A few months ago, someone I respect said, "Whatever else can be said about the Trump candidacy, he sure is a breath of fresh air!"
I was perplexed. I find Trump grating and offensive. To find him refreshing is so at odds with my experience that I didn't know what to do with the idea.
But as I probed a little deeper, I began to realize that the experience of Trump as "refreshing" was rooted in the very same features of Trump's persona that generated my far more negative response: Trump's tendency to throw conventional social restraints to the wind.
Whether you find that refreshing or offensive depends on how you experience those restraints.
Sometimes, social restraints can feel burdensome. Those who complain about "political correctness" (a term mostly used by those who complain about it) describe it as a kind of hyper-vigilance against any word or gesture that might hurt someone's feelings. specifically the feelings of historically oppressed groups such as women and minorities.
According to these critics of political correctness, standards for protecting the feelings of these groups have become so exacting that well-meaning people have to be constantly on guard against accidentally saying the wrong things or saying them in the wrong way. They feel as if they can never let down their hair and just relax for fear of offending someone. They're constantly walking on egg-shells, exhausted by the effort--all because some people, as they are inclined to put it, are oversensitive and should just grow a thicker skin.
If this is how you feel in relation to a set of social norms, then someone who bull-dogs ahead without the slightest regard for those norms will be experienced as refreshing. It can feel vicariously liberating.
But if you experience those same social norms as essential constraints for a just society, as standards of decency established for the sake of creating a space where human beings can interact from a footing of mutual respect, then the person who bull-dogs through them will be experienced as grating and offensive.
I don't want to turn this post into an extended exploration of "political correctness"--but it does seem that Trump supporters are heavily represented by people who complain the most strongly about it. So a few words are in order.
Here's what I want to say. "Political correctness" is a term bound up with efforts to point out the ways in which systemic oppression is perpetuated by ordinary people doing and saying things that were entirely acceptable in their communities of origin. When it comes to addressing how such words and behavior contribute to injustice, I believe we should engage with each other in a spirit of grace. That is, I think we should recognize that we're all flawed, that we all come from backgrounds and upbringings that have habituated in us things that maybe shouldn't be there; and we ought to address these realities with patience and forgiveness.
But I also think that we need to hold each other accountable for the ways in which our words and behaviors contribute, however unconsciously, to systems of oppression. Those who most need to be held accountable are probably the very ones who are most likely to find it burdensome. If you were raised in a context where racist and sexist ideas were commonplace, then resisting racism and sexism is going to be hard work. This doesn't mean you shouldn't do that work. It doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't expect you to do it. But if you're trying to do that work, a spirit of grace should define how others respond to your inevitable failures.
And in case there was any doubt: a spirit of grace should define how we respond to those who have a hard time maintaining a spirit of grace in the face of others' failures.
Maintaining that balance is hard. And even if the balance is struck, people can easily become defensive if they feel that their way of life, their families and communities, are being judged as part of the problem of oppression.
And so we have, on the one hand, morally compelling expectations about how to stand for justice, resist ideas and behaviors that perpetuate oppression, and show respect for historically oppressed groups. On the other hand, we have demands delivered without a spirit of grace that feel both overwhelming and excessive, making no room for ordinary human limitations and loyalties.
Where I experience primarily the former, others experience the latter. I don't want to dwell here on whose experience is right. The truth is that our current social norms almost certainly contain elements of each--and given our backgrounds, we will tend to focus more on some elements than others.
But if our norms contain elements of each, then Donald Trump has been plowing through it all indiscriminately: shaking off the overwhelming and excessive demands along with every real standard of human decency and respect. As his supporters cheer, I am reminded of a low point in my life when I became, however briefly, obsessed with professional wrestling.
Trump as Professional Wrestler
Back in the late '90's, there was a brief period when I was sucked into professional wresting. I watched it daily, at first bemused, then fascinated, then hooked. It was a spectacle in which none of the ordinary rules of propriety and decency obtained. It was all about testosterone-fueled indignation. But because it was all pretend, watching it was strangely liberating. I could vicariously step into a world where all those norms were suspended, where I had no need to watch myself or censor myself.
The pretense of reality made that release possible: The wrestlers pretended it was all real, and so I could imagine that it was real. But at least in my case, it was also crucial that I knew it was pretense. Since it was fake, there were no costs. No harm done (at least if I ignored the news stories about the personal meltdowns of the actors). At a time when I felt overwhelmed by moral demands and judgments delivered without that crucial spirit of grace, professional wrestling offered me an escape into a world where those kinds of expectations were like tissue paper to be torn off and cast aside.
In a recent ThinkProgress piece, Judd Legum makes the case that professional wrestling offers us a lens for understanding Trump's success. Legum invokes the ideas of the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who tried to understand the appeal of professional wrestling. Unlike boxing, which is about excellence achieved within the confines of a sport defined by rules, "wrestling is a sum of spectacles." It is spectacle defined by passion, by indignation, by a rough sense of justice meted out with body-slams and folding chairs turned into weapons.
The ring is a pretense, and the spectacle spills outside it regularly to remind us that there are no rules. As Barthes puts it:
Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.Judd Legum thinks Barthes analysis of professional wrestling would work as well as an analysis of Trump's campaign. Trump is campaigning as if the electorate were professional wresting fans. What he offers is the kind of spectacle that is most absorbing, most satisfying, when all the rules are swept away by a triumphant disorder.
And so Trump can lie, and be caught in his lie by a disabled journalist, and then mock the disabled journalist with physical gestures obviously mimicking the journalist's disability--and then, instead of apologizing for such blatant offensiveness, go on the attack, accusing the the journalist of "grandstanding about his disability."
This is the pro wrestler with the microphone, insulting all his opponents with self-righteous indignation, all to the wild enthusiasm of the crowd.
Is it refreshing?
When excessive rules and overwhelming expectations are publicly brushed aside, that can be refreshing. But when all rules, all norms of common decency and restraint, are ignored in favor of the pro-wrestler's self-righteous brand of bullying, the resultant spectacle can be refreshing only to the extent that we recognize it as pretense--a fiction to be indulged for a moment, an escape from reality.
But the illusion of a world where ignoring all standards of decorum has no consequences is just that: an illusion. It can be momentarily liberating to step into the fiction. But if the fiction spills out of the arena and into the real world, if the triumphant disorder is not contained to the realm of pretense, then what we have isn't a refreshing spectacle. What we have is a disaster.
So for me, the key question is this: Will Trump's supporters, caught up in the spectacle of their favorite wrestler beating down all opponents without any regard for conventional standards and restraints, realize that Trump's candidacy is taking place in the real world--a world where ignoring rules of human decency actually does real harm? As primary season kicks off, will his fans start stepping back from the spectacle and say, "Oh, but this is the actual leadership of a real country we're talking about, not just a show"?
Today's Iowa Caucuses will offer some clues, if not a definitive answer.