Rachel Maddow rolled out some good reporting by bringing together a bunch of Trump speech clips prior to the Chicago rally. She argued that he caused the violence in the rally through an “escalation” of aggression in his speeches. It’s a really good segment and worth watching.
Here’s what I picked up.
The issue is not just that Trump has escalated his tone. If you listen to the clips, you can hear him repeat over and over again a familiar phrase: “political correctness” or “politically correct.” The significant thing that seems to have happened is that, prior to the eruptions of violence at his rallies, Trump changed the meaning of political correctness. It’s a huge change.
Typically, when we talk about political correctness, it references speech or talk. It’s shorthand for saying, essentially, that people present careful language so as not to hurt or offend others–particularly people from groups that have historically been targeted by racist or sexist language.
If you are opposed to this way of being cautious–you cite political correctness as an hindrance to speech. It gets in the way of saying what needs to be said.
If you support being more cautious and careful so as not to offend or hurt people–you cite political correctness as a way of improving speech. It helps us to create an environment where everyone feels on equal footing, not insulated or hurt.
Up to this point, it has been about speech.
In his event remarks last week–seemingly in response to increasing interruptions by protesters–Trump began to talk about political correctness as if it was a reluctance to respond to protests with violence.
Here’s a an example as picked up in a piece by Ezra Klein–this is Trump speaking in St. Louis (emphasis mine):
They’re being politically correct the way they take them out…Protesters, they realize there are no consequences to protesting anymore. There used to be consequences. There are none anymore…Our country has to toughen up folks. We have to toughen up. These people are bringing us down. They are bringing us down. These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea.
Consider what this statement does just in terms of the phrase “politically correct.” Trump is redefining the idea so that it no longer references politeness or concern for use of language. It now means something to the effect of “unwilling to use violence to silence dissent in the public square” or “shamed into not doing what Americans have always done, which is beat people up when they disagree with our politics.”
Why is this an important change?
It’s important because one of the hallmarks of a democratic society is an arena for politics based on a separation of talk and violence.
In our system of government, we believe that politics takes place in a deliberative space. To participate, we talk. That talk can be in many forms, including unproductive, disruptive and even deeply offensive talk.
In fact, our democratic system is so dependent on protecting this deliberative nature of our system, that our constitution protects speech first and foremost in the document that lays out our way of doing government–the instruction manual for the united states government known as The Constitution.
Trump’s redefinition of “politically correct” in order to insist that violence be used to respond to political speech–this is the clearest moment that I have seen where a Presidential candidate is attempting to redefine our system in anti-Democratic terms.
What’s startling about Trump is that he does not lay any of this out in a written or circulated platform of ideas. Rather, he seems to be flying on instincts. In his mind, there exists a wistful American past where violence was routinely used to silence protest during political campaigns–and that use of violence in the public sphere was not unconstitutional, as most would say it is. According to Trump, it was a key feature of a better society.
As the old saying goes, it is very hard to unring a bell. It may not seem there are many Americans who believe Trump’s new idea of what it means to be politically correct, let alone who are willing to follow it by beating someone up who expresses different political view. But Trump will keep repeating and repeating this idea via the immense media platform he has been given–and keeps being given–day in and day out.
It’s just a matter of time before people start interpreting this literally.
Thus, I truly believe we are now in a new phase of this election. I believe that it is just a matter of time before people start to commit acts of violence outside of Trump rallies, giving as their justification that they are acting in the way Americans always did prior to political correctness–that what it means to be American is to use violence to silence “these people” who are “so bad for this country.”
For those among us who are already predisposed to violence, Trump’s redefinition of “politically correct” gives a carte blanche permission slip to go out and start shutting down mouthy liberals with fists or worse.