama was a decent American with whom he simply had policy differences.   By 2010, this base was somewhat mobilized in the form of the Tea Party movement, which  propelled Republicans to  win back control of the House of Representatives.  Leading up to that victory, Tea Partiers dominated pre-election town halls to rail against Obamacare — their proxy issue to register their anger regarding the black Democrat occupying the White House.  I had my own taste of the Tea Party when I attended a lecture with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and was confronted by many screaming  protesters as I tried to enter the lecture venue with police escort.

But the Tea Party would move from exciting establishment Republicans to terrifying them  with primary challenges, most of which the Tea Party won. The result was an extremist caucus increasingly at odds with the Republican leadership. In 2012, this was the same base of Republicans who during primary debates and town halls screamed “let him die” to a man posing a question about health care and heckled a gay solider.   And let’s face it – the problem was not relegated just to the grassroots of the party. When I say “base” I am also referring to otherwise informed and reasonably intelligent people like former General Electric CEO Jack Welsh, who suddenly turned into an employment “truther.”  Meanwhile, most Republicans turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to Donald Trump’s birther claims that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and thus not the legitimate head of state.

My perspective in mid-2015 was that this Republican base — a cabal of rage-filled and yes, bigoted, folks being fortified by a steady diet of right wing propaganda on Fox News and right wing talk radio — would not accept another moderate.  The likes of Bush, Rubio and  Kasich  would be summarily rejected as far too temperate and thus “marketable.”  By moderate and marketable, I mean presentable, palatable, and acceptably finessed for a mainstream population. In my view, the Republican base was in no mood for that traditional and orthodox profile of the Republican  standard bearer.  No, I thought about those folks cheering at rallies in 2008 and 2012, at town halls in 2009 and 2010. I thought about the defeat of Eric Cantor — yes, Eric Cantor who was House Majority Leader — in 2014. And I concluded that there was no earthly way THAT base of the Republican party would accept a Bush or a Kasich or a Rubio, or even a Paul or a Christie. They MIGHT accept a Cruz but in my view, even Cruz was too calculating for a base that was now unleashed and unhinged.

When I say unleashed and unhinged, I mean that the Republican base wanted — wants, in fact — a standard bearer who is unfettered by social norms, and yes, willing to articulate publicly the rage they feel over a changing American populace.  No, the Republican base is not plagued by economic anxiety, despite the media’s insistence that this is a driving force behind the “white working class” constituency of Trump.  No, the Republican base is not losing sleep at night over trade deals.  Economic anxiety is just a proxy phrase that sanitizes the collective rage that the White House is occupied by a black man, and that he will likely be succeeded by a white woman with a base of minority voters.  And as for trade  — the Trump base only cares about it in the context of its inherent nativism.   The Republican base, which converts neatly into the Trump constituency, is powered by grievance politics over the reality that white voters have less power in America than a decade or two ago, and will have even less power moving forward. 

Not accidentally, Trump’s concerted foray into the realm of politics was to undermine the legitimacy of the country’s first black president.  His announcement for his presidential candidacy entailed denouncing Mexicans as “racist and murderers” and calling for a wall to keep out immigrants.  His call for keeping Muslims out of the United States on the grounds of national security served as further augmentation of his  nativism.   In truth, these assertions by Trump were not so much policy positions as expositions of racism and xenophobia hiding badly in  policy stances. But they were resonating with a Republican base that was aching  for someone to  channel their resentment and anger. To this end, Trump was functioning as a voice and a vehicle for the expression of their grievances…out loud.

So that brings me to the issue of “political correctness.”  One of Trump’s most powerful rhetorical soundbites is that he does not believe in “political correctness.”   He repeats this claim to a receptive audience who find relief in knowing someone is finally going to “tell it like it is”  — filter free. They argue  that Trump “speaks his mind,” defying the established order,   and speaking truth to power.  This, in the view of Trump’s base, is an art apparently lost in modern times when there is more of a priority on recognizing the country’s diversity and refraining from alienating speech and actions that offend women and  minority populations.  Now, in a country that values free speech, a vigorous debate on  the expression of free — and even offensive —  speech is both legitimate and worth having.  But that is not  the goal of Trump’s critique of political correctness. What Trump really means by his own political incorrectness is that he does not want to be constrained by social norms and is going to speak like a bigot with impunity.

Let’s be clear: Trump was not  “speaking truth to power” when he attacked a Gold Star family and pondered whether Mrs. Khan was allowed to speak her mind (alluding to her Muslim heritage). Trump was not speaking truth to power when he mocked former prisoner of war, Senator John McCain,  for being captured, or when he mocked a disabled reporter.  He was not speaking truth to power when he actively peddled “birtherism” to delegitimize the first black president or when he suggested Judge Curiel, of Mexican heritage, would not be able to rule objectively.  He was not speaking  to power when he referred to Mexicans as rapists and murderers or when he suggested that African Americans live in misery-filled and crime-ridden hell holes, facts to the contrary. He was not speaking truth to power  when he disparaged the appearances of his primary political rival,  Carly Fiorina, or Heidi Cruz, the wife of his other political opponent.  He certainly was not speaking truth to power when he alluded to Megan Kelly’s menstrual cycle, or  went on a 3 am tweeting frenzy against a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado,  whom he insulted for her weight and her Latina heritage.  His apparent predilection for tic tags as he — by his own admission – groped women sexually is the not so much speaking truth to power as it was and is the gross and horrifying abuse of power.  And as for his curious affinity for Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his refusal to acknowledge Russian hacking of United States institutions and electoral systems? Well that could only be interpreted as speaking truth to power by those not concerned about United States national security.  Finally, his bizarre penchant for retweeting white supremacists on social media could be regarded more as a disturbing facilitation of hate groups more than speaking truth to power. 

These are not acts in defiance of  a perceived culture of political correctness.  This is not a case of  “telling it like it is” or “unvarnished truth telling.”  These stances are not challenges to the system or disputes with structural elites.  Indeed, these assertions by Trump, by and large, are marked by cruelty and they are aimed at attacking the identities of real human beings.  In fact, this litany of incidents are manifestations of pathology and cannot be regarded as  heroic authenticity.   Furthermore, to refer to any of these actions  or statements as political incorrectness is to reduce their vile effects. It is, in short, to be spectacularly intellectually disingenuous.

I want to note that I have always said there is value in “political correctness” because it compels one to  refine one’s words.  I am not confining the value I place on fine-tuning and particularizing one’s expression to the domain of mere presentation. It is also not simply about ameliorating one’s expression so it is audience-appropriate.  I am not talking about the “coarsening of the culture” that some of the linguistic prudes tend to lament.  I am not even limiting myself to a call for common decency. And I am certainly not moralizing about perceptions of vulgarity. I am positing the view that “political correctness” has an effect on the way we, as human beings, think about the  diversity of humanity, and as a corollary, it helps with maintaining a tolerant and stable society.   

Stated differently, in order to refine one’s words, one also has to readjust one’s thinking — often about complicated issues.  It requires the active process of cogitation and thoughtfulness, rather than emotional  and reactive responses bereft of impulse control.   So in the personal realm, “political correctness” can function as a clarifier of one’s mental processes and as a  checkpoint on one’s conscience.  We all have personal prejudices and moments of thoughtlessness.  Political correctness can be a useful filter for each of us to think twice, and maybe three times about whether or not a careless thought is how we — in actuality —  feel about fellow human beings. Political correctness can thus function as an internal control mechanism to decide  whether or not it makes sense to articulate a specific viewpoint at all.  In other words, it is a strategic tool for conscious thinking and living.    

Now, maybe conscious thinking and living is not of interest to many of you.  Perhaps it sounds too much like personal improvement that is not germane to politics.  But ask yourself how you can call yourself a progressive, for example, and countenance the  gleeful expression of bigotry.   Now, let’s set that question aside, and let’s simply discuss political correctness in the public sphere.  As I intimated above,  political correctness can be useful, if only to maintain a semblance of stability and civility in complex societies.   Without it, you end up with the likes of Trump providing an opening for every latent racist, sexist, and xenophobe to indulge their racist, misogynist, nativist, jingoistic, and generally bigoted whims. In fact, we have already arrived at that point as  Trump has provided an imprimatur for the expression of hatred and the unleashing of  division in this country.   

These days, an entire bloc of the United States citizenry feels empowered to attack fellow citizens verbally for who they are — ethnically or religiously  or exploitatively with regard to gender.  This  bloc has even been empowered to physically attack protesters at rallies, with the Republican standard bearer on the record promising to pay their  legal bills.  On the face of it, this should be deemed appalling, repugnant and wholly  unacceptable.  But Trump has utilized the soft focus valence so that some people  interpret his hate-infused rhetoric as simply “telling it like it is” and as an illustration of his  intrinsic authenticity.  In fact, his call to dispense with filters, and his consistent condemnation of political correctness have together upended notions of civility, thoughtfulness, consideration. He has managed to recast those mental and verbal checkpoints as somehow being akin to dishonesty and not simply raw bigoted speech.   Indeed,  by excising political correctness, Trump has reconstituted every negative and discriminatory impulse as “truth.” 

Intellectually, we can view  Trump’s strategy here as a mendacious yet brilliant  contortion as he metamorphoses  civility into dishonesty and hate into truth.  But at the practical level, by deploying his criticism of political correctness,  Trump has provided offenders with a justification for their resentment, vitriol, and antipathy towards other human beings whom they do not believe belong in the United States or worthy of influence in this country.  It is not accidental that Trump’s mantra “make America great again” is often referred to with acerbic humor as “make America white again.”  The fact that Trump attracts no shortage of white nationalists to his fold, and even hired one to run his campaign in the form of Steve Bannon only underlines this point. 

The fact is that this element, which has been introduced to the American political purview in the most crude sense, and couched in terms of “political incorrectness,” functions as a catalyst for tumult.  Yes, these people and these attitudes were in existence before Trump’s candidacy, as I noted above.  But it has been Trump’s candidacy — and its strong backing by the Republican base along with the Republican establishment (despite tepid disavowals)  — that has given permission for the most divisive and intolerant impulses to be articulated outright.  More importantly, via Trump’s candidacy and his support from Republican voters and elites, these divisive and intolerant impulses are now being mainstreamed into American society.   The result may be destabilizing for this country and no one should be delusional about that deleterious effect.

There should be little doubt that  Hillary Clinton will win on Nov. 8, 2016.  But all those Trump voters will still be around after election day. All that anger and hate will still exist. Of significance is the fact that  Trump has also deployed a critique of political correctness to erode trust in the instruments of good governance. One need only look at the way his pre-election claims of vote rigging have been adopted by Republicans as gospel, the professionalism of election technocrats from both parties notwithstanding.   Rather than look to polling data as a guide for what to expect on election night, factual data and professional records have been cast aside in favor of wild accusations by a reckless Republican nominee, whose unhinged claims of vote rigging are being interpreted as truth telling.  Likewise,  his outrageous  warning that he would not accept the results of an election that did not declare him to be the winner has been embraced, by his supporters, as glorious “politically incorrect” defiance. 

When Hillary Clinton is declared to be the presidential election winner on the night of Nov. 8, 2016, Trump and his support base will be angry and many will refuse to accept the result.  Perhaps even the nominee himself will be among those unwilling to assent to electoral reality.   Many of those Trump supporters will be doubly enraged that Hillary is inaugurated in 2017 and not imprisoned.  A steady diet of media stories that emphasized  Clinton’s email troubles while downplaying Trump’s refusal to release his taxes,  his alleged tax evasion, his questionable ties to Russia and China, his pro-Putin apologia,  his pending legal troubles with Trump University and a rape case, not to mention the accusations from a long list of women about his sexually predatory behavior, has only accentuated the false narrative.  But that false narrative exists and it will resurface in the form of anger and uncivil behavior when Clinton becomes president.  There is little point arguing that will not be the case after Christie’s mock prosecution at the Republican National Convention and the chilling chants of “lock her up” that punctuate every Trump rally.

Perhaps the media could start addressing the potential social disorder that may be upon us, instead of sycophantically providing Trump assistance for his “politically incorrect” utterances. As alluded to above, the Trump base is not so much motivated by economic  anxiety as so many in the media would have us believe.  It is, instead, motivated by racial grievances.  The dissemination of the bogus economic anxiety argument is a way to normalize the reality that Trump’s base is driven by the politics of resentment.  It is a way to sanitize Trump voters’ resentment over demographic shifts, which are a feature of modernity.

We have already seen that there are some principled Republicans willing to challenge the acceptance of a quasi-fascist as their party’s standard bearer.  But far many more Republicans offer situational condemnation of Trump’s worst comments, followed by assurances that they are still voting for him. In their opinion, Clinton would be worse than a man with the problematic record only slightly discussed here.  The politically craven motivation of these Republicans notwithstanding, the longer-term effect is the whitewashing of atrocious and entirely disqualifying behavior from a potential commander in chief.  The other effect is that Republican base voters are being given tacit permission to act out and lash out when Trump loses, thus fueling social upheaval and discord across the American landscape. 

Overall, it is imperative that we resist the mainstreaming of Trump’s hateful rhetoric and his extremist positions in the interests of American democracy and pluralism.  But the immediate goal is for the Obama Coalition to show up at the polls and beat Trump by landslide.   A close result will leave Trump and his supporters emboldened and Hillary Clinton’s presidency will be marked by an informal revolt from 40 percent of the population.   But a humiliating defeat across the electoral map will leave Trump voters demoralized and doubting the wild assertions made by their leader.   

Of note are Trump’s s supporters’ claims of a “secret majority” that will propel them to victory .  In truth, these ludicrous notions of a secret majority are really declarations of hope that demography is not trending against them.   But the demographic profile of modern America — of one increasingly ethno-culturally diverse with women playing increasingly influential roles — will be the bulwark against a potential Trump presidency . If these voters — who incidentally make up the Obama coalition — show up  at the polls in massive proportions  again to vote Democratic, they can and will deliver a heavy blow to Trump on Nov. 8, 2016.  Nothing else will do.   

A crushing defeat of Trumpism would also act as a therapeutic affirmation of the American ethos.  That American ethos is one centered on the notion that ethnicity, birth place, religion, language and other identic categories are not what bind us together as Americans. It is the belief that we are all equal and that we share in the project of crafting a more perfect union.

Moving forward, we need to do the work of reminding the American citizenry of the value of political correctness .  There must be an imperative to recapture the idea of political correctness as a rubric for civility, thoughtfulness, consideration, tolerance, respect —  or what Hillary Clinton has referred to simply as “love and kindness.”

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