Was Trump’s Victory Just Backlash Against “Political Correctness”?

The Trump backlash

Why did Donald Trump win? How can we understand it from a skeptical perspective? CNN has a list of 24 different explanations for why Trump won over Clinton that include impact of fake news, the power of social media, low voter turnout, because Bernie Sanders was not the democratic candidate, because of third-party candidate, because the liberal elite is out of touch with average people, revenge of the white working class etc. They also highlight a narrative that was discussed in a post on the website of the libertarian magazine Reason that we might label the “backlash narrative”.

Did Trump win because white people got tired of political correctness? While it is true that Trump ran as an anti-establishment and many of his supporters upheld him as the anti-PC candidate, this narrative have some severe limitations. Fewer democrats voted, it ignored the bigotry of the movement, it shifts too much blame, and it ignores social media filter bubbles. Now we need to redouble and reinvigorate our skeptical efforts, make fact-checking part of our social media experience, reach those who are in some sense victims of misinformation, use argumentative minimalism, hold ourselves to a higher standard and combat tribalism.

The backlash narrative

The backlash narrative to why Donald Trump won can be paraphrased into something like this:

Ordinary decent white men and women (especially those without a college education) are tired of being demonized as the root of all evil and called “racist” and “sexist” just because they happen to disagree with some aspect of feminism, black lives matter or Islam.

They are sick of political correctness that bullies and shame decent people into silence just because they cannot remember all the genders or make people cry because they had a certain sweater on.

Trump won as a result of a backlash against a political establishment elite that could not relate to the average American.

This is a very powerful narrative that resonates with a lot of people. It functions by highlighting the impact of the radical fringe among social justice advocates that a lot of people make fun of and conveniently shifts the blame from the far right to the far left and attempts to absolve the former from taking responsibility for the outcome.

What the narrative gets right

Let us give the Devil his due. There is some validity (albeit not much) to this narrative. Trump was promoted as the anti-PC candidate who was going to take down alleged “political correctness gone amok”. Many of his supporters label themselves as “anti-PC” and some of them are virulent opponents of social justice efforts. There are some vocal minorities within social justice communities who make claims that are not terribly well-thought-out that may have had an impact. Even though they were a minority, their rhetoric is what got stuck in people’s heads and not the broader arguments for equality. Despite these points, there are many things are horribly wrong about this narrative.

What the narrative gets horribly, horribly wrong

The backlash narrative had some merit, but it ignored the backdrop of anti-intellectualism, the fact that the Trump campaign was filled with racism and sexism, it shifts too much blame away from the alt right, it ignores the power of social media insulation, neglects similarities between the far left and far right, and does not take into account the fact that a lot of democrats did not vote.

Anti-intellectualism: it ignores the fact that the American public lives in a swamp of anti-intellectualism. There is a deep mistrust against scientific experts on evolution, climate, human rights, economy and so on. There is a lack of good education (partly because it is expensive) and critical thinking in some parts of the American society. To think that this had no impact is a bit naive.

The content of the Trump campaign: this was not just a group of people who were tired of being wrongly labeled as sexists or racists. Trump based his campaign on explicit and malevolent sexism and racism, from consistently calling women nasty things to fearmonger about Mexican immigrants. In quite a few cases, the labels were well-deserved. This cannot be ignored.

Shift too much blame: it is an obvious attempt to shift too much blame from the far right to other sources and pretend that the far right were merely innocent bystanders. In reality, they were figuratively geysers spewing racism, misogyny, fake news and pseudoscientific nonsense.

Ignores social media: it ignores the powerful effects of social media filter bubbles. This has enabled people to create a social world around their Internet experience where dissenting voices and facts are automatically made invisible in an effort to feed you content you want to see and click on.

The horseshoe theory: the far left and the far right are, contrary to what many believe, quite similar. The far right has its own identity politics (white nationalism), preference for authoritarianism over free exchange of ideas, conspiracy-mongering, pseudoscience as well as divisiveness and use of enemy rhetoric. This should not be overinterpreted into a false balance fallacy, but there are considerable similarities in approach and content. Thus, it might be a backlash only a very restricted sense of the world. Conflicts are not always between good and evil, but sometimes between two evils (and no, they do not have to be equally powerful evils).

A lot fewer democrats voted: if you look at how many democrats voted in this election and the two previous ones, you will see that many democrats abandoned Clinton. Perhaps this was because they disliked her or because they preferred Bernie.

So the narrative had some merit, but also had some major problems. Where do we go from here?

What to do now?

It will likely take years for researchers to figure out how Trump won. Right now, we have a few ideas and some of them are more supported by evidence than others. But what can we do? How can we reach those who dismiss important scientific facts on issues that have a social component, whether this is vaccines and GMOs or bigotry and discrimination?

Attack pseudoscientific bigotry with scientific skepticism: a lot of bigotry relies on pseudoscience and the abuse of statistics. We can defeat bigotry by exposing its tenuous grasp of reality with the help of reason and evidence. Times when bigotry do not reply on nonsense, it can be forced into accepting the burden of proof or be labeled as nothing more than batshit ravings.

Make fact-checking part of your social media experience: share more content from credible fact-checking websites such as Snopes or PolitiFact on social media. Do this every day if you can. Seek out those who promote myths and tell them and their supporters that they are wrong. Don’t just preach to the choir.

End the tribalism: people who are ignorant about reality are to a certain degree victims of misinformation and fearmongering. Skeptical content need to reach these individuals through many channels, but this needs to be done without excessive tribalism, harassment or brigading. Tribalism among anti-science activists need also be combated.

Highlight and spread spin-free scientific findings: one way to drown out the noise is to like and share robust scientific findings without the spin, particular those that directly relate to e. g. vaccines or discrimination. Typically, these get very little attention compared with sensationalist garbage.

Use argumentative minimalism: chances are that your opponents will not accept your pet framework on social order and it often gets in the way of persuasion. Whenever possible, defend science, skepticism and human rights with as few premises as possible. That means that critics will have a lot fewer stumbling blocks.

Hold yourself and allies to a higher intellectual standard: do not stoop to the level of bigots. Being an ambassador of scientific skepticism and reason means that you have to hold yourself to a higher standard. When they go low, you go high. This also means that it is important to criticize other people who share your values who are doing it wrong.

Condemn with more rational weight: by all means, condemn pseudoscientific bigotry. However, understand that mere condemnation just means putting a blanket on the rot. It does not really effectively combat the underlying infestation, but this might be possible with science and reason. Be mindful of backfire effects, because your opposition may strengthen the beliefs held by your opponents.

Debunking Denialism has attempted to enshrined many of these principles since the beginning. It has attacked pseudoscientific bigotry and promoted reasonable forms of social justice by exploring the anti-immigration abuse of rape statistics, refuted the poisonous M&Ms gambit, debunked myths about LGBT people related to endocrine disruptors, forced anal examination and supposed psychotic delusions, exposed paranoid conspiracy theories promoted by some men’s rights activists. However, this website has also corrected radical feminists who believe that all men are genetically defect and brain damaged, skeptics who are anti-psychiatry and argued for debunking over outrage culture.

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Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

8 thoughts on “Was Trump’s Victory Just Backlash Against “Political Correctness”?

  • November 16, 2016 at 19:27
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    “I’m tired of people accusing me of being a racist, so I’ma vote for a racist.”

    • November 16, 2016 at 20:16
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      The alt right narrative would probably be something like “I am tired of PC liberals calling any criticisms of progressive politics ‘racist’ and I will be voting for the candidate that will oppose PC liberals”. Many alt right proponents would either reject the notion that Trump is a racist or just not care.

      Of course, finding a narrative that is merely internally consistent (and that is extremely charitable) is by no means enough for it to make sense rationally or empirically.

  • November 16, 2016 at 22:35
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    Sure. I get that fish don’t know that they’re wet. Actually, I lay some of the blame for Trumps victory at the feet of Bernie Sanders. The fundamental message of both campaigns was opposition to global economy. Trump and Sanders were a lot closer on this issue than Sanders and Clinton. Sanders stoked the same populist anger that Trump did and with Bernie out, the energy and enthusiasm he generated went to the only other candidate promising trade war with China and a return of jobs from Mexico. I think that this is borne out by Trump outperforming in rust belt states among Democrats. Blame pseudo-dismal-science (or would it be dismal pseudoscience?).

    • November 16, 2016 at 23:10
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      The number of votes that Trump (61.3M) got were comparable to the number of votes that McCain (59.9M) and Romney (60.9M) got. The major difference was the declining democratic vote (69.5M, 65.9M, 62.5M for Obama I, Obama II and Clinton, respectively). Data from Wikipedia.

      So not only am I skeptical about the alt right narrative of “the common people are tired of political correctness”, I am also somewhat skeptical towards any narrative that posits a major increase in voter support for Trump.

      It might, however, be the case that Sanders supporters did not fully embrace Clinton after his defeat and did not go vote at all.

  • December 8, 2016 at 12:58
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    Worth noting that during the campaign that skeptics were doing their best to debunk and factcheck. I noted many conversations that I had where I’d drop a PolitiFact or Snopes link only to be rebuked for posting “a biased source that couldn’t be trusted.” Many of the narratives around the likes of Trump, Breitbart, etc, have already poisoned the well so that fact checking is dismissed in favour of the bubble.

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  • June 8, 2017 at 07:41
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    “This should not be overinterpreted into a false balance fallacy, but there are considerable similarities in approach and content”

    what do you mean by this statement? Trying to understand your reasoning, since I guess I have not come into contact with any “far left” people even as a leftist. I understand the left can also engage in violence, but this feels more defensive and reactionary–especially based on a long history of opporession and/or state (or far right) violence.

    • June 8, 2017 at 13:05
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      You can read more about the horseshoe political theory and detailed examples in a number of contexts here. Typically, people emphasize the errors and crimes of their political opponents, while trying to downplay the errors and crimes of their own ideology or “side”. If you want to learn more about the violence, oppression and irrationality carried out by the far left, you can look up Russia and China under Stalin and Mao, trans-excluding radical feminists (TREFs), or anti-science postmodernism.

      The core point of the horseshoe theory is not to claim that all sides are equally bad, but to highlight the surprisingly common tendencies for opposite extremists to use the same kinds of approaches, arguments and conclusions as each other when one might naively expect them to be almost totally different.

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