The power of Trump’s call to free America from political correctness

Donald Trump voters praise him for 'telling it like it is.' But the appeal of his plain-speaking runs much deeper. 

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Ron Herndon, a registered Democrat and Donald Trump supporter, stands beside his barbecue in Stone Mountain, Ga.

Ron Herndon needs more than 10 fingers to count the ways Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump rubs him the wrong way, not least the billionaire’s quest for personal aggrandizement via the White House.

So why is the small-town barbecue shack owner, a registered Democrat, likely voting for Mr. Trump if he wins the GOP nomination?

“America is at the point where she needs someone who speaks the truth, to say what we all think but won’t say around strangers,” says Mr. Herndon. “Sometimes the truth makes you smile – and sometimes it hurts.”

Herndon’s view is that America needs a straight-talking president to tackle real-life problems long ignored by Washington. It has become a common refrain.

The views of this African-American pit master suggest that many Americans are curious about Trump not just because he brazenly breaks the rules of political rhetoric but also because the key to tackling America’s problems, they say, requires people to stop taking offense at the drop of a hat.

In that way, Trump is the symbol of a broader cultural tension. As many Millennials, in particular, become more militant in their desire to make public discourse inclusive, they are coming up against those tired of “wars against Christmas” or tentative talk about Islamic extremism.

For Millennials, who have grown up in the language of political correctness, speech is a weapon, and curtailing words that can be seen as offensive or hateful is a new civil-rights frontier. But Trump’s unfiltered speech encapsulates a potent backlash, with many conservative Americans trying to draw the line on how cautious and careful public conversation becomes.

“The big difference with Trump is, his language is not coded,” says Henry Giroux, a political scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and author of the upcoming book “America At War With Itself,” which largely focuses on the rise of Trump.

Trump’s words “tap into is a nation that really has been suffering, particularly since 9/11, from a kind of national insecurity state, mobilized by a massive sense of fear,” he adds. But Millennials see in such language a “darkness lurking beneath the surface.”

'Soft totalitarianism'

On Super Tuesday, Trump continued his trend of underperforming among voters age 18 to 29. But he did well among New England suburbanites, Southern Evangelicals, small businessmen, and blue-collar workers, among others.

At least partly behind Trump’s success is the perception that political correctness has morphed into “soft totalitarianism,” wrote James Kalb wrote in Chronicles Magazine late last year.

“The domination of public life by PC elites has … made it impossible for ordinary people to assert their complaints publicly in an acceptable way, so their objections can easily be shrugged off as the outbursts of ignorant bigots who will, in any event, soon become demographically irrelevant.”

Antipathy toward political correctness spans a wide spectrum of Americans, many whom use the phrase as a pejorative.

Seventy-one percent of Americans say political correctness is a problem in the United States, up 10 percentage points from 2014, according to an August 2015 report by Rasmussen Reports.

At the Pawn Depot, situated on a lonely stretch of US 278 in Lithonia, Ga., that concern is front-of-mind.

Elizabeth Langbecker, the owner, is a Trump fan because he “refuses to tip-toe” around immigration, the economy, and terrorism.

“We need someone who is not afraid to step up to the plate and say what a lot of us want to say,” she adds.

She weighs the Obama administration's efforts to downplay the phrase "Islamic extremism” against the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings last year, where a Muslim couple killed 14 people and injured 22 others. “How can we deal with all these problems if we can’t even have an honest conversation about the root cause,” she says.

In the 2016 race, political correctness has played out in a number of ways. On one hand, Hillary Clinton apologized for using the term “illegal immigrant” as opposed to “undocumented migrant.” But there have been examples on the right, too. Republican orthodoxy has long held that candidates should not criticize past Republican presidents.

Trump has torn that to shreds.

“Yes, it’s true that on college campuses there’s a lot of silliness about not wanting to offend someone,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But it’s also on the conservative side – which Trump has also been violating – where you couldn’t say the Iraq War was a mistake or … that Romney was going to lose” the 2012 election.

Survival mode

Now those things are being said loudly. One difference is a sense of desperation in many rural, red-state areas. 

“Populism needs to be a loud message, and political incorrectness is high volume,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders of Roanoke, Va. The backdrop “is not just anger, but survival – we’re in survival mode out here where 93 percent of counties are still in recession. A hungry dog will bite your [rear], I can tell you that.”

That desperation has matched the militancy of Millennials looking to reshape the national conversation with the militancy of conservatives pushing back against it. The answer, says The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, is to prune political correctness back to its original essence.

“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,” he writes

Working on the set of the vampire series “The Originals” in downtown Conyers, Ga., last week, 20-something Michael Sanders says, to him, political correctness is a “force from on high” – the media, government, and academia – that has pervaded his life.

“Me and everyone I grew up with have always used the language of political correctness,” he says. “When we talk about phrases like ‘illegal immigrant,’ my dad says, ‘That’s just the way people used to talk.’ ”

On one hand, it enforces common courtesy. But there is an appeal, he adds, to someone who comes out and baldly talks from the standpoint of the worldview that used to be dominant.

“I think many Americans like to hear the language of someone not only willing to complain about the end of white dominant culture, but someone who says he can do something about it. That’s when [political correctness] goes out the window.”

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