Donald Trump’s presidential campaign almost ended with his “grab them by the p – – – y” riff. Last month, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) stood by his statement that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Last week, on air, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly watched a clip of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives and then mocked her by saying, “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig.”
Enough Americans voted for Trump last year to prove that his unprecedented crassness wasn’t fatal to his political aspirations. King has gotten away with a series of racially inflammatory remarks (Remember “calves the size of cantaloupes?”). O’Reilly offered an apology, but instead of taking him to task, the Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher argued that critics were playing a racial gotcha game. CNN commentator Ben Ferguson deflected blame from O’Reilly by wondering aloud, about Waters, “isn’t she a racist for saying that the white guy, who was elected president, who had done nothing wrong, but get elected, should be impeached?” And former congressman Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) played down O’Reilly’s comments by saying, “It always seems like it’s okay to make fun of a conservative, but liberals are off — you can’t touch ’em. … Making fun of Maxine Waters’s hair, making fun of Donald Trump’s hair, I don’t know what the difference is.”
Go far enough back and recall that after Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) suggested that women possess innate biological defenses against “legitimate rape,” former senators Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) still endorsed Akin’s 2012 Senate bid, calling him the candidate of “freedom-loving Americans.”
I’m not naive enough to be stunned by Akin, King, O’Reilly or Trump, but as a Republican, I continue to be dismayed by the willingness of fellow Republicans and conservatives to overlook, rationalize and make excuses for this type of behavior. And each time I see conservatives defending, or looking away, in the face of other conservatives’ noxious behavior, I become less and less sure that liberals aren’t justified in taking the sometimes-condescending, always-disapproving “politically correct” approach that they do in these all-too-predictable episodes.
Maybe liberals are so “P.C.” because conservatives keep making excuses for bad behavior.
I didn’t always think this way about liberal highhandedness toward Republicans. I used to co-sign the typical conservative rejoinder to political correctness, which generally goes something like: Life’s not fair, so please get over yourself. My feelings on the topic were rooted in my experiences as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic graduate school environment, where my liberal colleagues routinely derided my political views.
That case against political correctness was used to great effect in the 2016 presidential election, starting at a GOP primary debate when then-candidate Donald Trump addressed the litany of derogatory statements he’s made toward women by saying, “The big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness.”
But even if there’s a grain of truth to Trump’s logic, in general, it’s not a catchall that makes it okay when a politician — or anyone — takes a cheap shot that’s uncivil and degrading at best, and sexist or racist (or both) at worst. Impatience with political correctness isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for a future president to mock a disabled reporter. Ritual deployment of the supposedly un-P.C. phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” isn’t a foreign policy.
And it’s not just being politically correct to publicly scrutinize the serial allegations of sexual harassment against O’Reilly. If even half of what’s been alleged by women who say he harassed them is true, he’s a disgrace, and so is any conservative or Republican who decides that what he’s done doesn’t merit consequences, just because O’Reilly’s shame might also be cheered by liberals. Already, 20 companies have announced that they’re pulling advertising from O’Reilly’s show, even though it’s the gold standard when it comes to cable news ratings. The question, now, is whether self-respecting conservatives and Republicans will stand on principle, or if, as former Republican Capitol Hill communications director Tara Setmayer wrote recently for Cosmopolitan, they continue to circle the wagons around him just because he’s on their team.
If that’s what they do, it would be pretty indecent, but it would also turn out to be bad politics.
Yes, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was rewarded for choosing expediency over morality by endorsing Trump’s candidacy, even as he condemned Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” In doing so, Ryan confirmed an unsettling truth: When some in the Party of Lincoln witness racism, it’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. Indeed, the GOP won big in 2016 embracing the same rhetoric I’m calling out now — rhetoric we said we were leaving behind in the 2013 autopsy report commissioned after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. But antagonism is only a short-term strategy. Trump lost the popular vote with our current demographic landscape by a margin of almost 3 million, and demographics are rapidly changing, not in his favor. Republicans who treat 2016 as the rule rather than the exception will come to regret it.
More important is acknowledging, before we try to beat political correctness into extinction, is that it’s not political correctness to expect common courtesy and respect. And it’s not a burden on a politician or anyone else to refrain from making sexist and racist remarks. It’s both the right thing to do, and an approach in keeping with the values that the Republican Party is supposed to stand for, including judging all people as individuals, not caricaturing them because of their race or gender.
It’s hard to deny that we’ve become a society where people are put out by the smallest slights, real or perceived. Conservatives are right to bristle at left-wing condescension, and liberals would be foolish to ignore that their elitism helped fuel Trump’s rise. But this cuts both ways, and every time conservatives and Republicans let an O’Reilly slide — rather than take a stand in favor of common decency — the “politically correct” scorn of liberals becomes just a bit more justified. Hoping that the GOP becomes the Party of Lincoln again may be wishful thinking. But if that’s what we aspire to, no longer defending the indefensible would be a start.