The emergence of anti-PC public figures: the case of Donald Trump

At the outset, we discussed how public pressure creates an artificial agreement, but it simultaneously creates cracks in the foundation of the consensus — such that, if some alternative pressure is exerted, the structure may collapse and produce division instead. One such pressure involves the emergence of divisive public figures. In the case of PC norms, for example, controversial professorjordan Peterson’s rise to international fame was sparked by his refusal to conform to PC norms concerning gender-neutral pronouns. Peterson’s public position on this issue led him to be the figurehead of the anti-neutral-pronoun camp that opposes a Canadian anti-discrimination bill that prevents public businesses discriminating against gender identity' and gender expression (Paikin, 2016; see also Hunter, 2017).

Thus, we can see PC norm pressures leading to the cracks in the foundation - in the form of support for a normatively' opposed leader - even in opposing a movement with a positive end goal (equality'). We next discuss the rise of a controversial leader who similarly had a pervasive agreement-collapsing influence: Donald Trump.

Since the beginning of his candidacy during the election season, Trump positioned himself to stand in opposition to PC norms. Not only' did Trump use alarming, non-normatively negative language (see, e.g., Cohen, 2016; Guo, 2015; Noble, 2015), but he explicitly talked about himself as an anti-PC candidate. As he said at the Republican Primary' debate, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically' correct. I’ve been challenged by so many' people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness” (quoted in Guo, 2015).

Although ideology-related factors undoubtedly contributed to Trump’s success (see, e.g., Choma & Hanoch, 2017), polling evidence also suggests that many' people liked Trump because he stood out against agreement pressures (Ahmadian, Azarshahi, & Paulhus, 2017; Guo, 2015). But does Trump’s ascension reflect cracks in the foundation as a result of agreement pressures?

One study suggests it does. Conway and colleagues (2017) measured a sample of moderate (slightly left-leaning) American participants’ voting preferences for Trump and Clinton during the 2016 general election season. At a general level, they found that the more people felt a sense of general reactance to and contamination by existing communication norms, the more likely they were to support Trump over Clinton. The key effects generally held even when controlling for participants’ own ideology', demonstrating that the effect of communication norm concerns went beyond liberal or conservative boundaries, but independently predicted voting preferences for both groups.

More importantly, Conway et al. (2017) also manipulated the salience of PC norms. In one condition, participants were reminded of the existing PC norms and given a justification for their continued existence. In other conditions, participants were not reminded. In line with the agreement paradox, results clearly showed that priming PC norms made people more likely to support the non-normative candidate: when PC norms were made salient, participants were more likely to express a preference for Trump (but not Clinton).

Why would primng PC norms make people more likely to support the non-normative candidate? This seems counterintuitive on the surface but makes sense if one considers it through the lens of the agreement paradox. Agreement pressures cause people to feel reactance and informational contamination regardless of their ideology. When a non-normative candidate appears (even one who, like Trump, is largely disliked), people feel at the very least that this candidate is working against the pressure (and accompanying undesired consequences).Thus, whereas they may not otherwise like Trump, priming the restrictive PC norms reminds people of their dislike of restricted freedom, and as a result increases their support for him. Indeed, in Conway et al. (2017), Clinton had a sizeable lead on Trump in conditions where PC norms were not made salient, but this lead was essentially eradicated when PC norms were primed.

 
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