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Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump (shown here last week in New Hampshire) are fond of using "politically correct" as a go-to weapon against critics.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Whatever the questions, answers from Republican candidates for president often contain some rebuke of “political correctness.”

My count from transcripts of the most recent main and secondary GOP debates last month was that the phrase was used at least 10 times.

“It’s not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama administration from stopping these (terror) attacks,” said Ted Cruz. “It is political correctness.”

Ben Carson said, “We should never give away the values and principles that made America into a great nation for the sake of political correctness.”

And Donald Trump, the king of kvetching about correctness, said: “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. (We) frankly don’t have time for total political correctness. ... This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore.”

In a recent Washington Post column, Dana Milbank called the phrase “the mother of all straw men.” He cited ludicrous uses by GOP candidates, as when Rick Santorum said it prevented people from saying the word “Muslim,” or when Chris Christie said it prevents people from speaking out against what he called a “post-American world.”

My favorite was Cruz’s claim that political correctness prevented U.S. officials from reading radical Facebook posts by one of the San Bernardino shooters before the California terror attack. When CNN’s Jake Tapper said the posts were under a pseudonym in private messages and thus appeared to be more a privacy issue than one of political correctness, Cruz changed the subject.

Defined narrowly — and accurately — even President Obama is among critics of political correctness. He told an Iowa high school audience recently that campus speakers should not be blocked because they might offend women or African-Americans: “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

But that’s not the cynical, pejorative manner in which Republicans employ it. They appeal to many older white Americans, especially men, who see themselves as victims of both a declining blue-collar economy and incremental gains by immigrants, women and African-Americans. Trump and others then demean and belittle those groups, often to raucous applause.

When criticized for their toxic racism and sexism, they complain that their critics are just being politically correct.

The phrase has its roots in totalitarian regimes.

One writer traced it to a 1934 New York Times story headlined “Personal Liberty Vanishes in Reich.” That essay described a crackdown by Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels, who would grant permits to write only to “pure Aryans” whose views were “politically correct.”

The phrase was later applied to how the Soviet Union constrained free speech during the Cold War. Stories in the Daily Worker newspaper, for example, were required to be “politically correct.”

Only in recent decades have American conservatives used it to paint liberals as enemies of freedom, reflected in a 1991 commencement speech by President George H.W. Bush: “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.”

To today’s progressives, incessant and overly broad use of the phrase seems silly and off-point, but Republicans know what they are doing. Think of the GOP’s success in commandeering descriptors like “hard-working” and “common sense” as elements of their anti-intellectual code.

They shrewdly recognize that many Americans see any restraint on caustic rhetoric as a threat. In a recent national poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 68 percent agreed that political correctness is a “big problem.” Predictably, 81 percent of Republicans said so, but so did 62 percent of Democrats and even 61 percent of nonwhites.

With such numbers, one can see why GOP candidates are quick to invoke the phrase as a subject-changer when pressed on any factual inconsistency.

So, however we got here, the pressing question now is how might the phrase evolve in the 2016 election and beyond?

For help on that I turned to Donald Downs, a highly credentialed and now emeritus professor of political science, law and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Downs is no progressive. In a column for Politico last summer, he and a co-author described themselves as “two long-tenured professors who lean right and libertarian.” They were arguing against proposed changes to tenure rules under this headline: “Scott Walker’s latest crusade will hurt conservatives like us,” arguing that most campus decision-makers are more liberal than they.

In an interview, Downs recounted a 1980s dinner shortly after arriving in Madison where a colleague used “politically correct” with no derision but as a positive, referring to people who are “politically astute like me.”

Downs said he later grew concerned about speech and harassment codes, and articulated his conservative analysis in explaining his opposition: “It took a more coercive turn toward using measures that were related to censorship, that’s the first thing, and second, it became a more intolerant attitude in the view of critics like me.

“Political correctness became a kind of mindset that if you think otherwise, you’re — if not evil — there’s something really defective in your thinking, or you’re not to be taken seriously, and it was the beginning of moving toward the polarization we have now.”

Downs added: “I hear this from students all the time. Students on both sides of the political divide — and I talk to a lot — don’t like it, because they realize how it stifles friendships, it stifles debate and honest discussion.”

And what, I ask, about the future of the phrase, prefacing my question by noting how its rampant and broadened use has inundated this GOP presidential campaign?

“Maybe that’s a sign that it’s going to become less useful,” Downs said. “It’s like crying wolf, and I think that when political correctness was used correctly, pardon the pun, that it was effective because it was directed toward a mentality that was intolerant of disagreement. But the more you use it, then the less poignant it’s going to be.

“If you cry wolf when there’s not a wolf, then it’s going to be less effective,” he said. “It’s like swearing too much. If you swear all the time, your swear words are not taken seriously. That’s something my father taught me when I was young.”

Here’s hoping Downs is proven correct. And GOP candidates lose their all-purpose smokescreen.

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.