The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Many of Donald Trump's defenders love his attacks on "political correctness" and see him as a champion of the struggle against PC-ism. It is indeed true that Trump often fulminates against PC, describing almost anything he opposes as a product of it. But, in reality, he's exacerbating the very problem he claims to decry.
Political correctness feeds on the perception that right of center political views are really just a cover for racism, ethnic bias, religious bigotry, and sexism. If conservatives and libertarians are really just promoters of white supremacy, there is no reason to take them seriously, and little will be lost if their views are suppressed by speech codes, "safe zones," and the like.
That perception is massively reinforced when Trump does things like call Hispanic immigrants "killers" and "rapists," claim that a Mexican-American judge's ethnicity should disqualify him from hearing a case involving Trump University, call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, advocate the massacre of innocent relatives of suspected Muslim terrorists, and generally indulge in rhetoric that differs little from that of David Duke.
If the alternative to political correctness is Trumpism, then most people of good will are likely to pick the former—not just minorities, but also many whites who oppose bigotry. By winning the GOP nomination and becoming the leader of the main right of center party, Trump has already dealt a blow to the struggle against PC. To the extent conservatives have embraced him, they validate the PC left's claim that they are at best indifferent to bigotry and at worst active supporters of it.
If Trump actually wins the presidency in November, the problem will get worse. Whether we like it or not, a GOP president almost inevitably becomes the most visible face of the political right, even if some right-wingers oppose him. In the same way, President Obama has become the face of the left, even if some left-wingers dislike some of his policies. And if the most visible face of the right is an open advocate of bigotry, that can only strengthen political correctness. It will be perceived—in part, even correctly—as a validation of much that PC leftists have been saying for years.
There is also a second, more subtle, way in which Trumpism promotes PC-ism. Like the PC left, Trump views the world as a zero-sum game: Americans can only gain by being "winners" in competition with foreigners; progress for white workers require shutting out Hispanic immigrants, and so on. Such zero-sum thinking is not just a campaign ploy; it is at the heart of Trump's entire world-view, since long before he ran for president. And it will surely be a major influence on what he does in the White House.
Trump's advocacy of zero-sum identity politics for whites is the mirror image of the identity politics of the PC far left. Both assume that minority groups can only really prosper at the expense of whites, and vice versa. The growth of zero-sum identity politics on one side of the ethnoracial divide naturally strengthens it on the other, as well.
Some conservatives and libertarians may think that there is no need to abjure Trumpist nastiness, because PC leftists will hate us regardless of what we do. From the standpoint of hard-core advocates of political correctness, there is little or no real difference between Trump and, say, Mitt Romney or John Kasich. All are alike denounced as bigots. If we are going to be attacked as racists either way, why should we not be just as mean as our adversaries? If they can do it, why not us?
One answer is that, if we really think the PC left is reprehensible, we should not imitate their bad behavior, but oppose it. We should not respond to their intolerance with our own. But, even more importantly, the struggle against political correctness is not really about winning over its most vociferous advocates. They are unlikely to be persuaded anytime soon, if ever.
The true stakes in the struggle are the hearts and minds of people who are not already set in their views. It is about young college students who may not like censorious PC-ism, but could succumb to it if they see it as the only antidote to bigotry. It is about minorities who might be open to alternatives to left-wing politics, but not if the most visible ones seem like an obvious cloak for white supremacy. It is about well-meaning people of all backgrounds who seek coexistence between different racial and ethnic groups, but aren't sure how to achieve it. Most of all, it is about showing that the world does not have to be a zero-sum game: that immigrants and natives, blacks and whites, Anglos and Hispanics, can all prosper together through voluntary cooperation in which their differences can become assets rather than liabilities and sources of conflict.
Trump, his rhetoric, and the world-view behind it, are all impediments to the effort to combat PC. Indeed, they are a bigger liability to the cause than any PC leftist is ever likely to be. Like that of most causes, the reputation of this one is more easily undermined by the misdeeds of its supporters than those of its enemies. Nothing is more likely to discredit the struggle against PC than having its most visible supposed advocate validate the claims of its enemies.
By contrast, opponents of PC-ism are more likely to get a fair hearing if they show they are not willing to support bigotry, including- indeed, especially—when it is promoted by political party they might normally support. If you truly care about the combating political correctness, you have one more reason to be #NeverTrump.
UPDATE: Brad DeLong responds to this post by, essentially, claiming that the rise of Trump just proves that conservatism and libertarianism really were just pretexts for racism all along. If so, it is hard to explain why his rise is viewed as a fundamental transformation of the GOP and the right both by his hard-core supporters and by most of his adversaries within the party. It is also hard to explain why many conservative and nearly all libertarian thinkers have rejected him and refused to support him against Hillary Clinton (a figure who is not exactly popular on the right). Finally, it is hard to explain why Trump has made a point of reversing many of the GOP's longstanding positions on issues such as trade, immigration, entitlements, and support for America's allies, and why those reversals have raised such an outcry.
It is indeed true that many GOP primary voters are, at least in part, motivated by racial and xenophobic resentment That was a major factor in Trump's success (though many also voted for Trump out of other kinds of motives, such as frustration at the state of the economy, anger at party elites, and ignorance). That does not, however, prove that right of center political ideologies are all just smokescreens for such sentiments.
To put it a different way, the biggest star of the Democratic convention—after the nominee herself—was self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, a man who praises communist regimes, including their suppression of dissent. His positions on trade and (until very recently) immigration are remarkably similar to Trump's, and draw on a similar zero-sum view of the world. Sanders got roughly the same proportion of the Democratic primary vote as Trump got of the Republican vote (albeit, in a smaller field). Even relatively moderate DNC speakers made sure to pay tribute to him, because they know that he and his ideology have the support of a large part of the party's base. Does that prove that modern American liberalism is just a smokescreen for socialism or communism? Obviously, the situation on the left is more complicated than that. And the same is true on the other side of the political spectrum.