Every demagogue needs an enemy. Trump’s was the ruling elite, and his charge was that they were not only failing to solve the greatest problems facing Americans, they were trying to stop anyone from even talking about those problems. “The special interests, the arrogant media, and the political insiders, don’t want me to talk about the crime that is happening in our country,” Trump said in one late September speech. “They want me to just go along with the same failed policies that have caused so much needless suffering.”
…There is an obvious contradiction involved in complaining at length, to an audience of hundreds of millions of people, that you are being silenced. But this idea – that there is a set of powerful, unnamed actors, who are trying to control everything you do, right down to the words you use – is trending globally right now. Britain’s rightwing tabloids issue frequent denunciations of “political correctness gone mad” and rail against the smug hypocrisy of the “metropolitan elite”. In Germany, conservative journalists and politicians are making similar complaints: after the assaults on women in Cologne last New Year’s Eve, for instance, the chief of police Rainer Wendt said that leftists pressuring officers to be politisch korrekt had prevented them from doing their jobs. In France, Marine Le Pen of the Front National has condemned more traditional conservatives as “paralysed by their fear of confronting political correctness”.
Trump’s incessant repetition of the phrase has led many writers since the election to argue that the secret to his victory was a backlash against excessive “political correctness”. Some have argued that Hillary Clinton failed because she was too invested in that close relative of political correctness, “identity politics”. But upon closer examination, “political correctness” becomes an impossibly slippery concept. The term is what Ancient Greek rhetoricians would have called an “exonym”: a term for another group, which signals that the speaker does not belong to it. Nobody ever describes themselves as “politically correct”. The phrase is only ever an accusation.
If you say that something is technically correct, you are suggesting that it is wrong – the adverb before “correct” implies a “but”. However, to say that a statement is politically correct hints at something more insidious. Namely, that the speaker is acting in bad faith. He or she has ulterior motives, and is hiding the truth in order to advance an agenda or to signal moral superiority. To say that someone is being “politically correct” discredits them twice. First, they are wrong. Second, and more damningly, they know it.
If you go looking for the origins of the phrase, it becomes clear that there is no neat history of political correctness. There have only been campaigns against something called “political correctness”. For 25 years, invoking this vague and ever-shifting enemy has been a favourite tactic of the right. Opposition to political correctness has proved itself a highly effective form of crypto-politics. It transforms the political landscape by acting as if it is not political at all. Trump is the deftest practitioner of this strategy yet.