The reason many equated Clinton’s “deplorables” remark with Trump’s agenda of discriminatory state violence seems to be the widespread perception that racism is primarily an interpersonal matter—that is, it’s about name-calling or rudeness, rather than institutional and political power. This is a belief hardly limited to the president’s supporters, but crucial to their understanding of Trump as lacking personal prejudice. “One thing I like about Trump is he isn’t afraid to tell people what the problems in this country are,” said Ron Whitekettle from Lancaster. “Everything he says is true, but sometimes he doesn’t say it the way it should be said.”
From a different vantage point, what Trump’s supporters refer to as political correctness is largely the result of marginalized communities gaining sufficient political power to project their prerogatives onto society at large. What a society finds offensive is not a function of fact or truth, but of power. It is why unpunished murders of black Americans by agents of the state draw less outrage than black football players’ kneeling for the National Anthem in protest against them. It is no coincidence that Trump himself frequently uses the term to belittle what he sees as unnecessary restrictions on state force.
But even as once-acceptable forms of bigotry have become unacceptable to express overtly, white Americans remain politically dominant enough to shape media coverage in a manner that minimizes obvious manifestations of prejudice, such as backing a racist candidate, as something else entirely. The most transgressive political statement of the 2016 election, the one that violated strict societal norms by stating an inconvenient fact that few wanted to acknowledge, the most politically incorrect, was made by the candidate who lost.