By Robert Folsom | Adapted from the March 2016 Socionomist
The conventional narrative on 2016 US presidential candidate Donald Trump is that he has succeeded despite his rejection of political correctness. Here, Robert Folsom explains that Trump has in large part succeeded because of it.
Trump gives voice to the political discontent that flows from negative social mood.
The Rise and Fall of Political Correctness
Long-term trends in social mood consolidate collective tendencies.1 Political correctness epitomizes collective tendencies toward inclusion, pluralism, contrition and tolerant speech. It was formalized and entrenched by the same long-term positive mood trend that drove the great bull market of the 1980s and 1990s. In politics, this process has been manifest in the actions of all branches of government. Positive-mood expressions characterized politics from the early 1980s thru the peak year of 2000; negative-mood expressions followed, became pronounced in 2008 and have been especially conspicuous since spring 2015.
Today’s negative mood involves unformalizing the norms of the previous positive trend. Political correctness and the collective tendencies it epitomizes have given way to a new normal of exclusion, polarization, impenitence and more wide-open speech.
The differences before the year 2000 vs. after are stark when put in visual contrast. Figure 1 plots key events in the life and death of political correctness against the Dow/gold ratio. Gold is real money, so Dow/gold is how the Dow Jones Industrial Average would look if the U.S. had remained on the gold standard. It is a fascinating reflection of social mood.
From its 1980 low, Dow/gold rose more than 3,000% into its 1999 high, fell 85% to its 2011 low and today remains down 66%. It has done a great job capturing the mood behind the rise and fall of political correctness, along with society’s increasing desire in recent years to bury the political status quo.
The Trend Turns
By 1999, political correctness had reached full bloom. It became a social norm and included literal codes of speech and conduct on college campuses and in workplaces. The trend encompassed ideas like diversity in hiring and new laws against sexual harassment and hate crimes.2 It also embodied a spirit of apology, mending fences and coming together.
As mood trended toward a peak at multiple degrees of trend, the formalization of political correctness expanded beyond the American tradition of e pluribus unum (from many, one) to more extreme expressions like multiculturalism and postmodernism.
Multiculturalism advocates “that cultures, races, and ethnicities, particularly those of minority groups, deserve special acknowledgement of their differences within a dominant political culture.”3
Postmodernism discards notions of fixed definitions, truth and objective knowledge. This mindset is so bent on inclusion that it assumes no belief system (including one’s own) is more valid than another. As one writer said,
By the 1980s postmodernism had become the dominant discourse, associated with “anything goes” pluralism …. revealing the cultural constructions we designate as truth and opening up a variety of repressed other histories of modernity.4
Political correctness became the shorthand reference for all of the above, particularly by embracing limits on speech.
There has always been a built-in friction between the American ideal of free speech and the American ideal of inclusion. The question is which ideal—free speech or inclusion—has a more dominant role in the broader culture and society. The answer depends on when, because at any given time, social mood exerts the critical influence. A turn toward positive mood shifts the emphasis to inclusion; whatever its flaws, political correctness is about making people “feel included” (and censure speech critical of gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.). Conversely, negative mood shifts the emphasis back toward anything-goes free speech.
And make no mistake: During the bull market in the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern ideals (e.g., solipsism) found their way to the highest echelon of American politics and law. Writing for the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said,
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.5
That Justice Kennedy found metaphysical liberty in the U.S. Constitution makes this quote a fitting reflection of other similar government actions and episodes during the same period.
Political correctness also epitomized a moderate, compromising tone in politics. Yes, political battles occasionally grew hostile, but particularly grizzly forms of political combat were generally reserved for the “Stupid Season,” the period immediately before an election, starting around the first of September. That was when candidates (and supporters) would say almost anything for victory, and almost anything against opponents.6 “Stupid Season” always ended on Election Day—after compliments for a hard-fought campaign, candidates shook hands and a diplomatic tone regained dominance in the political discourse. That was the tradition in American politics.
But that tradition began to unravel in 2000 (see Figure 1), as the general American political climate became increasingly contentious and stayed that way beyond election season. As 2009 began, the Birther Movement was already in place—and soon came Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. These groups arose in an environment of fear and anger. They were among the most visible manifestations of the new acrimonious political spirit. In a 2010 interview, the Senate Majority Leader [a Republican] said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama [a Democrat] to be a one-term president.”7
This negative sentiment continued into the 2012 election. The trend proved strong enough to thwart fact-checkers’ efforts to stop the hostility. The Obama campaign sent public letters of complaint to FactCheck.org, while the pollster for Republican candidate Mitt Romney asserted: We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers. A Washington Post story about fact-checkers coming under fire received some 1,400 reader comments.8
For 16 years, waxing negative mood has caused multicultural and politically correct sentiments to fade, and polarization, exclusion and “political deadlock” to grow.9 Politicians have taken increasingly extreme positions, and the trend has also turned “compromise” and “sorry” into dirty words.10
Observers of the 2016 presidential primaries may lament that civility has vanished from American politics. But the guttersniping and belligerence in the race only comprise the latest chapter in the long-term trend that has ridden the wave of negative social mood.
Why Trump, Why Now?
Making Politically Incorrect “Cool”
Which brings us to Donald Trump, who denounces political correctness, condemns the establishment, has been immune to negative press, is the master of his own message and has demonized certain groups as “The Other.”
The conventional narrative on Trump is that he has succeeded despite his rejection of political correctness. The truth is that he has in large part succeeded because of it. From the start of his campaign, Trump seemed aware that the more politically incorrect he was, the more widely-reported his remarks would be11—and that while he may offend some people, those same comments would get the loudest applause and approval from people who support him.12
Crude invective and vulgarity have long been Trump’s weapons against individuals who anger him, such as his insult of debate moderator Megyn Kelly, after she asked him about his pattern of misogynist insults.13 At rallies and on social media, Trump has made a habit of airing and reposting remarks and quotes from sources on the extreme right of the political fringe.14
Some people may think, well, “That’s the New Yorker in Trump.” But Rudy Giuliani, Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo and Michael Bloomberg are all New Yorkers: They did not make a habit of being politically incorrect and vulgar in public. These other New York politicians may have talked fast and had short tempers, but they did not go to rallies and call their rivals obscene names.
The potentially more lasting side of Trump’s political incorrectness involves policy. In fact, the issue which has most defined Trump’s candidacy is also America’s oldest ongoing political controversy: immigration.
Time and again, changes to immigration policy have reflected the dominant social mood in the United States. Limits on immigration mostly happen when mood is negative, while inclusive immigration policy mostly happens when mood is positive.15
As noted in Figure 1, 1986 was the last major legislative change to immigration policy. But in 2016, immigration could erupt into the most contentious debate of the presidential election.
The politics of that debate have already overlapped with religion. Pope Francis was recently asked “what he thought of Trump’s campaign pledge to build a wall along the entire length of the border and expel millions of people” who are in the U.S. illegally.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” he said. While Francis said he would “give the benefit of the doubt” because he had not heard Trump’s border plans independently, he added, “I say only that this man is not a Christian if he has said things like that.”16
Trump replied immediately, saying, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” The following day, Pope Francis and Trump both mitigated their criticisms. But Trump has not backed down from his immigration proposals and other politically incorrect executive-branch decisions he embraces or says he won’t rule out, ranging from the unfeasible to the indefensible to the unconstitutional:
- “Donald Trump told TIME that he does not know whether he would have supported or opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. ‘I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer.’”17
- “Trump’s most controversial idea is to round up all 11 million or so immigrants who are in the United States illegally and send them home.”18
- Trump insists that Mexico will pay for a multi-billion-dollar wall along the border that deters illegal immigration, and which will stand between 30 and 65 feet high.19
- A border wall is necessary, Trump says, because Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”20
- Trump is “open to requiring Muslims in the United States to register in a database,” and affirmed that he “would certainly implement that—absolutely.”21 Asked by a reporter, “Do we need warrantless searches of Muslims?” Trump replied, “We’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”22
- Trump called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”23
- “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would—in a heartbeat. … I would approve more than that … . If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway… .”24
- Trump on the legal dispute over encryption between Apple and the FBI: “Apple ought to give the security for that phone. What I think you ought to do is boycott Apple until such time as they give that security number. How do you like that? I just thought of that.”25
- If elected, Trump “plans to change libel laws in the United States so that he can have an easier time suing news organizations.”26
These policy positions exemplify what Robert Prechter had in mind in 1989, when he wrote:
In a formalization of the negative mood within a bear market, one or more of the new parties is likely to represent ideals inimical to individual liberty (such as socialist, racist, fascist or fundamentalist).27
Trump Is Not Alone
Trump is the most prominent enemy of the politically correct, but he has not had a monopoly on political incorrectness in the 2016 campaign:
- Ted Cruz said the Iran nuclear deal “would make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of Islamic terrorism.”28
- Mike Huckabee implied that he would use federal troops to interfere with abortion clinics,29 and he one-upped Ted Cruz by comparing the Iran deal with the Holocaust.30
- Chris Christie said he would not permit any refugees from Syria into the U.S., not even “orphans under age 5.”31
- Bernie Sanders said “The business model of Wall Street is fraud.”32
- More than one candidate has said they want to change or re-interpret the 14th Amendment, which has long been the legal basis of birthright citizenship.33
It is no stretch to suggest that if mood were more positive, any one of these remarks may have proven fatal—that is, too politically incorrect for a candidate to remain viable. Today, they resonate with a large swath of the electorate.
And high-profile political incorrectness extends beyond the presidential race. Fisher v. University of Texas was one of the final cases in which the recently-deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia heard oral arguments. During questioning, Scalia said:
There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.34
Scalia’s remark was arguably a much greater violation of political correctness than were Lawrence Summers’ remarks more than a decade ago. And Scalia spoke before a public audience, yet his comment went almost unnoticed. What was the difference? The timing. The condemnation of Summers was just five years after the 2000 peak, while the impunity Scalia enjoyed came 15 years after, and well into the negative mood trend.
Broader Implications: The Trend of Discontent
It is easy to think that Trump single-handedly demolished the rule about being politically correct. Yet his success is an effect—not the cause. Trump gives voice to the political discontent that flows from negative social mood.
Gallup regularly asks survey participants, “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” Throughout 2015 and into 2016, the most common answer has been “Dissatisfaction with government/politicians.”35 In fact, Gallup has found that Americans have generally been growing more dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States for more than 15 years.36 The public’s collective dissatisfaction and negative mood are bigger than one man’s campaign.
The January issue described the non-traditional, outsider and frequently anti-establishment candidates from this presidential election season who have benefited from the public’s dissatisfaction with the political status quo.37 The most successful of those outsiders is also the candidate who has waged the most vitriolic war on political correctness: Trump not only rides the wave of negative social mood, he channels it into his persona, tone, message and policy proposals. And Republican voters have rewarded him with presumptive nominee status.
Yet the traits and tactics that connect with many voters also repulsed the party’s elite. The 2016 presidential race was the most fractious since 1968.38 In the days immediately following Super Tuesday (March 1), the campaign mutated from a semi-amusing food fight among the candidates into an epochal mood-driven political showdown between Trump and the Republican establishment.
The party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, held a press conference on March 3 to say Trump is “a fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” This led The Washington Post to observe,
Never before in modern political history has the immediate past nominee of a party delivered an entire speech condemning the current front-runner.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—the party’s 2008 nominee—later said he shared Romney’s concerns.39
The New York Times reports that on the night Trump became the presumptive nominee (May 3), “most leading Republicans were publicly silent. And the dearth of congratulatory news releases and Twitter posts spoke volumes.” Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush “said they would not participate in or comment on the presidential campaign.” 40
Other Republicans in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and sitting governors have likewise disassociated themselves from Trump—as have stalwart Christian activists, national security experts and major conservative publishers.41
On May 5 came the front-page news that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — a Republican who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 election — announced that he is “not ready” to endorse Donald Trump for president.42 And on May 6, Senator Lindsey Graham declared that he “cannot in good conscience support Donald Trump.”43
The Republican establishment never dreamt of the dilemma it faces now: A decisive favorite among primary voters, who is intolerable to most of the party establishment and much of the party’s rank and file and who—at least at this point—is viewed as unacceptable to most voters in the general election come November.44
Thus Republicans truly are on the precipice of fulfilling another of Robert Prechter’s 1989 forecasts, namely that during a large negative social mood trend,
History suggests that at least one, if not both, of the current major parties will suffer a multi-decade setback, a radical change, or dissolution… .27
Many Republican leaders have given grudging support to Trump, yet a broader “setback, radical change or dissolution” remains possible after the July 18-21 convention in Cleveland.
Some anti-Trump Republicans have publicly said they will actually vote for Hillary Clinton,45 while others continue to call for a third-party option in the general election.46
A third-party candidate who carries even a couple of states could mean no candidate receives the required majority in the Electoral College (270 of 538 electoral votes)—which in turn may lead to a constitutional crisis. According to the 12th Amendment, Congress and the states would have to sort out the mess. But how that might go is unknown, because the United States has not faced a crisis of that kind since the disputed election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. Upheaval on this scale in the 2016 election could even lead to a change in the Constitution regarding the Electoral College.
Yes, that may seem like an “extreme” scenario—but no more so than Prechter’s “radical change or dissolution” of a party forecast, which in fact appears less extreme by the day.
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1Prechter, Robert R. Jr. (2002). Human Social Behavior (pp. 230-231). New Classics Library.
2McFadden, Robert D. (May 5, 1991). Political Correctness: New Bias Test? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/05/us/political-correctness-new-bias-test.html
3Eagan Jennifer L. (August 31, 2015). Multiculturalism. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/multiculturalism
4Palmer, Daniel (January 2, 2014). Explainer: what is postmodernism? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-postmodernism-20791
5Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/505/833
6Moynihan, Michael (July 12, 2012). The onslaught of the stupid season. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/post/the-onslaught-of-the-stupid-season/2012/07/12/gJQAJT5ofW_blog.html
7Herszenhorn, David M. (October 26, 2010). Hold On to Your Seat: McConnell Wants Obama Out. The New York Times. Retrieved from Retrieved from http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/hold-on-to-your-seat-mcconnell-wants-obama-out/?_r=0
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9Cowan, Richard and Ferraro, Thomas (June 1, 2011). Vanishing giants in a sharply divided U.S. Congress. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/usa-debt-dealmakers-idUSN318477420110601
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16Winfield, Nicole and Pace, Julie. February 18, 2016. Associated Press. Pope vs. Trump: ‘Not Christian’ to Only Build Border Walls. Retrieved from http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/E/EU_REL_POPE_TRUMP?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT
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21Trip, Gabriel (November 20, 2016). Donald Trump Says He’d “Absolutely” Require Muslims to Register. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/11/20/donald-trump-says-hed-absolutely-require-muslims-to-register/
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