President-elect Donald Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon keep confirming an argument I’ve been making for a while: conservatives are just as “politically correct” as they claim liberals and the left are. They’re just as touchy about it, too—in fact, they might even be worse—and they have the capacity to be far more militant about it. This should be cause for great concern.
If this sounds like nonsense, it’s probably because we in the United States have been carefully trained over the past few decades to understand that “political correctness” has a very specific definition. Even though the most robust modern usage of “political correctness” dates to the heyday of the New Left, our contemporary meaning was not worked out by liberals, progressives, or lefties. No, the repurposed “PC” grievances of nineties-era culture warfare were molded by right-wing intellectuals and media blowhards, and projected onto just about anyone considered to be part of the cultural left. Perhaps the greatest failure of anyone who positively identifies themselves with the ranks of the politically correct was to answer to the term in the first place, thereby giving credence to what was set up from the beginning as a damaging stereotype.
To hear the right (especially the so-called alt-right) tell it, political correctness is perhaps the single greatest threat our country faces. It is not just a mild nuisance; it is apparently putting American lives at risk. The conservative rebellion against “political correctness” was one of the most consequential staples of the 2016 election. It was a mainstay of Republicans’ assault on the status quo under the “Obama regime,” but none of the candidates in the Republican primary actually embodied the anti-PC ideal except Donald Trump himself. Trump perpetuated the professional right’s PC mythology by demonstrating to his base what its opposite looks like. But as Trump himself and his followers have made quite clear, the opposite of political correctness is not the complete absence of it, but a mirror image of it—a rigid schema of right-wing orthodoxies that, despite its distinctive ideological coloration, remains political correctness all the same.
One of the greatest tricks the right ever pulled was convincing the American public that “political correctness” was a matter of content, not form, that it was about liberal ideals and not the way people allied with different ideological camps enforce their ideals. Even Merriam-Webster defines political correctness these days as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people.” This definition signals just how wildly successful conservatives have been in defining political correctness for the rest of us. To accept this definition is to rely on a culturally authoritative source assuring us that being “politically correct” means siding specifically with a core set of values traditionally associated with post-WWII liberal humanism: multiculturalist tolerance and celebration of different identities; solicitude for how your own behavior affects others; concern for the social impact of language, etc. But the history of the term “politically correct” tells a much different story.
To hear the right tell it, political correctness is perhaps the single greatest threat our country faces.
The academic consensus is that the phrase “politically correct” first appeared in the 1793 Supreme Court case Chisholm v. Georgia, when Justice James Wilson penned an opinion objecting to the wording of common toasts to “The United States” instead of to the “People of the United States.” “This,” Wilson wrote, “is not politically correct,” by which he meant “accurate.” The phrase kind of went into hibernation for a while after that, but really started to take on its contemporary meaning in the 1930s-1940s, and most energetically in the 1960s. Many today would probably be very surprised to hear that “politically correct” was an epithet used by socialists and those we might today call “liberals” to criticize members of the Communist Party. The phrase didn’t necessarily discredit communist ideology altogether so much as it poked fun at Communists who were too slavishly loyal to the party line, who believed—à la Mao Zedong—that there was, in accordance with sanctioned party ideology, not only a “correct” way to act but a correct way to think, and who followed official dogma to the letter instead of adjusting to real-life circumstances in front of them.
In current usage, shades of that mid-century meaning are still there. At the core of this phrase was the critique of obeisance to groupthink, of blind allegiance to party lines, of unquestioning adherence to the dictates of some officially sanctioned dogma, whatever that dogma may be (the critics of Communists’ political correctness were equally harsh in denouncing the same unthinking fealty among fascists). But in their protracted efforts to reverse the left’s gains from the culture wars, conservatives made three pivotal tweaks to this earlier meaning.
First, conservatives ingeniously rebranded PC as a political monopoly that only applied to liberals and the left. Second, they used this misleading new definition of the term to set up shop as the permanently aggrieved victims of a slew of conspiracies maliciously targeting their own cultural birthrights, from the alleged excesses of university speech codes to the phantasmagorical media-orchestrated “War on Christmas.” Third, as John K. Wilson notes in his book The Myth of Political Correctness, the slandering of “politically correct” ways of behaving morphed into a much more all-encompassing war on a culture of “political correctness.” Through sustained campaigns to flood cultural and political debate with this change in meaning, conservative voices made this “PC culture” synonymous with anything that even smelled like “the other side.” In this re-imagined battleground in the culture wars, the bad-faith enemy was no longer official dogma and its hold on individuals, but a generalized doxa that included everyone deemed to be on the cultural left.
Conservatives ingeniously rebranded PC as a political monopoly that only applied to liberals and the left.
This is a ground-game tactic that the right has been indisputably better at than the left. While so many on the academic and cultural left have spent the past decades dissecting the complexities and social inflections of language, the diffuse interpretations and porosity of meaning, conservatives have been incredibly good at solidifying, repeating, and framing a common language. We can bracket, for the sake of argument, the question of which tactic is more laudable; the relevant point here is there’s no doubt about which one has been more politically effective. “Political correctness,” in its current form, is just one of many stock terms and images (“food stamp nation,” “class warfare,” “right to work,” “pro-abortion,” “welfare queen,” “intelligent design”) that conservatives repeat in unison enough times that it sticks in political discourse, or reframes the discourse entirely, forcing the rest of us to address and argue down concepts that have often been conjured from thin, hot air. This is, after all, how conservative pollsters and “wordsmiths” like Frank Luntz make their living.
There are a lot of important nuances, twists, and turns in the history of “political correctness,” but this accelerated version should make at least one thing clear: being “politically correct” is a problem that can afflict people of any ideological slant. The right’s war to stoke irrational paranoia at every turn over the bogeyman of “political correctness” has been a clear tactical ploy. But that doesn’t mean the actual character flaw of being “politically correct” hasn’t made some on the cultural left incredibly difficult to deal with. Not necessarily because the values they believe in aren’t worth defending, but because they may get so hung up on the “right” way of adhering to those values that they completely lose the ability to argue for them, or to adjust them to complex interpersonal scenarios, including engaging with those who think differently. There is absolutely no point, other than pure denial, in pretending like this affliction hasn’t existed in some degree. Sadly, this tendency has become, against all odds, even more self-undermining in the morale-deficient house of the left in the wake of the 2016 election debacle. Some liberals, progressives, and leftists are already righteously rushing to stigmatize and excommunicate the suspiciously heterodox allies in their own ranks and tighten the lids on their social and ideological echo chambers.
But if the tangled history of political correctness tells us anything, it’s that this street goes both ways, and there’s now a terrible rumbling coming from the other end. The scourge of conservative political correctness is the mirror image of the thing conservatives claim to be so stoutly opposed to. And it comes through in many ways, like the right’s obsession with its own “identity politics,” its proclaimed feelings of (white, Christian) “persecution,” mixed with its brand of patriotism and traditionalism, fueling their own boycotts, censorship, etc. The conservative outrage when professional athletes “push their views” on a putatively apolitical mass audience, or the reliance on private industries’ right to religious expression to discriminate against others, is little more than conservatives’ warped version of creating “safe spaces” where, to borrow the right’s preferred indictment of PC excesses on college campuses, people can be “protected from any views they find upsetting.”
Donald Trump and many of his supporters have argued that (liberal) political correctness spawned a culture that is simultaneously tyrannical in its treatment of opposing worldviews and “wimpy” in its unquenchable penchant to “whine” about not “hurting people’s feelings.” But Donald Trump is simultaneously more tyrannical about silencing opposition (“Get ‘em out!”; “Lock her up!”) and infinitely more whiny (his words) and sensitive about people hurting his feelings (“So unfair!” “They’re very mean to me!”). The ridiculous spectacle of the “anti-PC candidate” whining for “special treatment,” even decrying the need for “safe spaces” himself, would be comical if it wasn’t part of a larger push by Trump and many of his followers to spread toxic views while treating any opposition as “persecution” or, worse, an infringement on their right to free speech.
It is a pure ideological fiction that conservatives are not equally thin-skinned, easily offended, self-righteous, linguistically militant, and constantly appealing to their own “victim complexes.”
Likewise, Steve Bannon has made a career out of lambasting “politically correct liberals” who find his extreme views offensive and who think his crude language is destructive. While Bannon laughs his critics off with nonchalance, he has also proven himself to be just as touchy and obsessive about his own peevish, politically correct self-descriptions. Don’t call him a white nationalist; that’s not PC. He prefers the term “economic nationalist.” And no, denouncing immigrants and Muslims isn’t racism; it’s called taking our country back. Erecting the border wall or reviving the Muslim registry isn’t xenophobia, it’s simply enhancing national security. “Neo-Nazis” is an outdated and offensive term. Bannon prefers you call them the “alt-right.” Sound familiar?
Conservatives have re-defined PC over decades to caricature a political opposition that’s thin-skinned, that gets offended easily, and that polices the language of others to prevent such offense in accordance with a belief system that leftists feel is entitled to dominance because of its historical righteousness. The right’s culture of “traditional values,” patriotic jingoism, laissez-faire competition, etc., may emphasize quite different values, but it is a pure ideological fiction that this somehow means conservative practitioners are not equally thin-skinned, easily offended, self-righteous, linguistically militant, and constantly appealing to their own “victim complexes.”
But even here we’re just scratching the surface. These examples mainly show that the right embodies many of the same politically correct tendencies that its partisans claim are particular to the left, but we’re still operating within the current definition of “political correctness.” It’s scarier to consider how much conservatives are embodying the dangerous flaws of being “politically correct” in the historical sense of the phrase. What happens, that is, when extreme to even moderate conservatives start slavishly following the “correct” line from a party that is now ruled by the likes of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Steve Bannon? How many are doing it already, perhaps without even realizing it?
Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump reframed liberal political correctness as a social code that may sound nice in theory but is divorced from reality. (“We don’t have time to be politically correct anymore” goes one of his favorite stump refrains.) Trump has thus cannily pitched his hostility to political correctness as a kind of common-sense realism, a truth that cuts through the bullshit of liberal “good manners.” And yet his temperamental worldview and exuberantly pie-eyed estimations of his powers in office are dangerously unrealistic. But Trump’s way of pushing this worldview, this “truth,” is by manufacturing a consensus and commanding political allegiance through culture and feeling. Thus, even in the current absence of a cohesive party dogma, his supporters are continually primed—through social media, “fake news,” “Thank You” tours, and bigoted online echo chambers such as Breitbart and Newsmax—to feel more sympathetic to him, angrier at his opponents, and more suspicious of dissenting voices.
This is precisely what makes Trump’s little PC controversies more sinister. Never mind that every time Trump takes to Twitter to summon some new pseudo-event out of thin air, it keeps the focus of liberal America off Trump’s terrifying cabinet appointments, his lawsuits, and the unprecedented conflicts of interest he will bring with him into the White House. Sending Vice President Mike Pence to see Hamilton, for instance, was very obviously a ploy by Trump & Co. to make themselves seem more sympathetic, to further shore up the politically correct allegiance of Trump supporters with a cost-free spectacle of alleged right-baiting. It doesn’t matter that the Hamilton cast spoke very respectfully and non-provocatively in their appeal to Pence’s conscience, and that Pence himself took no offense at their statement; Trump was able, without missing a beat, to trot out the battle-tested script reaffirming that this pet Broadway production of the “coastal elite” was cruelly menacing this otherwise well-meaning avatar of common-sense heartland conservatism.
There’s no subtlety in the upshot of Trump’s Hamilton tantrum. For Trump and his conservative adherents, it supplies a blueprint for how to respond in the future to any perceived attempts by the sinister cultural left who so unfairly “attack” the character of a victimized right besieged by left intolerance. Through Trump’s emotionally charged, childish efforts to push this narrative on his supporters, conservative elites may be able to direct the wrath of the Real America at the bad-faith apostles of a PC left whom they believe need to be silenced, or eradicated.