Donald Trump practically founded his campaign as a rebuke of political correctness, invoking the term in his official acceptance of the GOP nomination. He paints political correctness as ideological bondage. He claims it blinds people to the world’s hard "truths" — like that handicapped people are funny, or that brown people are bad. To him, political correctness is more than a request for respectful language; it’s a powerful force able to blinker law enforcement (it prevents them from preemptively arresting terrorists) and tie the hands of our military (it, not international law, stays the hand of would-be torturers).
It would be easy to focus on how Trump's description of political correctness, like so much of what he says, is simply at odds with reality. Many actions he claims to be circumscribed by political correctness are, in fact, very much still happening; police forces are still in the deadly business of racial profiling, for one thing. And many actions Trump’s advocated for, such as killing the families of terrorists, aren’t imperiled by political correctness, but rather by more tangible constraints — the Geneva Convention and the like.
There’s a better response to Trump’s attacks on political correctness than just separating them from the truth, though. If Trump embodies what it means to be politically incorrect, then we should question whether being the opposite is such a bad thing.
Don’t think of political correctness as the right so often caricatures it: slavishly over-cautious phrasing or hypersensitivity. Instead, think about what Trump’s behavior suggests as the antidote to being politically correct: aggressive assaults on social norms, vulgar insults, callous self-regard, and perversely courageous willingness to engage in bald racial stereotyping. If being politically correct is to not do those things, give me my “PC” letter jacket and I’ll lead the cheer.
Want an even stronger argument for embracing political correctness? Think of Trump’s alt-right minions’ delight in overt anti-Semitism and grotesque racist parodies — when they used Holocaust imagery to attack the author of a Melania Trump profile, or their snickering triple parentheses to indicate who might be of Jewish descent, or, just last week, when conservative website Brietbart decided to illustrate an article about Obama with a picture of Harambe the gorilla.
The trolls justify their behavior as merely tweaking others' fragile sensibilities. The point is to ridicule the very capacity to be offended; point out the racism in a supposed joke and you'll be told you just don't get it. But humor always says more about the author than the audience. If the trolls' idea of a weakness is to care about racism, why do they react so defensively to being accused of it? Even more to the point, if your idea of a joke is to bait people into calling you a racist, you might just be a racist. As one Twitter user put it, "it's like pooping your pants 'ironically' because you want to laugh at someone else being sensitive about smell."
I don’t mean to minimize the social damage of racist memes and Trump’s bigotry by comparing them to a noxious but essentially harmless bodily function (though the metaphor has real potential insofar as it describes how foul with juvenile effluence certain corners of the internet have become). The real problem with Trump’s assault on political correctness is, of course, how easily it enables assault itself. The way we talk about other people influences how we treat them; it’s no coincidence that hate crimes against Muslims were up 78 percent last year, against a backdrop of Trump’s constant, dehumanizing descriptions of refugees and other immigrants.
Do we really need to rehash just how concrete the connection between violent rhetoric and violence is? No other modern presidential campaign has been so intimately associated with physical assault — from the hands of the Trump campaign’s management (Stephen Bannon and Corey Lewandowski), all the way down to his rally attendees. Trump blithely speaks of shooting his own supporters, wanting to "punch [a protester] in the face," and "beat[ing] the crap out of" another. The common Trump rally chant of “lock her up” merely emboldens vigilantism, while his fear-mongering about a “rigged” election explicitly asks his supporters to take the law into their own hands.
I would never argue that Trump and Trump voters shouldn’t be allowed to speak the way they do. The sort of political correctness worth embracing doesn't punish people for saying the "wrong" thing so much as provide a template for making language both more respectful and more accurate. In the end, politically correct language reminds speakers to not make assumptions about others and encourages asking questions — far from shutting down speech, political correctness leads to more open dialogue.
However, as others have pointed out, Trump's threats and casual incitements to violence sometimes seem to skirt the edges of what the right to free speech really protects. And if we respect Trump's and the Trumpeters' right to be assholes, we're actually being more generous with them than Trump is being about free speech in general. He's the one that wants to "open up the libel laws" and persecute media companies for running stories he doesn't like.
As an anti-PC warrior, Trump's wilting sensitivity to criticism mirrors the reactions of a whole raft of trembling conservatives — all these delicate flowers who swoon at the sight of a kneeling quarterback or get the vapors over twice-removed proximity to a same-sex marriage. When they complain about being victims of political correctness, they are actually acting out a parody of it: They're insisting that words hurt them, that their feelings matter more than truth or justice. They’re not complaining about what they can and can't say about others; they're complaining about what their own words say about them.