Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Abandoning The Dog Whistle

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Ni***r, ni***r, ni***r." By 1968, you can't say "ni***r" — 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. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. 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 "Ni***r, ni***r."  -- Lee Atwater, 1981
Turns out St. Ronnie was a racist.  A new audio that has been obtained of a conversation between then-Governor Reagan and another racist Republican, President Nixon, gives up the game.  To wit:
The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then–California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon gave a huge laugh.
But what was key to St. Ronnie's political success and that of his Party was that he kept his more overt racism on the down low.  He was, instead, the ultimate master of dog whistle politics.  Recall he launched his first presidential campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a place notorious for the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers, and gave a speech about states' rights:  "I believe in states' rights.... I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment."  What Reagan was really signaling by talking about states' rights in that particular venue was that he was squarely on the side of White America.  It presaged his unceasing hostility to civil rights and voting rights, and his opposition to entitlements for the poor, particularly, African Americans, who he famously disparaged with classic dog whistles -- the "Cadillac-driving welfare queen" and the "strapping young buck" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.

And ever since Republican politicians have become expert at using coded language to tap into anxiety of white middle and lower class Americans about losing ground culturally and economically to African Americans and immigrants.  Could there be a more perfect segue than from Reagan's presidency to Bush I's famous Willie Horton campaign ad?  Support for states' rights, calls for curbing federal assistance programs, blaming poverty on a "culture problem," referring to "illegal aliens," expressing fear of the spread of Shariah law, and framing opposition to LGBT rights as "religious liberty" all get the message across without sounding overtly racist, bigoted, xenophobic or homophobic.  The references to "Barack Hussein Obama" and relentless questions about Obama's birth certificate -- pioneered by one Donald J. Trump, of course -- tapped into the code as well. 

But Donald Trump discarded the dog whistle during his campaign in 2016.  He referred to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.  He argued for discriminatory treatment of Muslims.  He asserted that the judge presiding over the Trump University fraud cases, born in Indiana but of Mexican heritage, must be biased against him in light of Trump's proposal to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.  

And then he won the presidency, anyway -- or, more likely, because of it.  And after that, he brought white nationalists into the White House to be key advisors and installed them in his cabinet.  He sought to impose a travel ban on Muslims.  He redirected a counter-terrorism program to focus solely on "radical Islamic extremism" and no longer target white supremacists. And when white nationalists armed with torches and Nazi flags felt emboldened by him to rally in Charlottesville, he talked about the fine people on both sides.  

And it has only gotten worse, most recently with unhinged racist attacks on members of Congress.  With such hate-filled vitriol aimed at people and communities of color being tweeted out almost daily, it is getting harder for Trump's fellow Republicans to defend him.  But they keep trying.  They have to because if they admit that Trump is racist, then they will have to concede that Trump policies that the Republican Party stands behind -- most notably his unconscionable border policies -- stem from racism and a white nationalist agenda rather than simply hard-line pragmatism.  In other words, Trump's racist rants have proven -- as if we really needed more proof -- that his efforts to thwart asylum seekers and radically reduce the number of refugees isn't about national security, border safety or providing a more fair and orderly process -- it's about keeping black and brown people out of the country.

Now that the truth is undeniable -- 51% in a recent poll believe Trump is racist -- Trump and his Republican enablers may hope that his unmitigated racism will energize a base that is otherwise low energy because it has not benefited from his purported economic miracle.  But it looks like there actually may be a whole lot fewer deplorables than Trump thinks there are.  Suburban voters, particularly white women, appear to be recoiling from Trump's white nationalism.  It seems that abandoning the dog whistle may very well backfire.  Maybe Trump should have tried to be more subtle like St. Ronnie.


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