In the scramble to make sense of, and assign blame for, Donald Trump’s shock victory, political correctness has not gone unscathed. Years of Republican dog-whistle tactics, America’s demographic shift, the belated fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, a backlash against globalisation, the disconnect between elites and Middle America, and Hillary Clinton’s poor campaign and scandal magnetism, have all been highlighted. However, it is difficult to deny that Trump was at least partly elected as the anti-PC candidate.
To an extent, this simply meant that, because the left had cried wolf so many times and labelled everything and everyone bigoted, calling Trump racist and misogynistic had a limited effect. However, the impact of identitarianism and political correctness probably goes deeper than this.
Two contrasting (but not necessarily mutually exclusive) narratives are being offered. On the one hand, people simply dislike the censorious hectoring and sneering condescension of PC culture, and working class or unemployed white people do not appreciate being dismissed as privileged. Rather than engage with and challenge the assumptions of people who, say, feel uncomfortable with same-sex marriage and transgenderism, or are not up to date with the latest developments in intersectional theory, the left has sought to silence and vilify them. They are in the ‘basket of deplorables’, and should be browbeaten into surrendering their ‘violent privilege’ or expelled from civil society.
On the other hand, Trump’s rhetoric simply tapped into an ugly undercurrent in American society that is genuinely racist, sexist, and homophobic. Trump simply offered a megaphone in place of a dog-whistle. If people believe it’s acceptable to describe Mexican migrants as rapists and to boast about committing sexual assault they’re not just rejecting political correctness. To put it mildly, being endorsed by the KKK suggests that you are not just ‘telling it like it is’ or fighting for freedom of expression.
There is certainly some truth in both perspectives. In any case, though, it is not obvious why demographic change, migration, and the empowerment of women should have to be a threat to anyone. Why was there a well of resentment and prejudice for Trump to draw from? And why has the left felt the need to abandon debate and persuasion for censorship and insults?
At root, it comes down to the proliferation of zero-sum thinking. For someone to gain, someone else has to lose out. Net gains for everyone are impossible. This perspective is always widespread, and is perhaps natural. It is not self-evident that, for instance, all parties can benefit from specialisation and trade. The Trumpian view of trade, where someone must be exploited, is simplistic and false, but is quite a natural conclusion to reach with limited information.
The same is true of migration. If you assume that there are only a fixed number of jobs in an economy, or immigration causes wage depression, then it’s easy to believe that ‘they’ are taking jobs and making people poorer. Similar assumptions can lead white men to believe that women entering the workplace or minority groups growing larger and wealthier have to be threats to their position. Or that same-sex marriage must devalue, rather than strengthen, the wider institution of marriage. The fact that this is false does not stop it being intuitive.
Unfortunately, the intersectional left have also embraced, and loudly expressed, a zero-sum perspective on cultural issues. Hence the explicit announcements that ‘men must lose out for women to be equal’ and ‘people of colour can only be liberated at the expense of white people’. Indeed, the very use of the term ‘privilege’ implies, whether intentionally or not, that any advantages that white heterosexual cis men have are as, or more, objectionable than any disadvantages faced by LGBTQ women of colour.
Asides from being bizarre (not being shot by the police is more a right everyone should have than it is a privilege), it is hardly shocking that this alienates and aggravates people. The intersectional left did not create this perspective. It may be a natural (irrational) feeling, and both the right and (especially) the Trump campaign have certainly propagated it. Still, the left explicitly saying and celebrating that you can only be a good ally through prostration and sacrifice has only served to push people into feeling threatened by and hostile to liberation. It may not be wrong, even if a simplification, to say that the 53% of white women who voted for Trump prioritised whiteness over feminism. In part, though, they did so because feminism has become defined so narrowly and divisively that they see no reason to identify with it.
For similar reasons, Clinton’s campaign was also damaged by the devaluation of her own feminist status. When successful women are derided as neoliberal/corporate/white feminists, it is unsurprising that they can no longer rely on the support of ‘real feministsTM’. In fairness, Clinton’s own failings on social issues are very real, particularly her credentials, or lack thereof, on criminal justice reform. However, the game of ‘no true progressive’ has gone so far as to contribute to dissuading people from voting against a vulgarian Mussolini tribute act.
The fact that a non-negligible number of people of colour voted for Trump also cannot be ignored. It is not just that, as incomprehensible as this may sound, people of colour can be right wing. 30% of Hispanics voted for Trump, and he did better with all minority groups than Mitt Romney’s generic Republican campaign did in 2012. In part, this is due to resentment of some Hispanics towards illegal immigrants they feel are cheating a system that they have respected. However, I suspect that many people of colour were simply partaking in the ‘whitelash’ against the perceived domination of culture by political correctness. In particular, identity politics can breed a frightening attitude towards ‘race traitors’. It’s not much of a leap to think that this provokes a backlash.
To reiterate, political correctness and identitarianism were not the sole causes of President Trump. But, the antagonistic zero-sum thinking they have promoted certainly played a role.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh