What is Politically Correct?

On August 14th, our President gave the most politically correct speech since he came into office. And it violated the most sacred promise of his candidacy in a feeble attempt to adhere to his oath of office. How so? To answer this question, I must review the President’s several remarks on the Charlottesville protests, the relevance of political correctness to duplicity, and the words of George Harrison.

Let’s begin with the President’s remarks on the violent clash between opposing demonstrations in Charlottesville. Initially, he condemned the violence “on many sides,” implying two equal parties in the clash. Of course, when only one side comes armed for battle, it is hard to make the case that both sides had either the intent or the expectation of a violent encounter. Moreover, when only one side displays signs and banners with hateful and provocative language, it is impossible to misinterpret their presumptive meaning. And, finally, if only one side is led by bigoted organizations and racists leaders, it is doubtful that the impetus for protest was anything other than hate, anger, and an eagerness for violence. The history of the Neo-Confederates, white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan admits no other interpretation. It has been proposed that the President’s initial remarks were “ad lib” and pertained to violent ideologs of all kinds. But he was specifically addressing the violence in Charlottesville. His statement created a false equivalency between a gang of racist, bigoted thugs and anti-bias, initially peaceful counter-protesters. In effect, he was excusing the instigators of the resulting violence. But, two days later, he read a statement that corrected the implications of this initial statement. He denounced the instigators by name and called the country to join him in renouncing racism and violence and to come together in mutual respect and love. Previously, as the President Elect, he would have called this statement “politically correct.”

But Donald Trump’s supporters have always loved him for being “politically incorrect,” which they interpreted as “speaking his mind.” They were never offended by his off-the-cuff remarks, even when he was crass and offensive. On many occasions, he showed his ignorance of American history, government, and founding documents. Nevertheless, his supporters found no fault in his pursuit of the highest office in the land. They loved the fact that he might shake up the smug elites that showed little regard for their welfare. Perhaps mindful of these supporters, the President sounded a different tone the following day, reverting to his initial pronouncement on the Charlottesville tragedy, calling out both sides for their part in the violence. Perhaps he was incensed by the criticism hurled at him—that he took too long to condemn the perpetrators or that his “second take” failed to disassociate them from his supporters. Whatever his motivation, he clearly reestablished his credentials as “politically incorrect.” But, on this occasion, he went much further.

Both in his recent West Virginia rally and in his Charlottesville commentary, President Trump has taken his “politically incorrect” brand to a very un-American place. Until now, no American President has incited insurrection, as he did in West Virginia, or a counter revolution against American values, as he did in his assessment of the Charlottesville violence. He may have begun his campaign for the White House with dubious facts and duplicitous intent. But his attempt to legitimize a hateful, violence-prone protest that resulted in the death of one and injury to many reveals more than the incorrectness of his political persona. It reveals his character: it reveals him.

Why would anyone in politics want to be “politically incorrect?” Most, if not all, politicians attempt to be politically correct in the sense that they try to follow certain norms of behavior and speech that are not offensive to prospective constituents. The problem, of course, is that they do not always live up to those norms and can be duplicitous in behavior, speech, or both. Webster defines “duplicity” as “the belying of one’s true intensions by deceptive words or actions.” But before condemning all politicians as duplicitous, it should be noted that the perception of political correctness may not equate to duplicity. For example, is it duplicitous for a politician to pivot away from a question that might reveal ignorance, a partially formed and still unsubstantiated opinion, an untoward attack on a rival, or a premature announcement of a controversial position? In this instance, even Cicero would probably term this reticence as the art of a practiced politician. Avoiding a question is not necessarily the “belying of one’s true intensions.” It may show no more than being unprepared to give a lucid answer, or being wary of displaying stupidity, flippancy, offensiveness, or unnecessary controversy. Being politically correct can be how a politician maintains credibility with supporters. It may also illustrate how a politician can self-edit his/her words to win trust without offending others or exposing personal deficiencies and prejudices. This form of political correctness is often irritating, but it is seldom considered surprising or intolerable to voters. In an ideal world, as Senator Al Franken recently attested, “when asked a question, I was taught to answer it directly.” Imagine a world where our politicians felt they had the license to say, “I don’t know” or “I have to study the issues before I can give an honest opinion.” That world would leave no room for pivots or the doubletalk of taglines, spin, or “Party-line messaging.” Nevertheless, the clarity of that world would not distinguish political correctness from incorrectness. And the absence of clarity, as in a pivot, does not necessarily imply an absence of honesty or deception. It may be neutral and not, by definition, duplicitous. Therefore, how did it become identified pejoratively as “politically correct,” paradoxically implying duplicitous.

“Belying” involves intentional lying and using “deceptive words or actions” to justify the lie and disguise intent. For example, when a politician claims that undocumented immigrants are responsible for increased crime and job losses, he is misrepresenting facts to scare supporters and win their trust. He convinces them that only he can protect them by building a 2,000-mile impassable border wall. This misrepresentation of his intent and facts is an example of duplicity. Precisely because he makes “political correctness” a phony code word for duplicity in others, he becomes the poster child for the “political correctness” he so abhors. Nevertheless, Donald Trump claims the moniker of being “the most politically incorrect.” His claim, ironically, enhances his brand as a truth telling non-politician. But the only truth in his claim is that he is not a politician, for he is a lying demagogue. As such, he lies and distorts facts to create an illusion that supports his positions. Then he mislabels terms like “political correctness” to suit his purpose and create a scornful tagline for his supporters to use against his opponents. For example, the intent of his border wall proposal was to use fear and anger to convince voters that only he could save them from crazed hordes of undocumented immigrants. What this example from the last election clearly demonstrates is that the term “politically correct” is not well understood. Paradoxically, Donald Trump could proclaim as a virtue his so-called “political incorrectness” while displaying the worst example of what he decried as “political correctness.” While it is true that politicians have at times been guilty of duplicity, they are not politically “correct” as a result. A demagogue, by contrast, engages almost exclusively in duplicity. It is his stock and trade, though universally abhorrent in politics. But in the hands of a demagogue, its use can yet win the favor and support of an electorate unmindful of his lies.

History has never been kind to demagogues. Eventually, it exposes their lies. Regardless of how expressively or emotionally they proclaim their cause, their self-serving intent and deceptive self-justifications expose who they are. What others may mistakenly witness as authentic is just a glittering shell hiding a deep insecurity. That shell is the demagogues’ illusion that exists only as long as it can dupe a befuddled public with its brilliance. Their rhetoric, power, wealth, or status may cultivate the illusion. But, at their core, they lack the altruism gene. Demagogues are deficient in the honesty, integrity and selflessness we generally ascribe to character. They are just empty shells.

Once we see through a demagogue’s façade, it becomes impossible to believe in his words or connect with him as a person. When President Trump created the illusion of a false equivalency between repugnant racists and counter protestors—that is, between hate spewing bigots and their egalitarian opponents—he revealed his innermost self. He shattered the self-image he continually projects of the competent business man and “great deal maker” possessed of a “great mind” who “alone can make America great again.” Instead, we see the President as an imposter who is unable to support America’s 241 years effort to adhere to its founding principle that “all men are created equal.” How can we expect him to govern “with liberty and justice for all,” “to insure domestic tranquility,” and “promote the general welfare?” The divisiveness of his remarks in West Virginia and unsettling mischaracterization of the Charlottesville tragedy make it impossible for him to bring the country together or perform his Constitutional obligation “to form a more perfect union.” His words belie our trust.

Language is how we communicate and, more specifically, how we connect with each other. It is impossible to share our thoughts without a shared, mutually understood vocabulary. By contrast, this President spews diatribe, brands opponents with monikers like “lyin’ Ted” or “crooked Hillary,” and now disingenuously invents an “alt-left” as the scoundrels who attacked the good people who marched with the Neo-Nazis. His intent is not to share information or insights. His words serve only his interest, which is propaganda, not communication. Moreover, he does not share the life experience of most Americans. He was born into wealth and lives in a gilded tower. He finds it difficult to relate to subordinates who are not sycophants. He is incapable of projecting into our space, of connecting with our lives, our struggle for equality, or our historical heritage of diversity. But that disconnect is still not the most fundamental issue. The problem is that he is both our duly elected President and an alien in our midst. As Senator Corker recently stated, “he does not understand the character of our nation.” His world is a self-reflecting shell that makes it impossible for him to relate to the experience of others—to immigrants, Muslims, the civil servants of the “deep state,” America’s allies, the press, elected officials who disagree with him, including fellow Republicans, and his own staff whom he regularly berates or fires. How could he be expected to empathize with his fellow Americans, even those who voted for him?

Frankly, it is sad to see a man so insecure in his own skin and so inept at normal human relationships. I can only pray that Congress will relieve him of his misery and us of his Presidency. Until then, we must try to maintain the values that define America and hold us together as one country. We cannot trust a President who speaks those values from a script while simultaneously stating his disbelief in them under the euphemism of being “politically incorrect.” Nor can we trust that his life’s experience overlaps with ours or that we can connect with him on any basic human level. He has not shown any evidence of personal empathy with others. As George Harrison explained in one of his lyrics:

“About the space between us all
And the people
Who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth…

We’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.”

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