One of the great mysteries of this election cycle is how Donald Trump’s outrageous insults — against the disabled, Hispanics, Muslims, women, John McCain, Megan Kelly, etc. — buttress rather than derail his campaign. Though it’s surely part of the story, the conclusion is not simply that Trump and his supporters are bigots and misogynists. Trump’s campaign, in essence, represents a protest against American politeness and political correctness. His willingness to be offensive is the very point. To understand what’s going on, we need to go way back, turning back the calendar, month by month, year by year, century by century, to the beginning of modern civilization.
If you’re hanging out with hunter-gatherers, you’ve gone too far. Think Europe in the Middle Ages. Think knights, but without the romance. Think murder, hunger and fear. Think defecation in public. In his masterwork, "The Civilizing Process," first published in 1939, the sociologist Norbert Elias explains the transition from these harsh warrior societies to the relatively pacified court societies of the 16th and 17th Centuries. As much technological or bureaucratic, Elias argues that the revolution that begat Western civilization was psychological, with a great shift in people’s sensitivities and sensibilities, as reflected in their evolving mores and manners.
The crucial step, according to Elias, was the centralization of power in the king’s court. In the court, a knight curried the king’s favor not through the aggression and impulsive violence at which he was so adept, but through self-control, through elaborate displays of manners, language, and cultural sophistication. In this way, by flattering and impressing the king’s associates, and by being careful not to offend them, a knight would prove himself capable of administering a province responsibly. Elias documents how the manners appropriate for the king’s court— being “courtly” or exhibiting “courtesy”—and the related concern with not giving offense moved on down through the social classes. Eventually, what was before spelled out in detailed etiquette manuals, as instrumental means for succeeding in high society, became internalized in people’s minds, as intrinsically appropriate ways of living for all. Repressed into the individual’s unconscious, Elias argues, were his instinctual enjoyments of violence, bodily functions, polymorphous sex, smells, and so forth. From this historical process of repression — the Great Repression perhaps — people came to control their passions and appetites, and developed the capacity to view the world from the perspective of others, enabling peace, commerce, and science, Elias concludes.
This civilizing process continued unabated from the 16th Century onward, with social conventions “calling for greater levels of restraint and forbearance and producing ever-increasing thresholds of delicacy and self-restraint,” as the sociologist David Garland writes. And it has progressed with yet more speed in recent decades, arguably, as evidenced by our increasing concern with “political correctness.” Public speech has been “civilized,” we might say, as people regulate their words closely so as not to give offense.
A key feature of the civilizing process, according to Elias, is privatization, where certain animalistic aspects of life — sex, violence, defecation, illness, suffering, etc.—are removed to the private realms of the nuclear home, the bathroom, the prison, the hospital, etc. Elias notes, for instance, how carving a whole animal, once a direct part of the social life of upper classes, came to be viewed as repugnant and distasteful, and was moved from the dinner table to specialized, private areas like the kitchen and the butcher shop. Political correctness, in parallel—sometimes for the better, in terms of discrediting hateful speech, and sometimes for the worse, in terms of forestalling good faith debate—has attempted to remove certain “animalistic” political and social views to the realms of private discussion and thought. We become offended, accordingly, at the public presentation of such views. Watch an action movie from the early 1980s — like Eddie Murphy’s star turn in "48 Hours" —to appreciate how acceptable misogyny, racism, and homophobia once were in the public sphere.
Political correctness, importantly, is not limited to the left. In addition to generally accepting speech conventions in protection of minorities, the right has its own rigid speech codes in support of particular policies, like cuts to social welfare programs, particular values, like reverence for the military, and a particular tone, involving anger at progressives. Should a Republican dissent in public, even in good faith, fellow conservatives often become horribly offended and upset, though they might not use that language. The result of this civilizing of our public speech has been self-censorship on both sides of the aisle in recent decades, with debate becoming safer within the parties, more anodyne and uniform, and with politics tending toward scripted theater.
Enter Donald Trump casually discussing, off the cuff, the size of his penis in a nationally televised debate (“I guarantee there’s no problem. I guarantee.”). Outrageous. “I prefer people who don’t get captured,” he said of John McCain’s military service, which included more than five years as a POW in Vietnam, during which time he could have been released earlier but chose to respect the policy of first-in first-out. McCain deemed these remarks “offensive.” Indeed. And that’s the point, whether Trump is aware of it or not. It’s all subtext.
Trump is demanding that we peel back a layer or two of American civilization, of American manners. His campaign represents the belief that America, in its dealings with illegal immigrants and with terrorists, and within its system of political discussion, is overly polite. That is the unifying theme of his campaign.
His politically incorrect insults are in this way tied to his politically incorrect policy proposals. Being offensive is the message. And that’s why his insults and general outrageousness help rather than hurt his campaign. Less repression and calculation, Trump argues, more aggression. More id. Let us return the whole animal carcass to the dinner table, Trump implies, and let us carve it together. No more hiding our true beliefs — about Hispanics, Muslims, terrorists, women, and so forth.
And there is something to the whole thing, not in terms of his substantive views, but in terms of his approach to political communication. A willingness to be offensive is, in a certain way, connected to honesty. It remains refreshing to see Trump speak totally unscripted and off the cuff. By comparison, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton’s triangulated sound bites are so much less genuine. They aren’t lying, but they aren’t telling me what they really believe. They are knights in the king’s court trying desperately not to offend his associates, or rather the particular subset they believe can secure their rule. But, undoubtedly, Trump aims to pull back too many layers of civilization, intending to unleash illiberal impulses and instincts. Consider his commitment to the widespread use of torture, to killing the innocent family members of terrorists, to deporting all 11 million undocumented Hispanics, and to possibly punishing women who get abortions. Sometimes what we find offensive is not simply a matter of contingent psychological history. Sometimes things are offensive because they’re wrong.
Jacob Bronsther, a lawyer and Fulbright Scholar, is a PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.