Offensiveness won. Or lost. It’s really the same thing: it just depends on how you come at it.
For more than a year, the press has treated Americans to a tsunami of stories about offensiveness. Though many of the stories were one-offs, they centered around two motifs: the hothouse atmosphere on college campuses, and the abhorrent rhetoric of Donald Trump, now the President-elect of the United States. The newspaper barrage can perhaps be dated to March 2015, when David A. Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, very publicly expelled two students caught on video singing a vile racist chant on a fraternity bus ride. That the expulsion was most likely unconstitutional got a bit of attention in some legalistic articles, but mostly the coverage was over the outrage at the guilty students’ deeply derogatory ditty. The Trump barrage began, loosely, in June and July, when Trump accused Mexicans of being rapists and criminals and then derided the description of Sen. John McCain as a war hero because he was, after all, captured. (The Senator got a milder backlash when he retorted that Trump had “fired up the crazies.”)
The floodgates opened. We’ve all read the stories and there’s no reason to be reminded of them at length. The articles marched us through offensive names (“Redskins”); titles (college “master”); various inanities loosely grouped under the catchall, and very ill-defined, term “political correctness”; historical honorifics at Princeton and Yale (“Woodrow Wilson” and “John C. Calhoun”); the morality of Halloween costumes; the means of sparing students from threatening meltdowns through the act of reading (“trigger warnings”); and from Trump a torrent of hateful and distressing name-calling that will undoubtedly find its way into the next edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
I don’t mean to minimize the Trumpian lexicon. He has been boisterously offensive — in belittling and demeaning women; in mocking the disabled; in libeling immigrants in general, and more particularly Mexicans; and more. In short, he has spoken despicably, and it is very much an open question whether he has the desire or capacity, especially after capturing the White House, to tone down his insults and slanders. We can hope.
But it remains a singular fact that when he taunted heroes, when he lied egregiously, when he spewed hate, his supporters didn’t care. Or didn’t care enough to withhold their votes.
Hillary Clinton, and Democrats, evidently thought they would. A wide chorus of Trump haters trumpeted his personal nastiness, and venomous characterizations, as if they alone were disqualifying. There’s certainly a case to be made: his double-downing demagoguery says much about the character of the candidate (and character counts) and a large number of his eventual supporters recoiled from his excesses (just as many of Clinton’s supporters doubted her character, though for other reasons).
But Trump partisans did not support the claim that his offensiveness debarred his election. To the contrary, they reveled in it. Political correctness, many declared, is destroying America. The progressive left thought that looney, but they were seeing the declaration through very different lenses from those of Trump populists, who were reacting to the implied progressive proposition that what counts most is the merely symbolic: that what matters, what must be stamped out at any cost, is the personal affront, the rude characterization, or the expression of hateful thought. What populists thought counts is a very different sort of offensiveness: the insulting ignoring of their complaints that their world had been turned upside down, that they were suffering, and that no one was talking about it. It’s as offensive, they were thinking, to say nothing about a deeply-felt hurt as it is to impose a hurt simply by talking. They were tired of reading that what counts is stamping out the various forms of verbal “harm” at the cost of passing over without addressing other sorts of quality-of-life harms, including fundamental economic shifts, that left them gasping for meaning and succor.
Now I am not saying the problem I’m trying to articulate here was decisive in the election. Most registered voters of each party will vote their candidate, whatever the issues or climate. And every campaign consists of a multitude of small details, intonations, emphasis, claims, denials, promises, and warnings. Few voters know much about many issues; most voters know little or nothing about any issue. That’s why elections so often come down to feelings. And the feeling about the truly offensive candidate this time around is that if he’s not afraid to buck the tide of what many saw as sanctimonious moralism — the demand that government and regulators actually deal with verbal expression — then perhaps he will not be afraid to take on the structural problems, the web of laws and regulations and treaties the enforcement (or the lack of enforcement) of which they take to be the source of what they also take as much more deeply felt grievances. I suspect that for many people thoughts like these, even if not fully conscious, were decisive.
I say all this not to provide comfort. I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. It’s not hard to predict unhappy, unhealthy, unwarranted changes to come, some deep in the political and economic systems. Those who advocate a fairer government seeking true equality and justice for all its people have every reason to fear what’s ahead. But from my corner of the universe, in the subject on which I blog, it seems to me it will make more sense for those who oppose retrograde policy change to spend less time on anguishing over the expression of outrageous and even deeply derogatory affronts, and much more time on battling for the policies on the ground that will make all our lives better.