The controversy surrounding ugly and profane remarks Donald Trump allegedly made in a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators has had a longer half-life than the average Trump-linked contretemps, perhaps because so many appear willing to throw themselves under its treads.
When the scandal broke, the usual suspects immediately volunteered as tribute in defense of Trump’s honor. Many claimed that the president’s alleged assertion—that certain equatorial regions of the world were blighted cesspits—was an empirical fact. The president, they averred, was guilty only of describing these fetid nations with his trademark “authenticity.” Then, when Trump emerged about 14 hours after the scandal broke to insist he had never made the comments attributed to him, his defenders pivoted on a dime and echoed the president’s assertion.
This scandal might not have damaged the credibility of so many of Trump’s allies if the White House had not responded to it with such lethargy. At first, the White House press office didn’t even bother denying claims made by the meeting’s attendees. According to reporting in outlets like the New York Times and by conservative columnists like Erick Erickson, Trump initially did not see much of a scandal at all. “His base loved what he said,” the Times dispatch read, “a refrain he repeated in phone calls over the holiday weekend.” Finally, after nearly a week, the administration’s clean-up crew got around to defending their principal in a reasonably convincing way. Their line of defense will, however, have lasting and damaging consequences for the conservative movement.
“Look, no one here is going to pretend like the president is always politically correct. He isn’t,” said Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “He tells things like they are sometimes, and sometimes he does use tough language.”
Do Republicans recognize what an irresponsible mishandling of their agenda these comments represent?
The president is credibly accused of contending that skilled immigrants primarily originate from European nations like Norway and, perhaps, East Asia. They do not come from places like Haiti or Sub-Saharan Africa. This is factually inaccurate; these countries produce more assimilative and better-educated immigrants than Europe does, and the nations the president derided as “s***holes” are usually more enthusiastic American values than are their European counterparts. It’s no coincidence that Trump enjoys some of the strongest approval ratings abroad in places like Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana.
There is a word that describes the assumption that skilled and assimilative immigrants can only come from certain countries, and it’s not “un-PC.” Compared to the outright racial hostility underlying the sentiments expressed by Donald Trump in what amounts to only his latest racially-tainted controversy, the stuff we used to consider “politically correct” is downright quaint.
As Robert Novak demonstrated in his 1995 essay on political correctness in American newsrooms, offenses against PC dictates were once limited to phrases like “Indian summer,” “Welshed on a bet,” and going “Dutch” on a check. More recently, descriptive phrases like “radical Islamic terrorism” and even gender-specific pronouns are under attack. When conservatives objected to PC culture, they did so in defense of clarity and concision. Too often, politically correct language obscured and obfuscated under the pretense of being both precise and civil.
This is why what Donald Trump and his Praetorians are doing by appropriating anti-PC crusaderism in defense of his unenlightened racial effrontery is so reckless. In pursuit of a quick and painless way to get the president out of the latest mess he’s created for himself, Trump’s defenders are blurring the lines between opposition to censorious liberal culture warriors and bigotry. Trump is not winning any converts to his crusade; this White House preaches to the converted. In the end, the president’s conduct may instead ratify political correctness as a necessary check on those inclined toward racial antagonism. If Trump’s fans think “telling it like it is” amounts to presuming people cannot contribute meaningfully to the American bottom line due only to their places of birth, they’ll soon find that Americans have no appetite for that kind of candor.
No amount of evidence will convince pro-Trump partisans of their totem’s flaws. The president’s historically low approval ratings despite a strong economy at home and peace abroad haven’t done it. The slaughter of Republicans in the off-year elections didn’t do it. The drubbing Republicans are about to take in the midterm elections won’t do it. For them, Trump’s political success is self-justifying. He threw out all the rules, ran what should have been a radioactive campaign, abandoned the GOP’s post-2012 prescriptions, and won. Nothing will convince them of the error of Trump’s present course until it is far too late to mitigate the damage.
If one of Trump’s legacies is to taint anti-PC culture with the stain of racism, it will do American discourse a great disservice. Trump will have demonstrated to a critical mass of persuadable Americans that the PC crowd was right all along; they were all that kept the hateful bigotry of a bygone age from reemerging from the shadows. But the costs of the Trump era will only become clear in hindsight, when they are intractable features of the political landscape. Today, there are tax cuts to celebrate.