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How Donald Trump uses "political correctness" to make sexist bullying seem like heroism

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

"I won’t call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead, I will only call her a lightweight reporter!"

GOP presidential candidate and walking advertisement for the structural integrity of hair products Donald Trump tweeted that charming sentiment on Wednesday morning, as part of his ongoing feud with Fox News over whether Kelly, whom Trump claims is biased against him, would be allowed to keep her spot as moderator of last night’s GOP debate, despite Trump's threat that he would boycott if she were allowed to moderate, as ended up happening.

On the face of things, it seems like this was an argument over whether Trump could impose his demands on Fox News, and indeed it was that. But it was also a dispute over whether Trump could get away with the kind of overt misogyny that is supposed to be banned from polite company, and on that he succeeded.

Trump's game here is far smarter than it looks: This tweet is sending a message that goes far beyond Kelly, and says a lot about how Trump has positioned himself as a candidate. He has discovered the political correctness loophole, whereby behavior that is otherwise considered bullying suddenly becomes brave defiance. Punching down becomes punching up. He, and by extension his supporters, gets the satisfaction of bullying with the false nobility of being a hero.

"I won’t call Megyn Kelly a bimbo": Trump’s version of "I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!"?

On the surface, Trump’s tweet seemed like a childish way to insult Kelly but not have to take responsibility for his words — the equivalent of a child yelling, "I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!" on the playground.

After all, there is no substantive difference between Trump’s tweet and one that calls Kelly a bimbo directly. Either way, he’s still saying that he thinks she is a bimbo and deserves to be called one in public. Either way, he is being a disrespectful, sexist bully. Pretending that he "won’t" call her a bimbo is the flimsiest possible evasion.

But by pretending to not have insulted Kelly, Trump gets to be as mean as he wants while still avoiding responsibility for his behavior.

But there’s more to it than that. By invoking "political correctness," Trump managed to reframe his position. Suddenly he’s not a boorish man making crude, sexist insults about a woman he’s afraid of — he’s a brave warrior against the forces of PC fascism.

And he has done this before. Back in August, when Kelly challenged Trump on his sexist comments about women during the first GOP primary debate, Trump responded with a diatribe about political correctness, thereby casting Kelly as the problem instead of his own behavior.

"I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct," he said to Kelly. "I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either."

In other words, this is a longstanding strategy for Trump — and it's one that works very, very well.

How crying "political correctness" turns punching down into punching up

Trump’s use of "political correctness" as a shield for his insults exemplifies a much broader strategy that he has employed to great effect: presenting boorish, bullying behavior as a brave stand for justice and freedom. The way that works says a lot about Trump’s campaign — and about what claims of "political correctness" are often really about.

Let’s start with the reality of the situation: Trump was too afraid of Megyn Kelly to show up to a debate where she might ask him questions (or, in the most generous reading, was afraid the debate could only risk his frontrunner status in Iowa), so he decided to bail and insult her on Twitter instead. And not just any insult, either. By saying she was a "bimbo," Trump specifically called upon an old classic of misogynist thinking: that the only thing that matters about a woman is how she looks, and that any attractive woman is an idiot who doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

There’s nothing brave or bold about that. A wealthy, powerful white man calling a woman a bimbo while trying to get her fired from a media event isn’t clever, it’s just misogynistic bullying — an extreme example of the kind of sexism that holds all women back.

But by pretending that he was forced to refrain from insulting Kelly because of "political correctness," Trump got to recast himself as the victim and Kelly as the bully. Suddenly she was the one oppressing him, via the forces of PC fascism. That, in turn, helped recast Trump’s refusal to attend the debate as brave instead of cowardly: In that light, avoiding Kelly’s questions was a noble stand against the forces of the politically correct mainstream media that were trying to silence him.

The message Trump's campaign against "political correctness" sends to voters

Trump has cleverly made his criticism of "political correctness" and the ways it is supposedly hurting America into a signature of his campaign. That says a lot about him, but it also says a lot about some of the grievances motivating his supporters and driving them to rally around him.

Trump’s Facebook page now prominently features a promise to "Trump political correctness" (get it? TRUMP It?), as well as a video in which he announces, "I have a great education. I went to an Ivy League college. But I’m not politically correct. Because to be politically correct just takes Too. Much. Time. It takes Too. Much. Effort. We have to get things done in this country, and you’re never gonna get things done if we just stay politically correct."

It’s easy to think that this is just nonsense. There’s no actual reason why political correctness is time-consuming — it’s not as if calling Megyn Kelly a bimbo was some ultra-efficient act of business-savvy brilliance.

Trump is actually sending a powerful message to voters that he, and they, is correct to fear and resist any efforts to change the status quo in ways that will accommodate women, minorities, or any other group who haven't traditionally been privileged in this country. In his telling, those changes aren't reasonable accommodations for people who have too long been denied respect — they're actually hurting America.

That's the real debate we're having when we talk about "political correctness": one about whether changing America's norms and institutions to help women and minorities is making this country fairer, or if it is unfair special treatment that is making the country worse off.

A key lesson of Trump's campaign is that there are a lot of people who clearly believe the latter and are desperate for a politician who seems like he will fight to preserve the country the way they want it to be. Perhaps that's why Trump has so improbably managed to position himself as an outsider champion in this presidential election.

After all, who better to protect America from the "special interests" of women and minorities demanding respect than a straight, white man who got rich by inheriting his fortune?

In other words, Trump is telling voters that he understands why they feel like they are victims of political correctness, because he is a victim of Megyn Kelly and the media trying to crush and control him the same way. And so by insulting Kelly, Trump is signaling to voters that he will also take a necessary and just stand against that kind of unfair special treatment. That, it turns out, is a very powerful message.

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