Last Thursday, President Trump interrupted a meeting with senators and House members to ask, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” in reference to Haiti and countries in Central America and Africa.
The media rushed to condemn Trump’s comments as racist, with a chorus of op-eds decrying the president himself as racist soon to follow. In a culture where the term “racist” has adopted a high standard, the willingness of America’s ostensibly unbiased cultural gatekeepers—the mainstream media—to acknowledge its figurehead as being racist reflects a sense of desperation yet unprecedented. To be sure, while many were shocked by Trump’s comments, few seemed surprised—Trump was decidedly in-character. As Fox News co-host Jesse Watters said on The Five: “This is who Trump is…if he offends some people, fine.” The media’s sudden amenability to using the term then reflects not some sudden revelation of Trump’s character but rather that an ethical breaking point had been crossed. Trump’s racism, it seems, is so obvious that ignoring it is no longer possible.
The implications of this move shouldn’t be understated—in a democratic country, a racist Executive can only confirm a racist populace, and, more worryingly, a racist government. While the idea of a racist government is nothing new to many Americans, its recent sanctification by the media has made hiding from that reality nearly impossible.
That makes the right’s response all the more interesting. Although Trump found little sympathy among the Republican leadership, many pundits and right-wing personalities have come to Trump’s aid, arguing that Trump’s characterization was truthful. On Twitter, the prominent Fox News personality Tomi Lahren argues that “If they aren’t shithole countries, why don’t their citizens stay there?” exhorting her audience to “be honest. Call it like it is.” Conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson reasoned that “Those places are dangerous, they’re dirty, they’re corrupt, and they’re poor,” and white supremacist David Duke lauded Trump for speaking “Blunt, hard truth that makes PERFECT TRUTH.”
The reason that Trump’s words have caused his base not to waver but rather to double down in support is that, to them, they represent a vehement denial of political correctness. Indeed, it’s this deeply mistrustful attitude toward political correctness that earned Trump the right’s, and to an even greater degree the alt-right’s, support in the first place.
But why are Trump and the alt-right so determined to abandon political correctness?
Many on the right see political correctness to be little more than virtue-signaling, a more or less arbitrary set of conversational rules with little usefulness beyond communicating the speaker’s status as “woke.” More troublingly, instead accurately mapping to reality, politically correct language is seen to obscure reality behind a comforting, fictionalized view of the world. This view is born both from a general misunderstanding and mistrust of the internal logic of political correctness, and more organically from our political superstructure itself.
The internal logic explaining much of the linguistic choices political correctness makes can be difficult to intuit for those not familiar with the historical use of, and cultural implications of, the language at hand. For example, to someone unfamiliar with the history of race in America, the terms “colored person” and “person of color” might appear to be completely interchangeable. Once aware of the historical uses of the terms—one to disparage and another to uplift—then the reason for avoiding the former and preferring the latter become clear. While the historical context of this example might be familiar to most, many Americans simply aren’t as familiar with the history of political language as they should be. And, unaware of the historical justification, they deduce that there is no logic at all guiding political correctness. Politically correct terms quickly become nonsense, and using them indicates not only partisanship but delusion.
This view is not new to America. But what has become increasingly prominent is the view that political correctness prevents us, as a country, from taking action in difficult contexts.
We see this interpretation of political correctness throughout Trump’s statements. Shortly after a terror attack in London, President Trump tweeted “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don’t get smart it will only get worse,” and at a Republican debate, Trump said that “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.” The logic is clear: political correctness prevents the state from running properly.
Of course, politeness exists not only to appease partisan impulse but to establish the sense of mutual respect necessary for a collaborative effort. Even if a state were deserving of the appellation, telling the truth would do little to help us when we ultimately call upon them to collaborate, be it economically or militarily.
To think that this trend stems from an anomalistic hatred and ignorance on the part of the Far Right would be misguided. Perhaps deep-seated, individual hatred is at play, but it would seem as though the real roots of the anti-PC upwelling lie in the structure of our society itself. According to philosopher Falguni Sheth, racialization is a mechanism by which the Liberal state designates certain groups as “unruly,” and thus undeserving of the rights and privileges the Liberal state is otherwise obligated to provide for all. This explains one of America’s greatest historical inconsistencies, the Constitutional promise of equality for all, written by slave owners—by racializing Native and Black Americans, the Liberal state could explain why its “all” was so exclusive. For Sheth, the link between unruliness and racialization is ingrained into the social consciousness of the majority—here, white Americans—and pervades national discourse. It’s no wonder, then, that politically correct language, which primarily seeks to linguistically incorporate minority groups into the “all” has met so much resistance from the American majority. As the group holding the most symbiotic relationship with the liberal state, the majority-dominated right subconsciously sees the incorporation and validation of racialized, “unruly” groups as a threat to the functioning of the state. The logic behind this reaction lies in the very fabric of our Liberal society.
We might be better off, then, to recognize this political trend for what it is—a predictable consequence of a societal movement toward equity that has attacked the very fundamentals of our racist Liberal society. Racism is indeed alive and well in parts of the far Right—no one denies that—but perhaps we might best address this trend as a societal phenomenon, and not some anomalistic upwelling of hatred.
The undeniable success of the liberal American state is due in large part to a dark, often-ignored underbelly of racism and prejudice. That the President would refer to majority-non-white states as “shitholes” illustrates how deeply ingrained these dangerous biases are in American social consciousness. While we should criticize his disgusting candor, we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees. Trump may not represent the American people, but he does represent an ideology that underpins American society. In light of recent events, it might be more useful to turn our efforts to eradicate the ubiquitous yet subtle racism of our country as a whole, rather than only condemning the specific comments of one man.