From his recent allegation that the Muslim American mother of a fallen war hero was not “allowed” to speak all the way back to his opening denigration of Mexicans as rapists, Donald Trump has suffused his presidential campaign with racial vitriol. Nothing better exemplifies this than his Republican National Convention speech resurrecting Richard Nixon’s loaded “law and order” campaign slogan. Squint-eyed and pursed-lipped, Trump flayed his audiences with dire warnings of crime, mayhem, murder, and chaos, then promised to redeem them with renewed strength, pride, and triumph.
But far scarier than Trump’s barbarians-at-the-gates performances are the throaty cheers from his audiences. Trump’s tales of racial doom—the four horsemen of Latino immigration, black crime, Islamic terrorism, and Chinese economic manipulation—lash his crowds into waves of applause, ovations, and approving roars. What was once funny—in a stomach-churning way—as Trump seemed to engage in repeated self-parody has become ever more chilling when met with the frenzied whoops erupting in stadiums across the country.
What are we to make of how Trump uses racial fear to goad the Republican base, and what does this portend for the country? Is Trump the latest example in the GOP’s long-running tradition of dog whistling—a practice that began with Barry Goldwater’s summons of “states’ rights,” morphed into Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” then found new guises in Ronald Reagan’s references to “welfare queens,” George H. W. Bush’s “Willie Horton,” and Mitt Romney’s “makers and takers”?
Or has Trump rendered dog whistles passé in a headlong rush toward outright demagoguery? Has Trump abandoned code and shifted to flagrant racist appeals —in his promises to wall off Mexico and to bar entry to Muslims, his calumnies against the Black Lives Matter movement and his insinuations that President Obama is secretly loyal to Islam and ISIS?
Even before his sulfurous acceptance speech, Trump’s charged rhetoric prompted some to argue that he has replaced veiled racial speech with outright racist blasts. A writer in Rolling Stone laments that Trump has “eradicated the dog whistle and replaced it with a large, bigoted megaphone”; another in The New York Times opines opines that Trump’s “air horn is so piercingly loud that few can pretend they don’t hear it, or understand what it represents about the country.”
They’re right and wrong—Trump has jettisoned one part of dog-whistle politics, but continued another.
The nuanced language of dog whistling traditionally sought to hide the underlying racial manipulation from two audiences: potential critics of such an appeal, including political opponents as well as the media; and the target voters themselves. For example, when Democrats first cried foul over the Willie Horton ad—linking their presidential candidate to a black rapist of a white woman—the media largely accepted Bush’s forceful denials of any racial intent. Indeed, not until three years later did the media come to see this paradigmatic example of dog whistling as a racial attack, as Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg showed.