Given that American culture is awash in rudeness of all stripes, it's hard to take moralizers seriously when they furiously spout complaints about only some incivility, as if other commissions of the same sin aren't equally violative. For example, fans of Univision's Jorge Ramos objected to the dissing Donald Trump doled out to the feisty reporter at a recent press conference, but not to Ramos's refusal to yield the floor to his media brethren. Apparently, one brand of discourtesy is preferable to another. Likewise, it's widely seen as unacceptable for Trump to scoff at Carly Fiorina's face, but perfectly fine for Fiorina to take a swipe at Barbara Boxer's unstylish ("so yesterday") hairdo. If Trump had said what Fiorina said, he'd be labeled a misogynist, yet no woman has ever been accused of misandry for ridiculing the Donald's coiffure.
To understand what animates his shtick, it might be helpful to watch Trump razz acquiescing targets at a Comedy Central roast, where nary an eyebrow is raised over such shenanigans. Fueling his presidential candidacy with a relentless series of put-downs is an effective way for Trump to subject non-consenting elites to the same sort of mockery, and put them on the defensive. One need not approve of Trump's audacious performance art/political warfare to see that when he questioned John McCain's heroism, it was not intended as a serious comment about the plight of POWs or any other service members. It was just a handy way to needle the senator. But for some it was nonetheless beyond the pale, maybe even more taboo than Trump's digs at women.
In a recent Salon interview, Camille Paglia suggested Trump's no holds barred approach is filling a comedic void. She said Trump "does better comedy than most professional comedians right now, because we're in this terrible period where the comedians do their tours with canned jokes. They go from place to place, saying the same list of jokes in the same way. But the old vaudevillians had 5,000 jokes stored in their heads. They went out there and responded to that particular audience on that particular night. They had to read the crowd and try out what worked or didn't work...Our politicians, like our comedians, have been boring us with their canned formulas for way too long. So that's why Donald Trump has suddenly leapt in the polls. He's a great stand-up comedian...he's not afraid to say things that are rude and mean. I think he's doing a great service for comedy as well as for politics!"
Paglia has a point, but it might not be entirely fair to fault the comedians. Even the most popular stand-ups are no longer allowed to perform certain material at once-permissive but now-dogmatic halls of academia, and some -- including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Larry the Cable Guy -- prefer to completely avoid colleges. Ordinary Americans have come to see that thought control is rampant, and they become alarmed nowadays when they hear news such as the University of California's Committee on Education Policy wants to ban "questioning a student's fitness for a leadership role."
Almost no restriction is too oppressive for the legions of busybodies who want to decide for all of us what we can say to each other. It's a state of affairs that has free speech proponents more agitated than their rivals detect. The ongoing effort to quash disturbing but lawful speech is widely perceived as a plague on our society, not merely a difference in tastes. The buttinskies don't get it. They can't even fathom the notion that Trump's war on political correctness is righteous or corrective. They think the bumptious New Yorker is so crude and juvenile he couldn't possibly be up to something worthwhile. But Trump's colorful insistence that offensive comments aren't suppressible let alone punishable, is downright thrilling -- and essential -- to some of us.
The thought police and their defenders are not only clueless, but culpable for creating and sustaining the opportunity for Trump to shine as an anti-PC warrior. Their ongoing bewilderment over his ascension is obtuse in the extreme. For some reason, they don't grasp that those who appreciate Trump's brash intrusion into politics are less concerned about his sassiness than they are about nudniks thwarting free expression. I suspect many who abhor creeping censorship don't see Trump as sufficiently presidential. But they nonetheless appreciate how his unorthodox tactics are impacting the political landscape, and that he makes other one-percenters very uncomfortable.
Despite Paglia's renowned status as a public intellectual, Trump's critics are quick to dismiss his supporters as barely literate conservatives. But neither the candidate nor his followers can be easily marginalized or categorized. Trump's massive numbers suggest his appeal is much broader than his adversaries are prepared to admit. Twenty-four million people watched the August 6 Republican presidential debate on Fox News, three times more than any previous debate on a cable news channel. When Trump exercised his ample comedic chops with Jimmy Fallon on NBC last Friday night, The Tonight Show scored its highest rating in 18 months. Tonight's debate on CNN is expected to draw the network's largest audience ever. All the candidates will again be exposed to many more potential voters than any of them could have reached if Trump were not running. Any time millions of people who would otherwise pay no attention are drawn into the political process, it's hard to deny that democracy itself has been enhanced.
As we head into the fall season, it remains to be seen who -- if anyone -- will emerge as the clear Democratic frontrunner. Bernie Sanders has an achilles heel that Trump will likely exploit at some point soon. The Vermont senator reacted hysterically to the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision by authoring a constitutional amendment that would empower Congress to regulate any spending by anyone that could somehow affect an election. Although the proposed new authority is unprecedented and absurdly overbroad, other candidates have embraced and even expanded on the sentiment. Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Sanders have all vowed to appoint to the Supreme Court only justices who want to "overturn Citizens United." That bizarre litmus test is a significant departure from the norm that has so far escaped scrutiny. But Trump has an uncanny ability to very quickly use plain language to highlight an opponent's weakness, and to make his framing stick. How will Sanders, Clinton or O'Malley respond if Trump accuses them of criminalizing everyday discourse? If asked who they want to imprison for sharing information or an opinion, what will they say?
Many of the same people who detest political correctness are strongly opposed to the government regulating what's spent on so-called political speech, especially when any communication could be prohibited simply because money changes hands. Those who believe opposition to such tyranny is the exclusive province of Republicans, may be in for a rude awakening. Building a wall between the First Amendment and political influence is no less problematic than building one on the U.S./Mexico border, and immigration isn't the only issue that will mobilize a large segment of voters.
This post was originally published by The Norman Report.