The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump is waging war on political correctness. And he’s losing.

Donald Trump says the United States is too preoccupied with being politically correct. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
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If there is one uniting principle the defines Donald Trump's campaign for president -- besides, perhaps, winning and being classy -- it is that political correctness is bad.

It's not so clear that this is a proactive strategy, mind you. Often, it seems that it's simply how Trump pushes back against criticism of things he has said — how he goes defensive on being offensive. But there is a calculation at work here: Trump has decided he's going to say things that might otherwise be considered beyond the pale or offensive, and when the media and the critics cry foul, he's going to blame political correctness.

This war on political correctness worked to great effect in the Republican primary. But, as with most everything about Trump, it's falling flat in the general election campaign.

The most recent example of all of this, of course, is his campaign's tweet over the holiday weekend that included rival Hillary Clinton and an image of a six-sided star around the words "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!" Some interpreted the image as having anti-Semitic undertones, and its history was indeed traced by Mic back to a racist online forum.

Amid the outcry, the Trump campaign's (delayed) response was to blame political correctness. Trump himself tweeted this:

Less than two hours later, Trump saw political correctness seeping into another major issue in the 2016 campaign -- terrorism.

Here's the thing: This is a message that plenty of Americans -- even perhaps an overwhelming majority -- are receptive to. Political correctness is a great bogeyman. In fact, an October poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University showed that 68 percent of Americans agreed that political correctness was a "big problem" in society. Just 27 percent disagreed.

Quinnipiac University asked the question a different way last week, finding 51 percent said political correctness was a bigger problem than prejudice, while 44 percent said prejudice was a bigger problem. So even in this case, a majority is anti-political correctness.

But both of these polls also suggest the limits of Trump's effort to combat this scourge. And whatever appetite for political incorrectness Americans have mustered, Trump appears to have force-fed them still more.

The Fairleigh Dickinson poll, for example, asked a separate sample this version of the same question, invoking Trump by name: "Donald Trump said recently: A big problem this country has is being politically correct. Do you agree or disagree?" In this case, those saying political correctness was a big problem dropped from 68 percent to 53 percent.

The Q poll also shows Americans are very polarized when it comes to political correctness. While 86 percent of Republicans said it was a bigger problem than prejudice, 80 percent of Democrats said prejudice was a bigger problem. Independents were split.

And when it comes to Trump's chosen areas of political correctness, the reviews are stunningly bad. A Washington Post-ABC News poll a couple of weeks back found that 66 percent of Americans said Trump's comments about women, minorities and Muslims indicate that he's unfairly biased against them. Similarly, 68 percent labeled Trump's comments questioning the impartiality of a judge of Mexican heritage as "racist," and fully 85 percent said they were at least inappropriate.

It's also not hard to make an argument that Trump's tendency to speak -- or tweet -- before thinking it through is coloring perceptions of his judgment. And on that front, he also does poorly. The Post-ABC poll showed that 70 percent of Americans said they were "anxious" about Trump as president -- including 52 percent "very anxious." (Those numbers for Clinton, by contrast, are 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively.)

Among those anxious about Trump? Three-quarters (76 percent) of women, 80 percent of non-whites and even 47 percent of Republicans. Seventy-two percent of women and 83 percent of non-whites say Trump is unfairly biased against them or against Muslims.

Trump's strategy worked really well in the primary for a few reasons. First, whites -- and especially white men -- are the most receptive to this kind of message, and they are a much bigger portion of the electoral pie in the Republican primary.

Second, distrust of media is pervasive in today's Republican Party. Trump effectively used these episodes to argue that the media were "dishonest" and/or out to get him. Their political correctness was Case Study No. 1 in how they were out to get Trump or even scared of him. Trump effectively made a vote for him a vote against the media.

And thirdly, it set him up as the guy who was going to shake up Washington and change how things are done. The way Trump talked and the things he was willing to say (that others weren't) were the most tangible evidence that this guy was different and not a typical politician. He talked big and thought big, and GOP voters liked that -- even if they didn't necessarily love his specific comments about women or the like. That was just part of who he is, and it could be forgiven.

This CNN focus group with female Trump backers says it better than I ever could:

But among the broader electorate, asking for that kind of forgiveness is a much tougher haul. That's because Trump has run a campaign that was basically geared at getting the passionate support of 25 to 30 percent of Americans. That was enough to win the GOP primary, but in the general election, it has become clear that Trump has alienated groups that are now much bigger parts of the electorate.

Which brings us back to the six-sided-star tweet. The image, which first appeared on an account with a penchant for offensive memes, may have carelessly shared. It could well be construed as being offensive and racist. And it certainly didn't draw the sort of reaction the campaign was looking for.

But it's also clear that Trump's campaign has, for a whole host of reasons, squandered the benefit of the doubt in the minds of a strong majority of Americans. So when he argues that something is not racist or deliberately offensive, he's asking people to make a leap that a majority don't seem to be comfortable with.

There is probably a portion of Trump's very impassioned base that will see the dust-up as the latest example of a media mob targeting the presumptive nominee. The problem for the campaign: It continues to cater to this crowd at its own political peril.