It’s difficult to believe Donald Trump is anti-Semitic. For one thing, his adored daughter Ivanka is a convert to Judaism, out of solidarity with her Jewish husband. For another, as a New York–based business tycoon, Trump has interacted frequently and cordially with Jewish colleagues, employees, investors, politicians, and members of the news media throughout his career.
That’s all the more reason to puzzle over the weaselly reaction of Trump and his campaign to allegations one of his Twitter blasts at Hillary Clinton borrowed anti-Semitic imagery from one of Trump’s anti-Semitic supporters. Trump has gone to great lengths to claim that the image in question isn’t what it is, and has in general done everything other than the obvious: apologize for screwing up and forcefully disassociate himself with his alt-right fan club.
In a thorough examination of the incident, Matt Yglesias hit on an important insight about Trump that goes beyond anti-Semitism:
Trump has not acted to distance himself in any way from the anti-Semitic behavior of his followers. There’s been nothing remotely in the vicinity of Barack Obama’s famous race speech from the 2008 campaign, and Trump has consistently appeared angrier about being criticized for ties to anti-Semites than about the anti-Semitism expressed by many of his fans.
Some might associate this reluctance to admit error, apologize, and then move on to Trump’s narcissism — those who endlessly admire themselves in every mirror are not prone to see or admit flaws.
But there’s something else going on that makes Trump’s supporters share the same reluctance to say they are sorry. He’s developed a cult of “political incorrectness” in which any sensitivity to others’ feelings is considered weakness, and the impulse to apologize for offensive remarks or behavior is dismissed as a surrender to bullying by elites and their minority-group clientele.
In his long, sympathetic meditation on Trump’s supporters for the New Yorker, George Saunders noticed this same phenomenon:
Above all, Trump supporters are “not politically correct,” which, as far as I can tell, means that they have a particular aversion to that psychological moment when, having thought something, you decide that it is not a good thought, and might pointlessly hurt someone’s feelings, and therefore decline to say it.
In other words, there’s a tendency in Trumpland to view what most of us consider common decency as “political correctness,” which is to be avoided at all costs, most especially when the opprobrium of liberal elitists is involved. It’s no accident, then, that Trump sometimes seems to court the appearance of impropriety, and defend examples of rudeness, crudeness, and bigotry even when he’s not personally guilty of perpetrating them.
Trump did not invent this strange mindset, of course. Right-wing talk-radio types have made a living from baiting liberals and women and minorities and then inciting listeners to express umbrage at the resulting outrage. Trump’s former rival and current supporter Dr. Ben Carson could not go five minutes on the presidential campaign trail without attacking “political correctness” as the source of all evil and as a secular-socialist stratagem for silencing the Folks by shaming them.
For the generally decent Carson, “political correctness” remained something of an abstraction. It’s taken Trump to paint it in garish realism. To use a phrase beloved of Trump’s great predecessor in political sin George Wallace, the mogul does not “pussyfoot around” in offending his detractors and those people — the pushy feminists and entitled minorities whose very presence profanes America in the eyes of many Trump supporters. Trump tells it like it is, which means he is not inhibited by a civility that masks nasty but essential truths.
Inevitably, this nasty but essential explanation of Trump’s appeal will annoy supporters and enemies alike, who insist on ascribing purely economic motives to those who have lifted him so shockingly high in American political life. Sorry, but I don’t think uncontrollable rage at having to “press 1 for English” or say “Happy Holidays” can be explained by displaced anger over wage stagnation or the decline of the American manufacturing sector. As Saunders said in another of his insights into Trump supporters:
[T]he Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.
Such a guy may well be old enough to remember a time when he and people just like him could behave as though they had America to themselves. Nowadays that gets you hostile looks, a rebuke from HR, a shaming from moral authorities, and sometimes worse. But Donald Trump will fight for your right to offend in your own damn country. And some offenders will love him for it.