Why the Republican Candidates Are Obsessed With "Political Correctness"

(AP Photo/John Locher)

From left, Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie participate in the CNN Republican presidential debate on Dec. 15 in Las Vegas.

Like most people over a certain age, I first heard the term "politically correct" when I arrived at college (this was a couple of decades ago). At my small liberal arts school where almost everyone was a liberal, the PC folks were the ones who took things farther than the rest of us had the energy to go, turning their belief in social justice or environmentalism into a public performance of earnestness and commitment. At worst, they inspired guilt—sure, you tossed your soda can in the recycling, but if you really cared about the planet you'd be weaving napkins out of hemp—but back then nobody talked about being "politically incorrect" because the idea of bravely standing up to the politically correct was absurd. You can't rebel against people who have no power.

We've come a long way since then, and today there is no mantle claimed more enthusiastically on the right than that of the politically incorrect, the courageous pathbreaker risking so much to oppose the sinister forces of political correctness. The idea has been around for some time, but 2016 marks the first election where so many presidential contenders are taking the crusade against political correctness as their rallying point.

It's almost odd that it took this long, when you consider that our modern presidential campaign is mostly devoted to what we might call the utterance-outrage cycle. If you went back and looked over a month or two's worth of campaign news, you'd see that the majority of it revolves around micro-controversies that begin when a candidate says something controversial (or at least something that can be made controversial if taken out of context), then his or her opponents express their umbrage, then reporters and pundits chatter about what the candidate really meant and whether it really was so awful, and we all have something with which to fill the news hole for a few days until somebody else says something terrible.

In other words, we spend the campaign in an extended meta-conversation, talking about talking. So it was inevitable that we'd end up talking about what we're supposedly not allowed to talk about.

It also stands to reason that we'd see it among today's Republican contenders, since more than ever before this a field that takes its cues from the rhetoric of conservative media, where political correctness has been a regular topic for years. In the telling of people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, conservatives live their lives in fear of the vicious mobs of liberals wielding political correctness like a nail-studded club. Speak the truth about anything, and the politically correct shock troops will swoop in to strike you down.

As they would have it, when somebody criticizes you for something you said, it constitutes proof that the thing you said was both courageous and true. What could be more appealing to a presidential candidate? So Ted Cruz says the Obama administration would have stopped the San Bernardino attacks, were it not so politically correct, and as a consequence, "Political correctness is killing people." Ben Carson says that our military should just go ahead and kill civilians and torture prisoners, because "there is no such thing as a politically correct war." Donald Trump justifies every appalling thing that comes out of his mouth by saying he won't kowtow to political correctness. "Everybody wants to be politically correct, and that's part of the problem that we have with our country," he says.

Let's be clear about something: when the candidates talk about political correctness, they're seldom talking about things like campus speech codes. There's a legitimate discussion to be had about whether in certain contexts, people have gotten too sensitive about hearing opposing views and too eager to create "safe spaces" where certain opinions aren't allowed to be expressed. But that's not what the candidates are referring to. Nobody is keeping them from saying what they want, and they don't really care about what the atmosphere in the Oberlin student center is like. They cry "political correctness!" when someone criticizes them for what they say or what they believe.

The truth is that what conservatives call political correctness is often better described as "people telling you not to be such a jerk." But for today's Republican, if people think you're a jerk then you must be doing something right, and the political correctness charge has become an all-purpose answer to criticism of any sort. You say my facts are wrong? I'm not going to knuckle under to your political correctness! You say my beliefs are abominable? Take your political correctness and shove it! It's a way to pose as a brave truth-teller, even if all that's actually happening is that people are pointing out that you're a brave crap-teller.

There's no question that the obsession with political correctness on the right has its roots in the slow decline of a certain kind of privilege certain people used to enjoy. Not caring about other people's fortunes, let alone their feelings, is a big part of that privilege. But as women and minorities of all kinds have fought for their rights in recent decades, they've also drawn attention to the ways oppression is enacted in a broad range of behaviors and language. If you're a man who grew up thinking it was perfectly fine to call your secretary "sweetheart" and give her a pat on the behind whenever the mood struck you, existing in today's world can feel like something has been taken away from you. Older people in particular have trouble keeping up with the ways language evolves, including the ways it evolves to not offend people needlessly.

But fear not: There's an entire political movement that's here to tell you that you're the victim in all this, particularly when it comes to race. You may have seen me make this point before, but I repeat it because it is so important to understanding what's happening now: Those who make up the audiences for conservative media have been fed a steady diet of racial resentment for years, and the force-feeding became particularly vigorous when Barack Obama became president. They have been told again and again that white people (and white men in particular) are oppressed in America, that liberals are keeping them down because of who they are, and that the principal tool of that oppression is the false charges of racism used to silence and punish them.

They've been told that they're being cowed by minorities and their white liberal allies who want to censor the conservatives who speak the truth. They've been told that Obama is a racial avenger, that literally everything he does is part of his project to punish white people for imagined sins of the past, that any domestic policy conservatives don't like is "reparations" being showered on undeserving black people at the expense of hard-working whites, and that foreign policies they don't like are part of his plan to destroy America's place in the world so that the alien dark-hued victims of long-ago and better-forgotten colonialism may rise.

So when someone like Trump comes along and sets about to insult and offend every disadvantaged group he can find, it's no surprise that lots and lots of conservatives cheer him for "telling it like it is." When Trump and other Republicans pledge that they won't abide political correctness, they're saying to the (largely) older and (almost entirely) white people whose votes they seek: I'll be your voice. Everything you think but realize you shouldn't say out loud, I'll say for you. I'll tell those you-know-whats just what you think of them, and where they can go if they don't like it.

"I'm so tired of this politically correct crap," says Donald Trump, and he knows that plenty of Republican voters feel the same way. So he and the other GOP candidates promise liberation, that they'll unshackle suffering white men from the rhetorical chains that bind them. It's no wonder so many people are cheering. 

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