The Politically Incorrect Allure of Donald Trump
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Politically Incorrect Allure of Donald Trump

Aug. 05, 2016  |     |  0 comments

One common theme running through commentary in the mainstream media on US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is the allure to his supporters of his politically incorrect speech. As he declared during a Republican Party presidential primary debate: “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. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.” Trump’s supporters see him as having “the guts to say what he wants,” and more significantly, that he is “saying what a lot of what America’s feeling right now” (Geller and Godar, 2016). Some who find themselves shocked by his politically incorrect speech still find themselves attracted to his message. As one possible Trump voter put it: “Some of the things that come out of his mouth, you have to shake your head about” (Goldman and Gordon, 2016).

Winners and Losers

What is political correctness and how did it gain the influence that it currently has? Political correctness may be regarded as the shared understanding of what is wrong or right to say in contemporary society. These shared values have emerged from the rise of a global elite culture which is cosmopolitan and multicultural. This global elite culture was in large part created by globalization, in that the emergence of today’s global economy was accompanied with the creation of a worldwide elite of highly mobile expatriates — the “winners” of globalization — who are well remunerated for their valuable expertise. At the same time, those who lack the expertise these expatriate talents possess, and whose skill-sets are not considered to be valuable by the global economy, find themselves “treated as less-worthy subjects” in their own countries (Ong, 2006b, p. 16). This has been the experience of China’s “diaosi,” the “losers” in the globalized Chinese economy who “feel stuck on the lower-middle rungs of their country’s ladder of success” (Minter, 2014). The frustrations of the “diaosi” echoes that of the other “losers” of globalization around the world. And just like their peers, the frustrations of the “diaosi” are amplified by the sharp contrast of their meager lives with the luxurious lifestyles of globalization’s winners (Lim, 2016a). For example, consider the luxurious expatriate enclaves of Shanghai:

“It is home to an international business class, drawn from Western countries, Japan, and other Asian countries, that lives in brand-new gated communities. Many residential compounds are near the airport, each equipped with its own hotels, shops, swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf courses. Japanese, American, and European managers and their families live in the villas and pursue a luxurious lifestyle apart from local Shanghainese, very few of whom can afford living on such a scale.” (Ong, 2006a, p. 167)

The social segregation resulting from globalization has left this global elite of “young, outwardly mobile professionals” having more in common with one another than with the majority of fellow citizens, given that they participate in the same “global networks of higher education, corporate employment, and favorite vacation destinations” (Ong, 2006b, p. 154). The emergence of the culture of political correctness is a result of this flattening of the cultures of the global elite, which has permitted the spread of the shared values of their cosmopolitan and multicultural elite culture.

This cosmopolitan and multicultural global elite perpetuates itself through the perpetuation of globalization itself. This is because the members of this elite possess not just the technical expertise that are highly valued in the global economy; they also possess the expertise that guides the policymaking of the world’s governments and international organizations, thereby facilitating the expansion of the globalized world order. Historically the emergence of today’s globalized world order can be dated from the establishment, following decolonization, of technocratic elites in the newly-independent countries around the world. Timothy Mitchell’s description of how technocratic expertise guided Egypt’s national development matches the experience of many other countries:

“From the opening of the twentieth century to its close, the politics of national development and economic growth was a politics of techno-science, which claimed to bring the expertise of modern engineering, technology, and social science to improve the defects of nature, to transform peasant agriculture, to repair the ills of society, and to fix the economy.” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 15)

It would be these technocrats whose expertise would subsequently guide their countries to establish the international legal regimes and organizations from which contemporary globalization would emerge in the late 20th century (Klein, 2007). And it would be the technocratic expertise of economists and other experts which the UK’s voters would reject in the 2016 Brexit referendum, in large part due to the economic despair which the “Leave” voters blamed on globalization (Witte, 2016). Indeed, observers of the Brexit referendum in the UK who had seen how the “Remain” campaign had complacently dismissed the supporters of the “Leave” vote as “racists and bigots,” only to be surprised at the “Leave” campaign’s electoral success, warn that the Clinton campaign in the US risks underestimating the popular support for Donald Trump (Dugdale, 2016).

In the US presidential campaign, Trump’s supporters — many of whom count themselves among the “losers” of globalization — have been energized by his attacks on free trade and globalization (Jackson, 2016). As with the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum, Trump’s attack on the principles of globalization counts as the breaking of a taboo which has long ordered contemporary social life. Trump’s supporters see this not just as his recognition of their economic plight, but also as evidence of his willingness to stand up to the global elite class. His willingness to break social taboos and the rules of political correctness has given him a heroic stature among his supporters (Luhrmann, 2016).

The Rejection of Expertise

The segment of the population in the US who have lost their jobs or who have seen their standards of living fall under globalization have reason to distrust the experts who had extolled globalization’s virtues. The 80 million people in the US who lack college education are expected to suffer increasingly serious difficulties finding decent employment, as the good jobs that they might have expected to have in the past “are all but fully gone” (Levitz, 2016). As the economic experts advising Hillary Clinton’s campaign have nothing to offer these voters in terms of economic opportunities, these voters may turn instead to Donald Trump:

“I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them. They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them. And so I think it’s intuitively understandable that a screaming, loud, wrong answer is more compelling than a calm, reasonable, accurate, right answer: Your life is going to be worse for the rest of your life — but don’t worry, these hipsters in Brooklyn are doing much better.” (Levitz, 2016)

Even in elite US enclaves like the Hamptons, Trump supporters can be found among the middle-class business owners and workers who provide goods and services to their super-wealthy customers, as they “feel their life is not as good as it was” (Goldman and Gordon, 2016). Indeed, a large number of middle-class Americans suffer from financial fragility: they live paycheck-to-paycheck, and lack sufficient savings to cover emergency expenses. To underscore the problem, 47 percent of respondents to a recent survey by the US Federal Reserve declared themselves lacking sufficient savings to pay for a $400 emergency expense (Gabler, 2016). The financial frustrations of these Americans could also translate into support for Trump.

While the politically correct culture would label them as bigots, racists, or misogynists for their support of Trump, this same culture would not censor wealthy liberals for labelling and libeling Trump supporters as “nothing but uneducated white trash.”

Ironically, economists studying the US manufacturing sector have indeed found evidence that globalization was to blame for a large number of job losses. Following China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, US manufacturers suffered “substantial” losses after failing to compete against cheaper Chinese imports in a range of products including “apparel, leather goods, plastic plumbing fixtures and surgical and medical equipment.” The economists found that it was these uncompetitive industries that suffered job losses, and estimate that globalization had led to the loss of almost a million manufacturing jobs in the US (Gosselin and Dorning, 2015). Some economists like Yale University’s Stephen Roach hence argue that governments need to offer “worker retraining, relocation allowances, job-search assistance, wage insurance for older workers, and longer-duration unemployment benefits” to ameliorate the unemployment caused by globalization, and to save globalization from the “mounting worker backlash” (Roach, 2016).

For Trump’s supporters, this belated admission from the experts of their traumatic experience of globalization-led unemployment will probably be seen as being too little and much too late. Nonetheless, the confirmation that Chinese competition had led to US job losses explains why Trump’s politically incorrect rhetoric of China “manipulating its currency” to “rape” the US and conduct the “greatest theft in the history of the world” resonates powerfully with those of his followers who see themselves as the victims of globalization (“Trump accuses,” 2016). In American Rust Belt communities that had suffered under globalization, even those who had voted for Democrats in the past are switching en masse to Donald Trump, precisely because they view him as standing up to globalization (O’Brien, 2016). As an observer points out:

“Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.” (Dreher and Vance, 2016)

Identity Politics

The contemporary state of political correctness extends beyond the valorization of the multicultural and cosmopolitan culture of globalization, and is deeply influenced by the identity politics of race and gender. In recent months, political correctness in the US has expanded to include support for causes like the Black Lives Matter movement and the right of transgender persons to use bathrooms which match their gender identity, with those opposed to these causes being deemed as racist and transphobic (Neff, 2016; “Opponents target,” 2016). The incorporation of identity politics into the culture of political correctness can be traced to the leakage of academic culture into popular culture. In the elite universities of the US, identity politics has been nurtured to sophisticated levels by academics working in interdisciplinary fields like women’s studies, LGBT studies, and ethnic studies. Many graduates from these disciplines have found employment in the US culture industry, especially in the publishing houses and new media companies of New York, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. Through their work in major publications and websites, they are able to influence popular culture and transmit the new concepts of identity politics to their respective audiences.

Trump supporters regard this expanded culture of political correctness as one of censorship of their freedom of expression. This is especially since the ethnic and gender minorities that political correctness protects are those that many Trump supporters have oppositional feelings about. Many of these voters feel alienated by demographic trends including immigration which have “made the country more heterogeneous,” as well as “cultural trends such as gay marriage and measures to fight discrimination against African-Americans, which make them feel marginalized” (Geller and Godar, 2016). A Trump supporter observes that those who express politically incorrect thoughts in America, especially in liberal cities like San Francisco, now face the risk of severe social sanctions:

“Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend. There is no saying ‘Hey, I disagree with you,’ it's just instant shunning. Say things online, and they'll try to find out who you are and potentially even get you fired for it.” (Friedersdorf, 2016)

In addition, many Trump supporters from the segments of society that suffered under globalization see the expanded culture of political correctness as hypocritically endorsing the mockery of their social class. While the politically correct culture would label them as bigots, racists, or misogynists for their support of Trump, this same culture would not censor wealthy liberals for labelling and libeling Trump supporters as “nothing but uneducated white trash” (Arnade, 2016). By “highlighting ‘white privilege’” instead of “looking down at the bottom of the ladder to see who’s been left out,” liberal academics perpetuate this politically correct bias against Trump supporters. As it turns out, “almost half — 42.1 percent, or 19.7 million Americans — of those below the poverty line are white. In the South, more than half of the poor are white.” Not surprisingly, these poor whites view politically correct culture as a form of class warfare waged against them by the liberal elites, and hence they are likely to vote for Trump, whom they see as their champion (Isenberg, 2016). Given how this immiserated social class has long been ignored or mocked by the cosmopolitan and multicultural global elite, their traumatic irruption into the American political consciousness through their decisive votes for Trump in the Republican presidential primaries represents what Jacques Rancière (2006) has called the “redistribution of the sensible,” as — tired of being ignored and mocked — this hitherto silent social class has finally found their voice at the ballot box to force the rest of society to hear their grievances (p. 43).

Apart from globalization, terrorism is another major source of anxiety for Trump supporters, and Trump’s proposal of a ban on the immigration of Muslims has led his opponents to describe him as an Islamophobe (Pager, 2016). The surge in global terrorist attacks in recent weeks however has strengthened the resolve of his supporters. Since the first week of June 2016, the world has suffered a significant ISIS-related terrorist strike once every 84 hours (Lister, 2016). Following the June 12 Orlando massacre, Trump argued that political correctness was preventing the US government from implementing hard solutions like his proposed ban on Muslim immigration (Nelson, 2016). The spate of IS attacks worldwide has also strengthened the support for his controversial proposal to construct a wall on the US-Mexico border, which his followers see as necessary not just to end illegal immigration, but also to block a route of access for potential terrorists. Expert opinion that the proposed wall will be prohibitively costly has not dissuaded his supporters (“Mexico condemns,” 2015; “The economics,” 2016; Smith, 2016).

To some extent, the connection between the culture of political correctness and the allure of Trump stems from the principle that an attempt to block something can create or intensify the desire for it (Lacan, 1992, pp. 83-84). This principle can be seen, for example, in the nationalistic fury of the Chinese public following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent decision to nullify the validity of China’s 9-dash line claim to maritime territory in the South China Sea. Even those who had little interest in the South China Sea before suddenly found themselves filled with nationalistic desire for it (Bernstein, 2016; Lim, 2016b). In a similar fashion, many of Trump’s followers have been enraged by the growing influence of the culture of political correctness, which they see as blocking their freedom to express politically incorrect views, especially about ethnic groups or gender minorities. Such censorship has intensified their desire to express politically incorrect speech, thereby creating support for Donald Trump, whom they see as representing their best chance to push back the influence of political correctness. As a Trump supporter explains:

“This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we’re going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric. Even better, we will show that more than half the country rejects this insane PC regime. If Trump wins, I will personally feel a major burden relieved, and I will feel much more comfortable stating my more right-wing views without fearing total ostracism and shame. Because of this, no matter what Trump says or does, I will keep supporting him.” (Friedersdorf, 2016)

Trumpism around the World

Trumpist opposition to cosmopolitan and multiculturalist values has in recent weeks surged around the world. In the UK, the success of the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum has been followed by a wave of xenophobic and racist harassment of immigrants, with the UK police reporting that “hate crime rose by 57 per cent in the four days following the referendum, and that 42 per cent more hate crime was reported to them in the last two weeks of June than there had been in the corresponding period of 2015” (Lusher, 2016). In Germany, the government of Angela Merkel faces heightened public opposition over its decision to uphold its open-door immigration policy despite the recent series of terrorist attacks, two of which had been committed by refugees (Dunn, 2016). The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has seen gains in public support (Carrel, 2016). The rise of the AfD mirrors increases in public support across Europe for anti-immigrant political parties (Müller, 2016). The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has reaffirmed his government’s decision to fence off Hungary from refugee flows across the EU, and declared that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.” Not surprisingly, Orban has expressed his admiration for Donald Trump, whose “migration and foreign policy” he sees as being “good for Europe and vital for Hungary” (“Hungarian prime minister,” 2016).

The Asia-Pacific has not been spared from the spread of Trumpism either. The 2016 Philippine General Election saw the victory of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the presidential race. Duterte, who was described by many commentators as the Filipino Donald Trump due to his vulgar and extremely politically incorrect speech, defeated the urbane and cosmopolitan establishment candidate Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas by a landslide (Lim, 2016c; “Philippines’ presidential candidate,” 2016). The 2016 General Election in Australia likewise saw the return to Parliament of Pauline Hanson, the founder of the anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalist One Nation Party. Like Trump, Hanson’s electoral platform included a proposal to ban Muslim immigration into Australia (Safi, 2016; Neubauer, 2016).

In this context, the 2013 anti-immigration “Singapore for Singaporeans” protests in Singapore may be seen as harbingers of today’s global rise of Trumpism. As with the Trumpist uprisings today, the anti-immigration protests in Singapore were sparked by concerns among Singaporeans of the detrimental impact to local employment of the government’s pro-immigration policies (“Rare mass rally,” 2013; Fenn, 2014). These large public demonstrations of unhappiness prompted the government to impose curbs on immigration — despite the negative impact on businesses of the resulting rise in labor costs — and the ruling party was rewarded for this populist move with an unexpectedly large success in the 2015 general elections (“How will election,” 2015; Wembridge, 2015).


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