When Donald Trump ran for president, one of the core pillars of his pitch to the voting public was this: Political correctness is a cancer eating away at the body politic.
“We have to straighten out our country, we have to make our country great again, and we need energy and enthusiasm,” Trump said during an appearance on “Meet the Press” in August 2015. “And this political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country. You can’t say anything. Anything you say today, they’ll find a reason why it’s not good.”
People responded – big time. The idea that liberals and/or the elites had made it so that no one could say what they thought, for fear of being labeled intolerant or un-enlightened, was a powerful one in the very communities that Trump was appealing to: Whites watching the society and culture they had grown up with change faster and in ways that, in some cases, made them deeply uncomfortable. (Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump got 57% of the white vote, 8% of the black vote and 28% of the Hispanic vote).
Like much of Trump’s appeal, there was a kernel of truth in it. Speech – on places like college campuses, for example – had been curtailed over recent years by usually liberal groups insisting offense and demanding “trigger warnings” in classes and quads. There was a frustration among many that having views that diverged from what liberals had decided was acceptable were being shouted down.
The problem with Trump’s assault on political correctness is that he took it so far that he clearly emboldened not only those lurking in the shadows to bring their hate speech into the light of day, but also lowered the overall bar for what is considered acceptable discourse among politicians and other leaders in the country.
The first piece of that equation – the rise of hate speech – has drawn most of the attention publicly because, well, that’s what these purveyors of intolerance want. From the murder of 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a man who voiced anti-Semitic views in online forums to the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to the death of a counter-protester named Heather Heyer, we’ve seen these abhorrent views on display more and more – and often with disastrous consequences.
The Anti-Defamation League has said that incidents of public anti-Semitism – bomb threats, vandalism etc. – surged by 57% in 2017. There were a total of 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents reported in the US in 2017; in 2016 that number was 1,267.
A study by the Center for Hate & Extremism at the University of California San Bernardino showed that in 2017 hate crimes reported to police in America’s 10 largest cities rose 12.5%. It was the the 4th consecutive year that number has increased, and it marked the highest total of hate crimes in more than a decade. (That’s a striking finding, given that the study also found a drop in overall crime in these same areas.)
“We are determined to take our country back,” said former KKK grand wizard David Duke in 2017. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”
(Trump initially claimed he didn’t know who Duke was during the 2016 campaign and therefore could not disavow him. He later said he did, in fact, disavow Duke’s stated support of his candidacy.)
The second piece of what Trump’s war on political correctness has wrought gets less attention but may matter just as much to the long-term health and sustainability of our democracy: The way in which he has drastically dragged political dialogue into the gutter.
In the last week, we’ve seen House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweet (then delete) this: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA” (Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg are all wealthy Jewish Americans.)
We’ve seen Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King talk to a far-right Austrian party – telling them that “Western civilization is on the decline” and asking: “What does this diversity bring that we don’t already have?”
Earlier this year, the founders of the Women’s March on Washington faced scrutiny for a failure to distance themselves from the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, a well documented anti-Semite who recently compared Jews to termites.
Aside from the obvious appeals by politicians and other leaders to anti-Semitic sentiments, there is a whole other class of speech that has turned incivility into some sort of rallying cry for their respective party bases.
Trump has called those who opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court “evil.” He repeatedly attacks the mainstream media as “the enemy of the people.” During the 2016 campaign, he turned bullying and name-calling of his opponents into a political strategy – embracing incivility as a way of sticking it to the status quo.
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Unfortunately, Democrats have followed suit – most notably with former Attorney General Eric Holder telling an audience in Georgia of Democrats’ political opponents, “when they go low, we kick them.”
Hillary Clinton, too, has dabbled in that sort of fight-fire-with-fire rhetorical approach, telling CNN’s Christiane Amanpour:
“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again. But until then, the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength.”
Trump’s success has created a divide among Democrats that the 2020 campaign will suss out. On one side are those pushing the need to return to civility and politics as practiced before Trump. On the other are the likes of Holder and Michael Avenatti, who insist that the only way to beat Trump is to out-Trump him.
It’s important to remember here that all of these incidents and comments are not created equal. While Republicans seize on Holder’s kick them when they are down moment, it’s absolutely wrong to see that on the same level of Trump blaming both sides for the violence in Charlottesville or proudly proclaiming that he is a nationalist to a cheering throng of supporters.
But taken as a whole, they represent an erosion in what standards of speech and, more basically, how we treat and regard one another. Not all of this Donald Trump’s fault. The rise of social media – and the weak policing of hate speech on those platforms – has allowed people with intolerant views to connect with others who see world in a similarly twisted way, and to amplify those views.
That said, there is no question that Trump opened a Pandora’s box when he began his assault on political correctness. And that, because it worked (and works) for him politically, he will continue to help lower the standards of political dialogue and provide further cover for the rise of hate speech in the mainstream.
In short – and sadly – things aren’t likely to get much better anytime soon.