Not that long ago, “political incorrectness” (perhaps most conspicuously identified with abrasive lefty gabber Bill Maher, whose Comedy Central/ABC show Politically Incorrect was on the air from 1993 until 2002) was a politically anodyne (and bipartisan) term connoting a rebellious unwillingness to accept norms of civility in public discourse. A 2010 essay on the term in Psychology Today identified it with Maher, Larry David, and the subversive schoolyard humor of South Park.
But by 2016, “political correctness” had become the target of virtually every conservative politician in America. One pioneer was Dr. Ben Carson, who developed an elaborate conspiracy theory in which “political correctness” (an example he often used was restrictions on torturing terrorist suspects) was a weapon for suppressing free speech and disarming Americans in order to enslave them. But Donald Trump took attacks on the PC devil to a new level, in a one-two combo in which he would say something egregiously offensive and then pose as the brave rebel against political correctness. Trump branded this approach in the first GOP presidential debate in 2015:
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.
Again and again, Trump deployed this strategy, and by the time he won the GOP presidential nomination, most of the Republican Party had adopted the same evil habit of exulting in “brave” bigotry. By the time President Trump accused the 2017 Charlottesville counter-protesters as being as bad as the white supremacists they were protesting, anti-PC ideology had reached new heights, as I argued at the time:
[I]n the blink of an eye, the backlash to acts of simple racial decency began. It was not confined to Donald Trump’s campaign, but in many corners of the right, hostility to “political correctness” — defined as sensitivity to the fears and concerns of, well, anyone other than white men — became a hallmark of the “populist” conservatism Trump made fashionable and ultimately ascendent.
By now being “politically incorrect” among conservative pols has become a totem of ideological orthodoxy as firm and clear as any lefty campus speech code. Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp has provided an especially clear example of its use in the ad he is running on the eve of his tight primary runoff with Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle:
The title of this ad, tellingly, is “Offends.”
Its use by Kemp is particularly interesting because his earlier ads were an orgy of over-the-top right-wing madness, culminating in the proud “politically incorrect” claim:
Indeed, his opponent Casey Cagle, a hard-core conservative by national standards, was caught on tape complaining that the whole gubernatorial nomination process had become a competition to demonstrate “who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest” — a clear reference to Kemp’s ads. But now Kemp just uses the “politically incorrect” tagline, and everyone knows what it means.
If Kemp wins his runoff on July 24 with this strategy, it is going to reinforce the already powerful Trumpian impulse to treat conservative “base” voters as motivated above all by the desire to go back to the wonderful days when a white man could without repercussions tell a racist joke, “tease” women about their physical appearance or sexual morals, and mock people who in some way (say, a disability) differ from one’s own self. At some point we may all come to understand that it’s not (except in some scattered college campuses) the politically correct who are imposing speech norms on the rest of us, but the politically incorrect who won’t be happy until offending the less powerful is again recognized as among the principal Rights of Man.