To hear some people tell it, there is no greater threat to the Republic at the moment than political correctness. It forces dissenters to cower before views they would ordinarily reject, out of fear that they will be labeled as bigots. It thwarts attempts at finding common-sense solutions to the country’s problems. It stifles open debate and free inquiry. So negative has the term become that no one is ever heard saying, “I’m proud to be politically correct.” Admitting to political correctness is tantamount to admitting that there are limits on one’s speech and, by implication, on one’s thoughts. Conversely, refusing to bow to standards of respect demanded by various groups is supposed to convey a deep commitment to unadorned truths.
What truths are so sorely missing from our national conversation? Undocumented Mexican immigrants are, according to Donald Trump, potential drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. The businesses that severed ties with him over these incendiary statements have taken “the weak and very sad position of being politically correct,” Trump declared. Banning foreign Muslims from entering the United States is “probably not politically correct,” he said, “but I don’t care.” In February, Trump lamented that ISIS terrorists are “cutting off the heads of Christians,” but we’re “too politically correct to respond in kind.”
But political correctness isn’t a bête noire for Trump alone. At a presidential town hall in February, Texas Senator Ted Cruz insisted that having women serve in the front lines of combat “makes no sense at all” and that “the military should [not] be governed by political correctness.” Ohio Governor John Kasich, the supposed moderate in the race, claimed that the March terrorist attacks in Brussels could have been foiled if not for—you guessed it—political correctness. And last month, North Carolina passed a law that bars transgender people from using bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match their gender identity at birth. When confronted about the discriminatory aspect of the legislation, Governor Pat McCrory complained that “political correctness has gone amok.”
These responses work like wild cards, played at convenient moments in a political game. And like wild cards, they have no inherent merit. For example, when Trump suggests that the United States “respond in kind” to ISIS terrorists, he is not only proposing that we bring back torture—an immoral practice, not to mention an illegal and ineffective one—he is also legitimizing other punitive measures favored by ISIS like beheading, crucifixion, and sexual slavery. How many voters would be willing to take political incorrectness and “responding in kind” to that level? Similarly, when Cruz says that women should not register for the Selective Service, he is clearly implying that the ability to fire a weapon or pilot a fighter jet is limited by gender. And when McCrory says that North Carolina’s new law doesn’t take away existing rights, he means that it doesn’t take away the rights of men and women who unambiguously present as such.
The resurgence of the war over political correctness has coincided with the rise of Trump. (Google Trends shows an uptick in the usage of the term in July 2015, right after he announced his candidacy.) In the last few years, the country has undergone changes that have created a well of anxiety about the future among people who once enjoyed, if not economic or educational advantages, at least racial and gender privileges. Trump has managed to tap into that anxiety and to recast the loss of privilege as a form of oppression. As a result, his blunt and offensive statements are greeted with good humor, while his authoritarian proposals are mistaken for some kind of painful yet necessary truths.
But while Trump demands the right to openly insult others, he appears to be curiously sensitive to criticism about himself. At a rally in Fort Worth in February, he promised that, if he were elected president, he would expand libel laws. “When The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when The Washington Post…writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.” In Trump’s view, therefore, the First Amendment protects him when he refers to undocumented immigrants as rapists, but it must be curtailed when the media writes critically about him.
The other Republican contenders have struggled to keep up with Trump’s outlandish statements, but their records are just as checkered. Kasich, for instance, once demanded that Blockbuster remove the Oscar-winning film Fargo from its shelves because he deemed it “graphic and brutal.” (I tend to think that the Iraq War, which Kasich supported, was far more graphic and brutal than any movie by the Coen brothers, but maybe that’s just me.)
On his campaign website, Cruz says that liberal campuses are kowtowing to political correctness and asks voters to join him in ending liberal “safe spaces.” This is a familiar complaint in conservative publications, where college campuses are frequently portrayed as places where young people are coddled, given trigger warnings about emotionally upsetting material, and generally prevented from hearing difficult or dissenting views. So one might expect Cruz to be a staunch defender of open debate at universities. But in a speech to AIPAC last month, Cruz said he would cut off federal funding for any schools that financially support the BDS movement. Not only is Cruz suggesting that nonviolent opposition to Israeli policies isn’t an acceptable form of free speech, but he has also promised to prosecute those who dare to support such views.
If political correctness has “gone amok,” it is because Republicans like Trump and Cruz have relentlessly invoked it as a straw man to justify bigoted comments about immigrants, Muslims, women, and others. But doing so cannot hide the fact that they cannot abide by the very free-speech values they claim to cherish.