Before Donald Trump assumed leadership of the war on political correctness, it was Rush Limbaugh’s war. Talk radio ignited the war on P.C. and talk radio trained its warriors. At its purest, it’s a righteous war. It’s a drive for linguistic accuracy, and a call to resist whitewashing speech as a means to whitewash thought.
Rush and all of radio’s other bright stars didn’t prevent the reshaping of the English language, but the resistance movement is alive. The soldiers are beaten down from the fight, which they believe they’ve lost.
Can you blame them for taking heart when Donald Trump charged ahead with their cause? A dagger-tongued anti-P.C. superhero, he stomps across the line, not simply to rebuff political correctness, but to insult it. He stands like Superman, chin up, chest out, criticism bouncing off like so many nerf balls.
But Trump is stomping across another line. It’s one thing to court controversy. It’s another to abandon civility, as he did recently when he mimicked the spasmodic gestures of a disabled person. During a stump speech, Trump engaged in a fitful imitation of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, whose arm movements are hindered by a congenital joint condition called arthrogryposis. To say this display lacked civility is too kind. It was revolting and unpresidential.
Trump has evaded the P.C. police because he has spoken some inconvenient half-truths. On the notion that illegal border crossers are criminals, he was quickly, if partially validated by the murder of Kate Steinle at the hands of an illegal immigrant with criminal charges in his background. Trump’s sexist jabs at Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, and Carly Fiorina caused a stir, but (secretly) resonated with more than a few men, who certainly have been known to blame vexing female behavior on hormones. Moreover, it’s no secret that men regularly judge women based on appearance, and – gasp – fat women get the worst of it.
With whom does it resonate when a public figure impersonates a man with a disability? What would explain – never mind justify – mocking someone’s physical handicap in the service of politics? I can’t explain why Trump supporters defend a crude display that most parents would chastise if they caught their child at it. But defend him they do.
On the radio last week, I touched the third rail of the anti-P.C. movement, and I got fried like a slice of maple-cured bacon. I called Trump a mean-spirited jerk. For good measure, I threw in jackass. This, mind you, after engaging for months in the same belabored, serious, journalistic beard-stroking widely practiced this year concerning the Trump phenomenon. That I support his right to be a jackass, (which I do – it’s a First Amendment thing) was inconsequential to my outraged talk radio callers.
I was accused of valuing Serge Kovaleski’s feelings over the larger point Trump was making. Movement soldiers will recognize this as an uppercut to my jaw. Disdain for elevating feelings above thought is seminal in the war on P.C., and rightly so in most contexts.
One guy called me a liberal – we can argue over the definition of the word, but it was a calculated insult. Several callers demanded to know which candidate I support, if not Trump. The answer, for now, is none. I don’t fall in love easily with politicians. This was occasion to flog me anew for my insufficient criticism of President Obama over the past year.
I love talk radio. I’m a First Amendment absolutist, and I love provocateurs like Trump. I love unfettered debate, even when it gets rough. But I’m acutely aware that in debate, the moral high ground can shift in an instant. The war on P.C. is rooted in calling things what they are, even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s not a wholesale abandonment of civility.
Meanwhile, our nation is enduring a revival of campus unrest that’s based on perceived incivilities. We’re in the odd position of squaring off for free speech against university students, who might traditionally fight censorship but now seek it when they feel offended. How ironic to criticize young people for being overly sensitive, if we then condone a wounding brand of nastiness that has no redeeming purpose.