Sally Kohn is a writer and CNN contributor.
And understanding the history of racial dog whistle politics is essential not only to understanding his candidacy but to understanding the dynamics that are reaching a boiling point in this election and will continue to stir American politics and culture for the foreseeable future.
After more than 200 years of unchallenged dominance, white male political and cultural power is no longer in ascendance. This transformation was well under way a few decades ago but symbolically culminated with the election of a black man as president of the United States of America. A black man, mind you, whose legitimacy as an American, never mind as our president, was questioned every single step of the way—especially by Donald Trump—because the threat his power represented to the America’s long status quo was literally unacceptable.
At the same time, culture transformed as well. There are so many examples of this, but I think there’s a reason Beyoncé is called queen—her ascendance to the top of America’s pop culture throne culminates this change. Following the release of Beyoncé’s black power anthem “Formation,” Saturday Night Live produced a sketch in which white fans reacted with horror to the realization that Beyoncé is black.
“Maybe the song isn’t for us,” one white person in the sketch remarked with surprise.
“But usually everything is!” replied another white person.
And there you have it: In the history of the United States, everything has been made for white people, particularly politics, the economy and culture. Suddenly that’s no longer the case and some people are resentful. Enter Trump, whistling for all the dogs to hear.
It was Donald Trump who, in 1989, channeled the anti-Affirmative Action resentment of many whites when he said in a TV interview, “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well educated white in terms of the job market.” Though this was not, nor is not, factually true, Trump nonetheless insisted, “If I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I believe they do have an actual advantage.”
In this campaign, according to Politico, Trump has basically recycled Richard Nixon’s version of dog whistle racism by insisting he is the “law and order candidate”—implicitly protecting White America. It was Trump who began his campaign by insisting that Mexican immigrants “bring in drugs, they bring in crime. They’re rapists.”
It was Trump who said that Black Lives Matter is “divisive” while insisting that he, a white man born into wealth, is the one who can understand real discrimination because of how he’s been treated in the campaign.
Even Trump’s insistence that voting is “rigged” is a dog whistle, coming at a time when many white conservatives who believe in the myth of voter fraud have watched so-called voter ID laws be struck down as infringements on the voting rights of people of color.
Trump broadcasts a certain historical perspective of politics, one especially fanned and exploited by Republicans, that implicitly suggests to white Americans they are getting a raw deal in the face of rising opportunity for those who are not white Americans. Once upon a time, most white Americans supported the government programs of the New Deal-era that created broad opportunity and advancement for white Americans in the wake of the Great Recession. Black Americans were generally excluded from such programs. In the 1960s, when Civil Rights protesters pressed for equality as government moved to make public policy and benefits more inclusive, conservatives saw an opportunity. Republicans like George Wallace and Nixon, who actually had been racial moderates relatively speaking, realized that they could win the then-determinative white vote and reduce support for otherwise wildly popular government programs by convincing white Americans that government was actually unfairly helping people of color.
This lie is at the heart of the toxic stew of conservative politics for the last half century. Today, white people make up 42% of poor people but receive 69% of government benefits. While government programs like Medicaid and Social Security disproportionately help white people much more than black people to escape poverty and join the secure ranks of the middle class, conservatives have systematically convinced white folks that they are the victims of government spending — which takes their tax dollars to help undeserving, lazy nonwhites. How else to get white Americans to hate government benefits that actually help them than to counterfactually convince them that such programs “aren’t for us.”
The number one most important book for everyone to read this election year is Ian Haney López’s “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.” Haney López examines the deep, dark history of racial dog whistle politics—there was Richard Nixon, whose chief counsel said, “subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches;” Ronald Reagan, who ran against “welfare queens” in Chicago; and Bill Clinton, who launched racially coded attacks against welfare and “super predators.” But the metaphor of the dog whistle is because such racial coding is silent, plausibly deniable. As Haney López writes, dog-whistling “constantly emphasizes racial divisions, heatedly denies that it does any such thing, and then presents itself as a target of self-serving charges of racism.” Thus you have Donald Trump constantly portraying himself as the victim of “political correctness” and saying those who challenge his attacks against a Mexican-American judge are actually the real racists.
And it’s the constant subtext of a billionaire celebrity who constantly insists that the world—from the media to his own party to the electoral system — is treating him unfairly. According to Donald Trump, discrimination past and present against communities of color or immigrants or women isn’t a real thing. But discrimination against him, and people—implicitly white people—just like him is very much real.
Dog whistle politics “portray nonwhites as threats and whites as imperiled,” writes Haney López. Ergo, a perennially self-pitying presidential candidate who attacks Mexican immigrants as rapists, demonizes all Muslims and derides women. The most worrisome part? Though Trump himself is a political disaster, his method is tried and true, a proven way to win over resentful white voters—and perhaps whistle himself into the White House.