Conservative Word Police

by Neil H. Buchanan

When all else fails, conservatives accuse their opponents of "political correctness."  This has been going on for thirty years or so, which means that Donald Trump's use of the anti-PC attack line is one of the ways in which he has ingratiated himself with his Republican base.

Professor Dorf recently contrasted two theories of Trump's rise in U.S. politics: Trump as truth serum, in which Trump says bluntly what Republicans have been saying obliquely for years; or Trump exceptionalism, in which Trump is unlike anything that we have seen before.

The long history of right-wingers' screaming about political correctness indicates that this is yet another way in which Trump is anything but a deviation from the Republicans' norm.  Indeed, Trump is not even out of the ordinary in degree or kind.  For decades, conservatives have been shouting, "Stop being so PC!"  Trump is simply unexceptional, at least on this score.

I will set aside for now the central problem with the anti-PC meme, which is that the concept has no core meaning.  As used by conservatives, political correctness can be applied to anything, ultimately meaning, "You're saying things that I disagree with, so I'll attack you for being too sensitive."  It is very much like "judicial activism," an attack line that is useful precisely because it is so empty (yet unmistakably negative).

If pressed, I suspect that most people who deplore political correctness would say that it means that liberals care too much about word choices.  "When did 'girls' become 'women'?  Why can't I call someone 'Oriental' anymore?  And what's so wrong about telling a joke about Polish people -- or even using the derogative version of 'Polish people'?"

Ultimately, the claim is that liberals are being hyper-sensitive.  What difference does it make, conservatives ask, whether you call someone a  dwarf or a little person?  Words only hurt if you let them be hurtful.  Why do liberals imagine that using belittling terms can lead people to take negative actions against the people who are being belittled?

This would be annoying enough on its own.  But it is positively infuriating because conservatives are, in fact, positively obsessed with forcing people to use certain words and phrases.  To listen to prominent conservatives, including those who wail about PC culture, the many problems facing this country are caused (or are at least made worse) by liberals being unwilling to speak certain phrases.

For example, during the first presidential debate, Trump said, "Secretary Clinton doesn't want to use a couple of words, and that's law and order."  Similarly, Trump and nearly all prominent Republicans have faulted Clinton and President Obama for not being willing to say the words "radical Islamic terrorism."

For decades, Republicans have been developing a vocabulary that is now a matter of ideological identity.  Obamacare instead of the Affordable Care Act; Democrat Party rather than Democratic Party; religious freedom to mean the right to discriminate; class warfare for redistributive policy; IRS code; death tax; patriot; freedom fighters; pro-life.

Some usages are especially odd, such as using the Dred Scott case as a dog whistle for anti-abortion politics.  Others become a moving target, with climate change first being the preferred conservative alternative to global warming before itself becoming unacceptably PC.

There are, of course, always fresh attempts to use words as weapons.  Trump, for example, recently used the new conservative favorite government school (as in "failing government school"), because the public likes public schools but hates the government (at least, conservatives hope that they do).

Interestingly, when Senator Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump at this year's Republican convention, he used the words "vote your conscience."  To non-conservatives, that sounded like a phrase that simply meant what its constituent words implied.  To Trump's supporters, however, if meant "Don't vote for Trump."  Cruz's audience got the point, which is why he was booed off the stage.

And who can forget the totemic importance of those two dueling December greetings: "Happy Holidays" versus "Merry Christmas"?

Trump, again, has gladly seized on conservatives' obsession with word choices, telling his listeners that something far beyond words is at stake -- even though he is also willing to dismiss his much more specific words as mere "locker room talk" that tell us nothing about his actions.

For people who think that their opponents are overly concerned with mere words, therefore, conservatives spend an awful lot of time policing everyone else's word choices.  Where did this come from?

To a certain degree, this could be dismissed as mere political gamesmanship.  George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four depicted the use of language as a mind-control device.  Orwell introduced neologisms like doublethink into the language and showed how mantras like "freedom is slavery" can change how people live their lives.

For conservatives, all of their careful word choices are no more nor less than an acknowledgement that words are weapons.  That conservatives have convinced themselves (and some others) that only their opponents are obsessed with words is merely a successful political strategy of deflection.

But merely saying that "everyone does it" does not mean that everyone does it in the same way, or that the effects of different politicians' word choices degrade the political conversation to the same extent.

By analogy, we know that everyone in an economic market can be expected to compete to gain an advantage, but there is a huge difference between one person who uses flowery language to make his product sound appealing, another person who flirts with antitrust violations while driving her rivals out of business, and a third person who threatens to kill his competitors' families.  There is a lot of ground covered by the phrase "aggressive competitive behavior."

Conservatives became extraordinarily aggressive in their obsessive policing of language over the course of the last generation.  Why did this happen?  This past July, I wrote: "The seeds of ugly political discourse that Newt Gingrich so deliberately planted and nurtured have fully flowered."

One might imagine that no single individual could be blamed for what has become such a pervasive problem.  After all, it might simply be that language degrades over time, and that all politicians contribute to that decline in the ways that Orwell identified.

That, however, requires ignoring the reality that terms like death tax and partial-birth abortion show up in conservatives' lexicons after having been focus-group tested in the same way that movies and toothpaste commercials are tested.  And it in particular requires one to be willfully blind to the uniquely negative impact of former Speaker Gingrich.

It is no surprise, of course, that Gingrich has managed to muscle his way back into the national spotlight, using his surrogacy for the Trump campaign to renew his assault on the English language.  Just this week, Gingrich engaged in a bizarre argument with Fox News's Megyn Kelly, accusing Kelly of being "fascinated with sex."

The payoff moment, however, was this: "I just want to hear you use the words, 'Bill Clinton, sexual predator.' I dare you. Say, 'Bill Clinton, sexual predator.'"  Most people would hear or read Gingrich there and think, "What an immature bully!"  My reaction, however, was that this was Gingrichism distilled to its purest essence.

The fact is that Gingrich is not merely one of the people who jumped on a bandwagon, repeating and amplifying the degradation of political conversation.  If any one person can be said to have started us down this road, it is Gingrich.  And his doing so is very well documented.

For example, the political analysts Norman Orenstein and Thomas Mann recently wrote: "Newt Gingrich, first among other Republican leaders, took this polarization to a new level. He was key in the transformation of the party into a destructive and delegitimizing force in American politics (which makes his recent bonding with Trump very fitting)."

It was not an exaggeration for Michelle Cottle to write in The Atlantic earlier this year that Gingrich "broke politics."  Others have gleefully joined Gingrich over the years, but Gingrich has spent his entire life leading people down this dangerous path.

Back in the 1990's, what is now known as "the GOPAC memo" (named after a Republican lobbying organization) presented Gingrich's strategic use of extreme language, telling Republicans how to use specific words to attack their opponents.  The memo, titled "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," included this list of words to use against opponents:
decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, "compassion" is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor...) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage.
The memo described those words as "tested language from a recent series of focus groups where we actually tested ideas and language."

Earlier this year, when Trump was criticized for attacking the family of a dead war hero, he defended himself by saying that he had been "viciously attacked" by the Khan family.  Even though the word "vicious" is not on the list above, Gingrich's influence on that framing is obvious.

Back in 1988, Gingrich reportedly said: "When in doubt, Democrats lie."  In Republican circles today, we have moved further down this slope, with supposed falsehoods by Democrats not merely being lies, because they must also be vicious lies.  Gingrich also instructed his incoming class of "Contract on America" congressional freshmen to call their opponents "traitors."

By the time Gingrich ran for president in 2012, he was claiming that Obama was a "food stamp president" and using "urban" as code for African-American.  Defending his food-stamp comment, he once said: "I know among the politically correct you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."

Maybe the problem, however, is using "facts" that are simply false.  As a writer in The Economist put it in 2012: "Barack Obama has put no one on food stamps. Population growth together with the most severe recession since the advent of the modern American welfare state ... conspired to make a record number eligible for government food assistance."

But none of this matters to Gingrich and his acolytes.  After the Republican convention this past summer, Gingrich went on TV to defend Trump's claims that the U.S. is a crime-ridden hellhole.  When the interviewer pointed out that crime rates are lower than they have ever been, and that the small number of cities which have seen increases this year did not change those broad trends, Gingrich smiled and replied that he would rather appeal to what people think is true, not what is true.

This is especially revealing, of course, because what Gingrich is really saying is that he has taught his people to use language as a weapon, which changes what people think is true.  And then Republicans can run on what people think is true, rather than on the truth.  So if, for example, people just happen to think that mouthing the magic words "radical Islamic terrorism" would win the war on terror, whose fault is that?

Even so, Republicans are sure that it is Democrats who are obsessed with language.  Like Trump's claim that Hillary Clinton has "tremendous hatred in her heart," this looks like yet another example of conservatives projecting their psychoses onto their opponents.

Again, this did not begin with Trump, and it will not end with him.  Gingrich led the way, and conservative word policing is now deeply embedded in the DNA of the conservative movement.