It's OK to be a maverick politician. But risky.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Trump's Risky Bet Against Political Correctness

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Donald Trump's success in the polls has stunned many who consider him "an unelectable boor and narcissist," as The Economist put it Friday. Why do people appear willing to vote for him -- do they actually agree with the bigoted rubbish he spouts?

That misses the point. More likely, Trump's contempt for the customary constraints on politicians is finding favor. "I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness," he told Megyn Kelly, one of the moderators of the Fox News Republican presidential primary debate Thursday. "If you don't like it, I'm sorry."

Europe has made space for political mavericks by embracing multiparty coalitions. Only three of the European Union's 28 countries -- the U.K., Malta and Spain -- are currently run by single-party administrations. So in most places the non-PC politicians stand a chance of making their views heard at the highest level and participating in government -- but only in constant negotiation with more moderate and disciplined forces. If Trump were Swedish or Polish, he'd set up a party, win 10 percent of the national vote and perhaps become a junior partner in a ruling coalition that would also include some of his rivals in Thursday's debate.

Here's how Yale University's Stephen Morris defined political correctness: "Because certain statements will lead listeners to make adverse inferences about the type of the speaker, speakers have an incentive to alter what they say to avoid that inference." The range of ways to provoke "adverse inferences" is constantly swelling. Even people outside of politics can be stigmatized for seemingly innocuous acts: Witness the blitzkrieg against British scientist Matt Taylor, who helped land a spaceship on a comet but announced his success while wearing a shirt printed with images of scantily-clad women. The ensuing criticism left Taylor disgraced and in tears.

For a candidate, political correctness -- making sure no chance remark can be construed as racist, sexist, ageist, offensive to a religion, elitist or otherwise insensitive -- can be a ball and chain. Many of today's mainstream political leaders, both in the U.S. and in Europe, grew up with a much shorter list of pitfalls; avoiding censure demands extreme self-discipline. Like some European populists, Trump refuses to wear those shackles. He can run faster without them.

One could see this as an unfair advantage, but it's actually a trade-off. What Trump says about Senator John McCain's military record or women or immigrants is a turnoff for many voters, which is why his negative ratings are so high. As European populists know, this can win favor but also circumscribes your potential popularity. Parties such as Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the People's Party in Denmark, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the Freedom Party in Austria, Jobbik in Hungary, the Finns in Finland -- all right-wing forces that rail against establishment-imposed political correctness -- have made headway in recent elections, but none governs a country, though some have been part of ruling coalitions and won ministerial posts and mayoralties of important cities.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front, nurtures presidential ambitions -- so she has made her rhetoric more conventional and distanced herself from her infamously racist father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. And Boris Johnson, the eccentric London mayor, has not helped his chances of ever winning national office with comments such as "voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3," even though he says that was, you know, a joke. (Johnson himself once likened his chances of ever making prime minister to those of "finding Elvis on Mars.")

In the 1990 movie "Crazy People," a stressed-out ad executive ends up in a mental hospital and mobilizes his fellow patients to produce truthful ads. "Volvos are boxy, but they're good," says one. "Metamucil: It helps you go to the toilet. If you don't use it, you'll get cancer and die," says another. The slogans are instant hits, and the ad man is back in business. In politics, the advantages of talking like a real person -- inevitably loopy on some issues, bigoted or backward on others, because real people are never perfect -- are questionable, especially in a winner-takes-all electoral system like the U.S.

Those people who like Trump because he's not an automaton or a paragon of self-discipline are right about something, though. In his 1997 paper on political correctness, Morris used game theory to prove that "if reputational concerns are sufficiently important, no information is conveyed in equilibrium." This means there's a chance a politically correct politician simply won't tackle an important issue if taking a sincere stand on it could set off a stampede of superficial condemnation. Some voters who applaud Trump's wholesale dissing of Mexican immigrants may be expressing their bigotry, but their support of Trump is in effect backing a more open debate of immigration; in the ensuing discussion, even unpleasant views get their 15 minutes of airtime.

Europe's political system leaves more room for nonconformists to thrive; Italy's perennially politically incorrect Silvio Berlusconi even got to run his country, though the nation's fragmented political scene curbed his powers. In the U.S., the frustration, the energy and the opinions of those who choose to back Trump -- a considerable passion, given how loudly they cheer and clap -- will simply go to waste when he loses.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net