“What we saw was that the American people didn’t care about those things,” Corey Lewandowski said during CNN’s early morning coverage of Tuesday’s election, referring to the scandals that plagued Donald Trump’s campaign. “What [Americans] want, is someone who tells them the truth,” Lewandowski concluded.
The truth: It was an effective battlecry for Trump campaign, a word uttered with clarity but without definition. Trump the truth teller; Trump the slayer of political correctness. The story Trump told assured Americans that the truth exists somewhere outside of “the media”—an all-encompassing term that seemed throughout Trump’s campaign to simultaneously define everything and nothing—and Trump alone could grab a great conspiracy by its shadowy horns and drag it into the light. Truth, to the Trump campaign, was a series of random locations that only a singular man in the possession of a singular ideology, could correctly map. It required his unique interpretation of words unspoken, Trump’s willingness to speak words that had become slightly uncomfortable for his supporters to speak out loud, in a public sphere where they conflated the censure of raised eyebrows and criticism with persecution.
Trump’s rebuffs of political correctness, a theme that underpinned his entire campaign, were about persecution; the utter belief that Trump’s xenophobia and sexism were bedrock truths that were being suppressed by liberal values laying waste to comfort and American values. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump said during the August 2015 Republican primary debate. It was a message with traction, proof that Trump had guts, or in the words of one supporter, “cajones.”
At the Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker spoke the truth that had been repressed: that immigrants were killing American children, that Hillary Clinton was a felon, that terrorists and criminals lurked, and that persecution was the heavy burden carried by those out of step with New Left values. These truths were met with cheers, with chants of “lock her up,” and loud men demanding the construction of a wall and even more deportations.
The irony was that that Trump’s supposedly bold truth-telling touted itself as a rejection of identity politics in favor of the embrace of freedom. It pretended that freedom—that great American dream always presented as an epic historic narrative—was a pure and neutral concept that was threatened by mere criticism, threatened by people of color and feminists. Instead of calling the Trump ideology identity politics, it was dubbed “populism” though it has little in common with the term’s historic roots. But in this truth, populism signaled only the identity politics of whiteness and regionalism, quietly treating the very concept of identity as an anathema to freedom and homespun American ideals.
And yet Trump’s positioning as a teller of hard truths was—and is—identity politics. It is about being white in America and of the bedrock concept of American masculinity; it is about “cajones.” It is, of course, also about class, about the white working class who perceive their freedom, economic and otherwise, to be dwindling. But class has never been free of identity politics; it has always been entangled with race and masculinity. Wielding truth, controlling its very definition, is the fundamentally historic right of power, to deny that truth or its application belongs to anyone but a handful of the right people, is to be persecuted. Political correctness, a phrase that seems to be a catchall for saying nearly anything that purposefully inflicts pain, was treated as the great oppressor something, like the elite, was to be overthrown for the sake of freedom.
Throughout this election, that very persecution was what was at stake. During Tuesday night’s coverage, Lewandoski reiterated this point again and again. He rebuffed accusations that his chosen candidate was sexist by responding, “We kept saying, you don’t understand.” And that is factual, millions of Americans simply didn’t understand how Trump’s numerous sexual assault allegations or his gendered insults could be anything other than sexism. Those Americans, myself included, simply weren’t in possession of the right truth, weren’t willing to have the truth told to them by those who held the power to define terms like racism and sexism.
In turn, the denial of that authority was treated as persecution: this was the truth, after all, to refuse to accept as fundamental reality, to dare to criticize or question it was corrosive to the Republic. Truth cannot be racist or sexist or xenophobic or autocratic—it simply is. And this is why conciliation, despite calls from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, seems impossible, it means ceding to those who believe that they are persecuted simply by a slippage of power; simply because others act within their rights to disagree.
To reconcile means the preservation of traditional authority, of an embittered ideology where the persecution of minorities and women exists only on terms—in truths—defined by those who have no knowledge and little empathy. These truths should not be tolerated; persecution is not the province of Donald Trump and neither is truth.