Here, Boy: Trump and the Graceful Art of Dog-Whistling

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Photo: International Business Times

Photo: International Business Times

Photo: International Business Times

Madoc Kimball, Staff Writer

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Donald Trump is the most accomplished dog-whistler of the 21st century.

What’s dog-whistling, though? That’s a simple question, which belies a much more complex answer. The time-honored tradition of dog-whistling in Western politics works when a politician makes a statement that at face value appears to be saying one thing, but in reality has a much deeper and more resonant message to certain subgroups of the electorate. When you blow on a dog-whistle, you’re lucky if you can make out only a quiet hissing noise. But to cats and dogs, meanwhile, it’s perceived as a much more fiercely shrill, ultrasonic whine. It’s a fitting name.

An example that’s perhaps most known to high school students (especially if they’ve already taken APUSH) would be the so-called Republican ‘Southern strategy.’ As an emboldened Democratic Party under LBJ in the 1960s began to dismantle discriminatory Jim Crow-era laws, the Republican Party began to look to ways to appeal to newly-partyless Southern whites in search of a proper, racist political faction again. Thus was born the ‘Southern strategy,’ utilized most effectively and prominently by politicians like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and even the conservative darling Ronald Reagan. Lee Atwater, a prominent Republican strategist and consultant during the 1980s who would later go on to serve as the RNC chairman, put the strategy into context this way:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—–, n—–, n—–“. By 1968 you can’t say “n—–” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now that you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is that blacks get hurt worse than whites. . . . .But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—–, n—–“.

Many historians attribute the realignment of the South towards the Republican Party to this strategy, which roots itself firmly in the dual trenches of race-baiting and, yes, dog-whistle politics. By speaking about implementing policies that, in practice, would unfairly affect African-American citizens, or, for example, pointing to their purportedly disproportionate crime rate in comparison to whites, politicians who sought the votes of Dixiecrats in the South could stoke racial undertones that have simmered there since the dawn of slavery, without having to do or say anything that is ‘technically’ overt racism, such as slurs or stereotypes. Sound familiar?

It shouldn’t, but it’s a sad truth of our current American politics that Trump and MAGA Republicans (read: the vast majority) paint our nation as a zero-sum game that white, conservative Americans are about to lose to brown people. It’s never so explicitly stated, but it’s there, an alternative fact as ugly as the people who spout it. President Trump has applied this philosophy to almost every aspect of his administration: if America (his America, comprised of those who voted for him) isn’t winning, it’s losing. It’s not a bad thing to love your country and want to see it succeed. Quite the contrary. What’s bad about this argument is saying that gain for one equals loss for all, a sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by right-wing social policy in recent decades.

The Republican Party backtracked from the Southern strategy hard in the 1990s when it began to realize it needed some method to woo minority voters; the RNC chairman even apologized to the NAACP in 2005 for exploiting racial tensions in order to gain votes. But that doesn’t mean dog-whistle politics have perished; in fact, in the age of Trump, they’re more powerful than ever. When Republican candidate for the Florida gubernatorial race Ron DeSantis (backed ferociously by the POTUS) tells voters not to “monkey up” the election, to some it may seem he’s telling them not to mess up by voting for his opponent, Andrew Gillum. To the racists down there in the Sunshine State, however, it’s pretty clear he’s telling them not to vote for his opponent, Andrew Gillum, a black man. Gillum put it best in a recent debate versus DeSantis, enumerating the support DeSantis has received and refused to denounce from racist fringe groups. “Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” Racist is a strong word. But it’s become increasingly important to utilize it when and where applicable, and dog-whistling only serves to muddy the issue.

In this way Trump thrives: feeding off of the so-called cultural and economic anxieties that have plagued his beloved silent ‘majority’ in the South and Midwest, using inflammatory rhetoric against outsiders and opponents to stoke ambers of unease and frustration into wildfires of rage and fear. What exactly is ‘economic anxiety’? What do pundits mean when they say WASPS in the Midwest share a common ‘cultural anxiety’? Studies from sources like the Public Religion Research Institute and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have come to the same conclusion: Trump won the election not as an economic savior, the savvy businessman in a suit and tie cometh to knock heads in Washington and beyond, but as an avatar of white fear that their power and majority in 21st century America is no longer so stable. Demographics change, and so do cultural norms. The residual faction always fears the emergent, to use the terminology of cultural theorist Raymond Williams. Trump was able to win over such a wide demographic of people, from blue-collar Rust Belt workers in Detroit to Neo-Nazis right here in Charlottesville, by saying things so broadly controversial and coded that it appealed to the widest range of voters possible, who all shared these common ‘cultural’ fears.  

So why is dog-whistling still important during his presidency? Trump, for all his gaffes, is still exceptionally canny in his own gleefully destructive sort of way. When he tweets that caravans are hurtling towards the southern border carrying thugs, terrorists, and gang members, he’s poking the proverbial bear, firing up southern whites who fear an invasion of disease-ridden, drug-swilling foreigners (a falsehood). One of these bears got so upset, in fact, that in order to stop Jews from assisting those caravans entering the country and prevent white genocide, it entered the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation last Saturday and killed 11 people.

The President did not direct that shooter to perform this heinous act of cowardice. Nor did he secretly instruct Cesar Sayoc to send pipe bombs to his critics and political opponents. To say so would be as ridiculous as to refer to the latter incident as a false flag operation instigated by the left (as many prominent right-wing pundits did, and the President himself seemed to insinuate at). But when he refers to news organizations as the enemy of the people, threatens dissenters at his rallies, paints Latinos and Muslims as degenerate, and mocks, belittles, and castigates opponents as malicious and undemocratic, he’s in part responsible for influencing the crimes committed by those who very clearly support or oppose the things he’s been dog-whistling to them about. It’s far past time for the President to own up to the gaping hole he’s torn in the country. I don’t expect him to, which is a disappointing sort of thing to say about the American President, but I have hope that there will come a time when his ugly and belligerent rhetoric no longer has a place in Western democracy.

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