What if the 2016 Presidential election becomes a referendum on political correctness?

You might think we’ve already had such an election, but google would prove you wrong. It’s easy enough to scan the statements of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney from 2012; “political correctness,” phrased that way, never came up. Instead, when cultural hot-button issues did arise, they were contextualized in a manner that redounded to the benefit of Barack Obama: same-sex marriage, “legitimate rape,” “birthers,” a mindless, welfare-loving “47%,” and the tragic death of Trayvon Martin were contextualized – even by relatively non-partisan outlets like USA Today and Politico – as evidence of systemic problems that America needed to fix.

donald trump

That was a long three years ago. Since then, these and other relative “victories” (Martin’s death led directly to Black Lives Matter) for liberal cultural warriors have, unfairly or not, created a sense of Politically Correct Overreach. Every college-campus protest story, every transgender awareness headline, every finger-wag at companies that must diversify – no matter how reasonable the grievance – contributes to this sense of going too far, too fast. In this environment, Donald Trump has become the best-polling Republican candidate. Just as Trump’s numbers began to sag in October, he re-focused his vitriol against marginalized groups, and now his lead is as healthy as it’s ever been. Sure, you can say that 30% of Republican responders only represent a small fraction of voters, but that hardly matters; if trends continue, Trump’s staunch and oft-stated opposition to political correctness will win him the official nomination of one of America’s two major parties – and perhaps the White House. Even if Trump loses the nomination, he’s by now accrued enough attention that his anti-PC rants/tweets will be part of the GOP platform – whether the GOP likes it or not. It’s time to get a better sense of what a 2016 war over PC would mean – and look like.

Political correctness is not well understood by its practitioners or its opponents. For one thing, the term first appeared in the mainstream media on the cover of Newsweek in 1990, and to read current articles on heavy-traffic sites is to think that PC began as a trickling stream then, only to develop into the full-blown flood that it is now. Wrong. PC was huge in 1991-92 – enough to change laws on sexual harassment, curtail plans for Columbus’ sesquicentennial, put Sister Souljah and single-mom Murphy Brown in the national conversation, and perhaps elect a Democrat. For the sake of his anniversary, Columbus should have arrived in the New World ten years later, because by 2002, PC was in serious abeyance, and no one has explained why. What we need and don’t have is a history of PC as thorough as the women’s rights histories that account for the retrenchment between the antebellum “first wave” and the suffragettes who won the right to vote in 1920.

Perhaps one thing working against PC in the late 90s was that the term “politically correct” was never a perfect synonym for “nondiscriminatory” or “unbiased” or even “liberal”; some progressives began to suspect that conservatives had invented the label only to invalidate their “politics,” as it were. Perhaps the book-length history of PC will make this clearer, but it seems that 25 years of periodic right-wing points-scoring against PC has actually worked better than the conservative establishment would have liked; now, “politically correct” has a denotative affinity with “politicians being correct” which works against career public servants like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, and works in favor of un-politically correct un-politicians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

The current resurgence of PC is only partly enabled by President Obama; in a future blog post, I’ll explain why a John McCain Administration would probably have seen many of the same developments – e.g., Ferguson protests, Confederate flag repeals, pop divas on the level of Beyoncé and Katy Perry belatedly owning the term “feminist” – though this goes further to explain it than anything else I’ve read. Perhaps the events of 2008 disempowered far too many people to do anything other than point out celebrities tweeting prejudice. Perhaps we needed reminders to check our privilege, to diversify white-male-heavy industries (like Hollywood and Silicon Valley and Wall Street), and to treat persons of color as equals in some spheres while worthy of disproportionate redress in others. (For example, “Latino Pride” is fine but “White Pride” isn’t.) Yet no one who spends ten minutes on a well-trafficked right-wing website can doubt that many right-wingers associate PC with President Obama. Much of this isn’t Obama’s fault; he can’t be blamed if racists see him as a personal symbol of affirmative action run amok. It’s borderline preposterous when elected Republicans go on Sunday talk shows and blame him for not healing America’s racial wounds. For the record, one could easily imagine a truly “politically correct” president, who verbally inveighed against Donald Sterling, the Washington Redskins, Condoleeza Rice speaking at universities, Gamergate sexists, and a lot more. Nonetheless, because Obama occasionally does the right thing, like appointing women as Supreme Court justices, sending his Attorney General to investigate institutional discrimination, and engaging diplomatically with non-white countries, it’s easy, a little too easy, for any current Republican to lump in Obama with the era of “Lean In,” out gay athletes in major sports, cultural appropriation scandals (e.g. Miley Cyrus twerking), and superheroes, Star Wars, and SNL becoming less white-male-normative.

After Donald Trump says something racist, like suggesting a Muslim registry or that Mexicans are criminals, or sexist, like insulting Megyn Kelly or Carly Fiorina in terms he wouldn’t use for men, and then refuses to apologize on the grounds that he’s “tired of political correctness,” he plays to more than a prejudiced blue-collar base; he plays to everyone who’s sick of everything in the last paragraph (and a hundred other cases of perceived PC tolerance, including this week’s flap over Princeton students’ protests against Woodrow Wilson’s omnipresence). Every story about white insensitivity redounds to Trump’s benefit, so you can expect a lot more of them: PC War 2016. Despite the real pain continually experienced by historically disenfranchised groups, despite the real problems that PC fitfully addresses, Trump’s war against PC actually suggests a potential path to a Trump presidency.

Particularly since the Paris attacks, Donald Trump has been tweeting outrageous, reprehensible statements that have progressives comparing him to Joe McCarthy and Adolf Hitler. We (including Trump, I think) are only beginning to understand that Trump’s relationship to the anger of liberals is not unlike the Hulk’s relationship to the anger of Bruce Banner; it just makes him stronger. A new story in the Atlantic suggests that his campaign is about little else; certainly the reporter and her many interviewees evidence zero concern about taxes, foreign policy, health care, abortion, the environment, or anything that the mainstream media usually calls “issues.” Well, technically immigration is an issue, and Trump’s rightward lurch against immigrants continues to successfully conceal his more mainstream positions on the other ones. So he spends the next three months continuing to shore up the base with divisive discourse, wins enough primaries for the nomination, and then he cleans up his rhetoric long enough to remind everyone that he favors a lot of positions favored by centrist Democrats. Get it?

Because the Democratic Party and its donors and media allies treat Sanders supporters as a laughable, pre-primary-only sideshow and not as a populist rebellion, Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the other major party’s nominee, and thus this war will not be about the issues where these two agree, but instead be establishment-versus-non-establishment, PC-versus-un-PC. It will be about whether we want to have a “trigger warning” “microaggression”-sensitive polity. This is a war Trump can win. And unlike Mitt Romney, Trump can figure out how to split the left, which is already divided on issues like, say, whether godhatesfags.com should be allowed on campuses as part of free speech. Clinton can be forced to look either “politically correct” or pro-free-speech, the latter of which will read as “establishment.” Unlike Romney’s 2012 contest, the language of the battlefield won’t favor the Democrat; the great American middle is sick of politicians, sick of PC, and sick of non-solutions.

Of course, Mr. Trump won’t necessarily be providing better solutions than Ms. Clinton; of course, Democrats and the mainstream media will remind us of all the racist things that Trump has said. Yet the Democrats, who are gleeful at the prospect of Clinton facing off with Trump, should be careful what they wish for. Back when “politically correct” was first coined, in the 1980s, they lost culture wars all the time, and they may have forgotten that Americans remain suspicious of them…which is even truer when they seem controlled by elitists and establishment mandarins. Jeb Bush’s team wants the GOP to think that Donald Trump is leading them into a trap. If PC War 2016 continues at the rate of the 2015 one, Trump’s trap may be set for Hillary.

– Daniel Smith-Rowsey