Trump's 'Politically Correct' Paradox
“You want to be politically correct," President Trump said last week to a reporter who refused to take his mask off. Political correctness has long been a foil for Trump. In a 2015 presidential debate, he brushed off a question about his past misogynistic comments by saying, "I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either." Later in the campaign, when calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he said his position was “probably not politically correct, but I don't care.”
Trump deemed mask-wearing to be a form of political correctness just four days after his campaign criticized Joe Biden for a “racist” remark. When Biden glibly said to an African American radio host, “you ain’t black” if you can’t decide between himself and Trump, the president’s reelection campaign issued a statement condemning the comment as “racist and dehumanizing.” Branding insensitive language as racist is quintessential political correctness—the sort of thing Trump usually rails against.
Trump is no stranger to trying to have things both ways, especially when it comes to trying to hold down Democratic margins with the black vote while maintaining his appeal to his most loyal white supporters. In October 2016, Trump insisted that the African American “Central Park 5” were guilty of rape and assault, even though their convictions in the racially charged 1989 case had been vacated thanks to the DNA evidence. Yet that didn’t stop the Trump campaign from, in the same month, targeting African American voters with social media posts headlined “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.”
But any flirtation with political correctness is too incongruous with Trump’s congenital political incorrectness to be sustained. Just one week after Biden’s “you ain’t black” crack, America was shaken by yet another video of a white police officer killing an African American, and Trump’s politically incorrect nature could not be restrained. While he has said the family of George Floyd is “entitled to justice,” he also blurted out on Twitter, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase coined by a Miami police chief in 1967 justifying a violent crackdown in black neighborhoods. (Trump soon tried to dial back the jarring comment, saying, “I don’t want this to happen.”)
Even before the video of Floyd’s death surfaced, Trump had made a string of controversial comments that sidelined coverage of Biden’s gaffe—about wearing masks, playing golf, voting by mail, and the long debunked conspiracy theory that Joe Scarborough, as a congressman, murdered his intern.
Plus, Trump lashed out at Twitter for fact-checking one of his controversial posts with an executive order designed to remove legal protections for social media companies that, in Trump’s words, “stifle viewpoints” of its users. While the executive order is likely unenforceable, it was a symbolic blow for the champions of political incorrectness who contend that liberal Silicon Valley executives are “de-platforming” conservatives. Trump thrives on being the voice for the politically incorrect, and that makes it extraordinarily difficult to chide Biden for insensitivity.
Granted, Trump’s internal contradictions may not matter politically if he can once again launch leftist-sounding attacks through targeted social media channels that sap black votes from the Democratic nominee. But despite the flurry of digital ads featuring Biden’s “you ain’t black” remark from the Trump campaign, the political needle has not moved in Trump’s direction. Sunday’s poll from ABC News and The Washington Post, the first poll taken in the aftermath of the Biden interview, had Biden’s lead over Trump among registered voters at 10 percentage points, a lead buoyed by 89% of the black vote.
As with other recent polling, the ABC/Washington Post survey also has Biden winning among seniors and independents, groups that Trump won in 2016. These are likely people who are not particularly interested in a candidate known for political correctness—if they were, they wouldn’t have voted for Trump in the first place. Trying to argue Biden is too rhetorically insensitive may well only make him more appealing to these critical swing voters.
Trump got as far as he did in 2016 because his refusal to stay within the normal bounds of decorum flummoxed his opponents. But now Trump faces an opponent who, in his own way, refuses to change his ways, blows past gaffe after gaffe and, in doing so, cultivates a reputation of authenticity. If the recent polling holds, the politically incorrect president may have met his politically incorrect match.