Donald Trump’s war against what he calls political correctness has helped fuel his summer surge – and spark a fierce new debate over how far politicians can go.
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, said at the candidates’ debate earlier this month.
He’s not alone. “There’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me,” comic Jerry Seinfeld told “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Call it political correctness, or call it sensitivity – it can depend on which side you’re on given the term – this summer has seen an escalation of words and terms that set off storms of criticism, often fed and spread by social media.
Already there were the charges that “Happy Holidays” really means a war on Christmas. And debates over whether to use the word “Islamic” in describing terrorism.
Now there’s “anchor babies,” “thug” and “illegals.”
The debate is on, and here are some of the words and phrases punctuating political debates.
The controversy: President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake used the word to describe rioters in Baltimore. Critics pounced, saying the word was insulting. “Thugs is the 21st century word for the N-word,” Rev. Jamal Bryant in Baltimore told CNN.
Follow-up: Rawlings-Blake quickly “clarified” her use of the term, tweeting “one can say things in a way that you don’t mean.” An Obama spokesman said the president did not regret using the term – a term that’s been routinely used for years. Theusarus.com lists 22 synonyms for thug, including murderer, gorilla, assassin – and rioter.
The controversy: For years, governments and retailers backed away from using the word “Christmas,” often using the more generic term, Happy Holidays. So has the White House. In 2011, it sent out a card with the Obama’s dog Bo, in front of a fireplace.
Some saw an all-out war. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly declared he was “like a guerrilla fighter in the war on Christmas.” Last year, he declared the war won.
Follow-up: Last year, the White House sent out what it called “the first ever interactive White House holiday card.” At the end of the Obama’s message, the president wishes everyone “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everybody.”
All lives matter
The controversy: At a Netroots Nation conference in July, protesters shouted “Do black lives matter to you?” as Martin O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore and now Democratic presidential candidate, spoke. He tried to answer and cited his record as mayor. “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter,” he said. Booing erupted.
“The idea of saying everything matters undercuts the value and point of highlighting black life as something worthy of concern,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida law school, at the time.
Follow-up: The Black Lives Matter movement remains active and motivated. Earlier this month, activists shut down a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle when they went onto the stage and took his microphone. Sanders has tried repeatedly to stress his longtime support of civil rights and efforts at criminal justice reform.
The controversy: Republican candidate Jeb Bush used the term to describe babies born to non-citizens. A child born in this country is a U.S. citizen. The controversy has been around for years: In 2010, some congressional Republicans called for hearings to examine the issue. Critics say such a child makes it easier for other family members, who may not be citizens, to settle in this country.
Many consider the term a slur. “Jeb’s remarks suggest how he might lead as President by following Donald Trump down to the bottom of the barrel,” said Dawn Le of the Alliance for Citizenship, a coalition of groups promoting an overhaul of the immigration system.
According to Nexis, the term appeared in U.S. media more than 3,000 times in the 10 years before Bush used it in August, though often with debate over it.
Follow-up: Too soon to tell how the furor affects Bush. “I’ll use the term anchor baby,” Trump said.
The controversy: Obama will not label the war on terrorism a war against radical Islam. “No religion is responsible for terrorism, people are responsible for violence and terrorism,” the president said. The administration had labeled as “workplace violence” the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, where a “Soldier of Allah” killed 13 and wounded 32. The military later said it was an act of international terrorism.
Follow-up: Republicans have been relentless in criticizing Obama. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called the president “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists.”
The controversy: After a white supremacist, who posed with Confederate flag for a website photo, allegedly killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in May, governments and others quickly moved to remove the flag from public places.
Follow-up: Flag advocates have lost. Period.
The controversy: The Supreme Court did not use that term in a 2012 immigration case, except when citing others. Immigration rights activists reminded everyone that saying someone was illegal inferred they were engaged in unlawful activity. And people are innocent until proven guilty.
Follow-up: It’s now considered politically correct to refer to people who entered this country illegally as “undocumented.”
David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid