Rhinestones twinkling around the perimeter of her shades, cornsilk curls undaunted by the Pensacola sun, Elizabeth Kemper, a supporter of Donald J. Trump, is all certainty. She is fed up. “You know, this country is so dang political correct,” she tells a CNN reporter. “I’m afraid to say what I really feel, you know?”
On her shirt, a silhouette of Trump’s head nestles in the protective crook of the state of Florida, his face turned stalwartly eastward, away from Mexico, his Mordor.
Kemper is blazing, passionate, incredulous. “I think this country better go back to some of those values. Some of the values my parents grew up with, my grandparents grew up with,” she says. “Whatever was wrong, they could point it out and tell you.”
The notion that Trump voices ideas that his supporters are “afraid” to express, vital truths lost to the scourge of political correctness, has been a rhetorical through-line of his campaign. Trump says exactly what he thinks, his fans gush – about immigrants, about Muslims, about women – a bygone pleasure now denied most Americans.
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It’s an odd construction. Once you say, “He says what I’m afraid to say,” and point to a man who is essentially a 24/7 fire hose of unequivocal bigotry, you’ve said what you’re afraid to say, so how afraid could you have been in the first place? The phrase is a dodge, a way to acknowledge that you’re aware it’s a little naughty to be a misogynist xenophobe in 2016, while letting like-minded people know, with a conspiratorial wink, that you’re only pretending to care. It’s a wild grab for plausible deniability – how can I be a white supremacist when I’m just your nice grandpa? – an artifact of a culture in which some people believe that it’s worse to be called racist than to be racist.
Trump fans are flattering themselves if they think that, say, declining to shout slurs at black people or sexually harass female co-workers is some form of noble restraint. Not only is that a pathetically low bar, many do not seem to be clearing it. Video of a Trump rally in Kentucky on Super Tuesday shows a student named Shiya Nwanguma being shoved and jostled. She reported being called a racial epithet as well as an abusive term for the female anatomy. Video from a North Carolina rally on Wednesday shows a white Trump supporter punching a black protester in the face. One glance at your worst relative’s Facebook page, one toe dipped into the toxic sludge-fire that is pro-Trump Twitter, and it’s abundantly obvious that no one is holding much back.
It’s tempting to declare that the Internet isn’t real life, that online hate isn’t a credible barometer for offline behavior. But human beings built the Internet, we populate it, we set its tone, and collectively we’ve designated it a major engine of discourse. It has been my experience that anonymity makes people more honest, more themselves. If you applaud the sentiment that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” and “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” from the mouth of a presidential candidate, why should I believe you aren’t saying worse in the privacy of your home?
Trump isn’t saying anything that his supporters wouldn’t. He hasn’t let an explicit racial slur slip on the campaign trail. It’s the other way around. They’re laying bare the subtext of his speech and policies, revealing how they appear to angry white people primed and frustrated by the past century of Republican dog-whistling. They’re saying what Trump can’t.
Regardless, even if Trump supporters were managing to toe some politically correct line with their words, they speak as clear as day with their votes.
A voter whose preferred immigration policy involves “a wall” and “a list” makes it clear where he stands on the humanity of refugees. A voter who thinks it’s perfectly reasonable not to immediately disavow the support of a white nationalist makes it clear where she stands on the Black Lives Matter movement. A voter who feels well represented by a candidate who has called women “fat pigs” and “dogs” makes it clear he is not to be trusted when it comes to women’s health.
It doesn’t take clairvoyance, or even tremendous mental dexterity, to see what Trump means by “make America great again.” It just takes a history book. Many of us remember what America used to be like and don’t care to go back.
Some of Trump’s loudest critics come from the groups he has built his campaign on demonizing – black people, Latinos, Muslims, women – historically marginalized groups whose voices are reaching wider audiences thanks to the democratizing power of the Internet. Political correctness is construed, deliberately and effectively, by its opponents as an attack on fun, but it’s really an attack on the status quo that made Trump both very wealthy and a viable presidential candidate.
We cannot ignore the fact that the populist sensation of this election hasn’t been Bernie Sanders. It’s been a racist, nationalist demagogue-for-hire with no sincere ideology beyond his own vanity. Trump is a cipher; his voters love him because he does nothing but hold up a mirror to their basest prejudices and bask in the feedback loop of narcissism. They’re not “afraid”; they’re leading Trump as much as following him. They called him into being, not the other way around.
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Lindy West is a columnist with The Guardian and the author of the forthcoming memoir “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman.”