Cathy Cuthbertson once worked at what might be thought of as a command post of political correctness — the campus of a prestigious liberal arts college in Ohio.
“You know, I couldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas.’ And when we wrote things, we couldn’t even say ‘he’ or ‘she,’ because we had transgender. People of color. I mean, we had to watch every word that came out of our mouth, because we were afraid of offending someone, but nobody’s afraid of offending me,” the former administrator said.
All of which helps explain why the 63-year-old grandmother showed up at a recent Donald Trump rally in Hilton Head Island, S.C., where she moved when she retired a year ago.
The Republican front-runner is “saying what a lot of Americans are thinking but are afraid to say because they don’t think that it’s politically correct,” she said. “But we’re tired of just standing back and letting everyone else dictate what we’re supposed to think and do.”
In the 2016 Republican presidential primary season, “political correctness” has become the all-purpose enemy. The candidates have suggested that it is the explanation for seemingly every threat that confronts the country: terrorism, illegal immigration, an economic recovery that is leaving many behind, to name just a few.
Others argue that growing antipathy to the notion of political correctness has become an all-purpose excuse for the inexcusable. They say it has emboldened too many to express racism, sexism and intolerance, which endure even as the country grows more diverse.
“Driving powerful sentiments underground is not the same as expunging them,” said William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who advised President Bill Clinton. “What we’re learning from Trump is that a lot of people have been biting their lips, but not changing their minds.”
One thing is clear: Trump is channeling a very mainstream frustration.
In an October poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 68 percent agreed with the proposition that “a big problem this country has is being politically correct.”
It was a sentiment felt strongly across the political spectrum, by 62 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans. Among whites, 72 percent said they felt that way, but so did 61 percent of nonwhites.
“People feel tremendous cultural condescension directed at them,” and that their values are being “smirked at, laughed at” by the political and media elite, said GOP strategist Steve Schmidt.
“ ‘Political correctness’ are the two words that best respond to everything that a conservative feels put upon,” added pollster Frank Luntz, who has advised Republicans. The label is, he said, a validation that what many on the right see as legitimate policy and cultural differences are not the same as racism, sexism or heartlessness.
“Allegations of racism and sexism have turned into powerful silencing devices,” Galston agreed. “You can be opposed to affirmative action without being a racist.”
The PC backlash does not necessarily mean that people support the kinds of things that Trump is saying, or the way he says them.
When the Fairleigh Dickinson pollsters added his name to the same question — prefacing it with “Donald Trump said recently . . . ” — the numbers dropped sharply. Only 53 percent said they agree that political correctness is a major problem.
This is not a new debate. It has raged since at least the early 1990s, when college campuses began adopting speech codes. Some went well beyond obvious slurs — with animal rights activists contending, for instance, that the word “pet”was disrespectful and should be changed to “companion animal.”
More recently, the PC wars have flared again in academia, where there is an ongoing argument over whether campuses should be a “safe space” where students are protected from upsetting ideas, and receive “trigger warnings” when course material contains distressing information.
Few would argue that it is wrong to confront and eliminate prejudice. But even some liberals have called political correctness a form of McCarthyism aimed at stifling free expression.
Trump has brought the question from the university quad to the political arena in a way that no leading candidate has in the past.
For many, “it’s satisfying to have a loud tribune like Trump,” said David Axelrod, who was President Obama’s top campaign adviser. “But I don’t think the hunger for authentic plain speech is Trump-specific. One of the appeals of [Democratic presidential candidate] Bernie Sanders is that people think he says exactly what he thinks and is not passing it through a filter. There is a fundamental yearning for authenticity that is probably felt more broadly.”
The edgy liberal comedian Bill Maher, who for nearly a decade hosted a talk show called “Politically Incorrect,” has said that Trump’s ideas sound “a little Hitler-adjacent.”
But he has also noted a yearning for “somebody to say, ‘You know what, I just don’t bend to your bull----.’ And Donald Trump, I’ve got to say, I don’t agree with him on a lot, but I kind of get him. We’ve been doing the same thing.”
Trump sounded the anti-PC clarion call at the first Republican debate in August, when moderator Megyn Kelly of Fox News challenged him on comments that he had made disparaging women.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
It is hard to follow the logic of an argument that insulting women could somehow make the country stronger overseas. But the sentiment behind it came through clearly.
And it has been picked up by other GOP contenders.
“Political correctness is killing people,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), because it prevents the Obama administration from focusing on the communications and activities of potential terrorists who are Muslims.
“Political correctness is ruining our country,” said former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, after he was criticized for saying a Muslim should not be president.
It is corrosive, Carson said in an interview, because “many people will not say what they believe because someone will look askance at them, call them a name. Somebody will mess with their job, their family. This was not supposed to be the way it was in America.”
Last month’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., carried out by a Muslim couple who appear to have been inspired by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has become a case in point for many conservatives.
They say political correctness has made the Obama administration too timid in calling it what it is — which is why Cruz and other Republicans taunt the president for not uttering the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”
“What animates ISIS is an apocalyptic religious philosophy. People look at that and don’t understand the unwillingness to say red is red and blue is blue,” Schmidt said. “We live in a post-fact America, where the facts are subordinate to the advancement of an ideology.”
Political strategists and others say a number of other forces are behind the backlash. It has both a cultural and an economic component, and it also reflects the continuing polarization that has grown deeper during Obama’s presidency.
“For many of these people, they played the game by the rules, and essentially, they got shafted,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart said.
Trump is “the voice of an aggrieved cohort in our society — lower-middle-income working whites who have taken the hit from the big changes in the economy, and are angry about it,” Axelrod said. “He creates a permission structure for others.”
Cuthbertson, for instance, made a connection between her frustrations over political correctness and the other things she sees going on around her.
“I look at what I get every month — and thank God, I was financially savvy and saved. I can’t live off Social Security. And you look at these people who have never worked and they’re having babies and they’re getting free rent and free food stamps and free medical care,” she said. “I couldn’t afford what they have on my Social Security, and I worked 50 years.”
“Something has to be done because we’re shrinking, we’re being taken over by people that want to change what America is,” she added. “You can’t say it nicely.”