Recently, a Facebook friend posted some clickbait from The Atlantic called “A Dialogue With a 22-Year-Old Donald Trump Supporter.” In my prone-to-distraction feebleness, I actually read the whole piece, in which the reporter Conor Friedersdorf exchanged messages with a white yuppie who, though a college-educated resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and engaged to an Asian woman, will not be voting for Hillary in November as demographic trends suggest he should.
The article has an obvious man-bites-dog angle, at least within the common liberal misperception that Trump’s only supporters are illiterate hicks, out-of-work blue-collar men, old people, and mustache-twirling billionaire capitalist villains. But the novelty is shallow, since the anonymous Trump supporter doesn’t illuminate some new interesting reason for backing the Republican nominee. The kid mostly says the same stuff you’ll hear from any older conservative. Even so, I had a minor revelation while perusing the colloquy.
Basically, the article consists of Friedersdorf presenting well-reasoned arguments about why virtually all of Donald Trump’s ideas are both completely impractical and morally heinous, followed by replies from the 22-year-old supporter in which he describes the trauma he’s endured as a white male in our modern America of politically correct language, affirmative action, and Facebook censorship—positing this as a reason to support Trump’s untamed politics.
“For me personally,” he writes, “it’s resistance against what San Francisco has been, and what I see the country becoming, in the form of ultra-PC culture. Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend.
“I feel like I have to hide my beliefs. I cannot say openly that I identify with Republicans, lest I see friendships and potential professional connections disappear with those words. When I see Hillary Clinton, I see the world becoming less and less tolerant of right-leaning views.”
Anyone who’s followed the recent backlash against “PC culture” is aware of the concept of “safe spaces.” Over the past year, conservatives have consistently pointed to the “safe spaces” of American universities as a significant threat to our education system, the emotional and mental development of our youth, and our freedom of speech. In college life, a “safe space” refers to a kind of spatial-temporal zone presided over by a faculty member, student leader, or self-policing student group that exercises extreme sensitivity to the needs, anxieties, and “triggers” of a segment of the student population for whom the sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise hateful language and behavior of the wider world is too much to endure day by day without interruption. The “safe space” creates a protected area for these young people in which offensive or aggressive language is banned.
Many people see these increasingly popular “safe spaces” as a serious danger to conservative thought or independent thought of any kind, believing that they’ll eventually take over entire campuses, shutting down all discourse that doesn’t conform to contemporary PC doctrine. Even Obama has spoken out against them, endorsing the fortifying intellectual combat of broad dialogue over the comforts of strict like-mindedness. But it’s interesting to note that the theory of the “safe space” originated as a method to engender freedom of expression, not as a system of therapeutic suppression. It came from an awareness that, out in the open, LGBTQ students at many colleges were unable to engage in self-expression—unable to talk freely about their lives and opinions without fear of actual violence or other serious abuse. Creating protected forums for gay students allowed them, in some cases, to speak up for the first time.
When Americans talk about “freedom of speech,” they may allude to the Constitution, but they hardly ever use the phrase in the Constitutional sense, which guarantees only that the U.S. government won’t prevent us from saying whatever we want to say. For example, when conservative celebrities bemoan their eroding free speech in the PC era, what they mean is that they want to be able to say things that a large swath of Americans believe are offensive (and indeed they can do this), but they don’t want to have to hear from those Americans in response or lose endorsement deals from private companies whose target customers include many of those same offended Americans.
If either of these things should happen, the conservative will more often than not blame today’s PC culture of “safe spaces,” which have ostensibly caused young liberals to become intolerant of differing opinions.
The truth, I think, is that all of us—liberals and conservatives—recognize that self-expression is impossible in situations where one doesn’t feel safe, and that on both ends of the spectrum there are a lot of people whose conception of “safety” centers on an unreasonable fearfulness and fragility.
Read the self-pitying anecdotes of the 22-year-old San Franciscan. Meeting the slightest disagreement from a colleague, he withers, blaming the oppressive culture for his inability—except anonymously, via email—to defend any of his views in the face of opposition. He is upset that Black Lives Matters is allowed to “protest without consequence” even though freedom of assembly is a fundamental subcategory of free speech. Like the supposedly oversensitive collegiate minorities who’ve retreated to their “safe spaces,” he is obsessed with his own victimhood (despite his evident prosperity), as he believes that “white culture is under attack” by undocumented immigrants, by the universities that rejected him in favor of “less qualified” black applicants, and by the former friends who’ve disassociated themselves from him upon discovering his dreadful politics. I have no doubt that this free-thinking conservative believes himself to be strongly opposed to “safe spaces”—their intolerance of dissent is surely the primary cause of all his pain, right? Yet all he really wants is his own safe space. This is the irony of the conservative hysteria surrounding our PC campus controversies: when Republicans urge Trump to “make America great again,” all they’re really saying is, “Please make America my safe space again.”