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.
Trump seemingly couldn’t care less whether his critics perceive and decry his racial fearmongering. On the contrary, it’s as if he intentionally trolls the media with xenophobic jibes. Every shockingly offensive statement leads to paroxysms of free coverage, concentrating attention on a candidate who largely eschews buying political ads. It’s Trump’s willingness to offend liberal sensibilities that has convinced so many that his campaign has rests on explicit racism—to most liberals, at least, the racism underlying Trump’s words is obvious, and so they conclude it’s undisguised bigotry.
But don’t think Trump has abandoned dog whistling altogether. Even as Trump almost flaunts his racism before his critics, he still seeks to hide it from another audience—his very supporters. Trump pushes the boundaries of acceptable racial speech, but still carefully uses language that allows his ardent followers to reassure themselves that they are not motivated by racism.
There’s no fixed number of white voters that Trump must enlist to prevail in November. Much turns on whether those voters reside in swing states, on how many white women walk away from Trump, and on mobilization among nonwhites. Nevertheless, NPR’s electoral web tool shows that Trump could capture the White House if 62 percent of white voters pull the lever for him (by way of comparison, Mitt Romney received 59 percent of the white vote in 2012).
Maybe intuitively, but more likely because he’s an astute salesman, Trump understands that he has no chance at the Oval Office—nor could he have won 13 million votes in the GOP primaries—as an open bigot. Were Trump to campaign explicitly on white solidarity, he would come nowhere near winning the three or more in five white votes that he needs to become president.
Solid data on how many whites consciously believe in white superiority is hard to come by, partly because after the civil-rights era the numbers dropped so low that many surveys stopped asking respondents directly. To be sure, multiple studies demonstrate that Republicans in general and Trump’s supporters in particular show high levels of racial resentment. But such feelings are often unconscious, and do not necessarily translate into self-conscious endorsements of white supremacy.
Nevertheless, a February poll of Republican voters in South Carolina by Public Policy Polling is suggestive. Asked, “Do you think that whites are a superior race,” 16 percent of Trump’s supporters agreed (as did only 10 percent of Republican primary voters surveyed overall). That’s distressing, and all the more so because another 14 percent effectively shrugged and answered that they could not say one way or the other. Still, 69 percent of Trump’s supporters disagreed with the statement (as did 78 percent of Republicans overall).
There’s good reason to distrust the number of Trump’s fans endorsing white superiority, as too high or maybe too low. The numbers come from South Carolina, a Deep South state with a blasted history of slavery and segregation, where support for white supremacy presumably runs hotter than in the country as a whole. On the other hand, surveys typically understate the level of support for unpopular ideas, as respondents often hesitate to reveal their actual beliefs to pollsters.
Regardless of whether, when extrapolated to the country as a whole, the South Carolina numbers are slightly off plus or minus, only a minority of Trump’s supporters forthrightly embrace white superiority. In campaigning, then, Trump must carve a course between mobilizing voters with tales of racial peril and not obviously appealing to them as outright bigots.
This has always been part of the art of dog whistling, though it does force a clarification of the metaphor. Sometimes dog whistling works like a secret handshake, benign to outsiders but clearly understood by those in the know. George W. Bush practiced it this way, for instance in using terms like “compassionate conservative” and “faith-based initiative.” To most, these phrases seemed anodyne, yet as journalist and author Craig Unger explains, Bush intended them to signal to Christian fundamentalists his commitment to their ascendance.
But when seeking to appeal to widely condemned group animosities—such as racism, sexism, and homophobia—dog whistling works differently. The most important goal becomes to hide the full ugliness of the underlying message from the target audience itself.
The racial dog whistle is a con: In the very moment it claims to be boldly telling politically incorrect truths, say about crime, immigration, terrorism, and trade, in fact it is surreptitiously manipulating people’s deepest fears about racial loss and betrayal. (Actually, it’s a double con, for in turn dog whistling exploits these anxieties to win working- and middle-class support for politicians indebted to the billionaire donor class—or, as with Trump, themselves the self-interested billionaires.)
So Trump must observe certain limits. The most basic—the red line that clearly demarcates pernicious racism—is to avoid racist epithets. You’ll hear the n-word and other slurs from some of his enraged fans (presumably they are among the 16 percent or so of avowed bigots), but Trump will never publicly use racial invective on the campaign trail.
Less rigid but still critical, Trump rarely speaks in color-coded terms—he almost never talks expressly about whites, browns, blacks, yellows, or reds. True, he has violated this norm on a few occasions. In one pants-on-fire instance, he retweeted an inflammatory graphic claiming that “blacks” were responsible for 81 percent of homicides against “whites” (the actual number, according to the FBI’s most recent data, is under 14 percent). Even so, however, these naked references to color are tellingly rare in a campaign predicated on racial fear.
Flirting openly with avowed white supremacists constitutes another limit on Trump’s racial rhetoric. Recall Trump’s “playing funny with the Klan,” as Van Jones put it. Asked to respond to former Klan grand wizard David Duke’s endorsement, Trump initially dissimulated, saying he didn’t know Duke and was unfamiliar with the Klan. Yet several days later he recalibrated, repudiating both. Accepting the enthusiastic embrace of white supremacists, Trump apparently calculated, cost more support than it gained him.
Finally, Trump must affirmatively embrace anti-racist norms. This is the perennial racial charade of Republican politics, in which the diversity on stage greatly exceeds that in the audience, speakers routinely invoke Martin Luther King Jr. as the patron saint of colorblindness, and it’s the Democrats, with their compulsive focus on minorities, who deserve blame for racially dividing the country. Following suit, Trump has proclaimed his racial bona fides in 144 characters or less, tweeting, “I am least racist person there is.”
Together these rules set an extremely low bar on what constitutes acceptable racial discourse in politics today—not using racist epithets, avoiding color-coded terms, keeping modest distance from white supremacists, insisting you’re not actually a racist. They are, in fact, too low to keep many observers from correctly perceiving the racially reactionary narratives at the heart of Trump’s campaign. Nevertheless, they suffice to keep Trump in good standing in the GOP. Compare the party’s immediate repudiation of David Duke when he recently announced he was running for the Senate as a Republican with the intent of representing “European-Americans” (notably, even Duke observed the norm of not expressing his racism in colored terms).
And as we’ve seen, these minimal norms are not violated by repeated attacks on Mexicans and Muslims. Trump can incessantly slam both—and blacks, too—so long as he leaves open the possibility that he denigrates these groups on the basis of national origin, culture, or behavior, not descent.
An exception helps illustrate the rule. In early summer Trump assailed the impartiality of the federal judge hearing the Trump University case, claiming that as a “Mexican,” Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased against him. This attack could not be saved as one based on nationality, because Curiel was born in Indiana. Indeed, when pushed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump made clear he meant “Mexican” as heritage: “I’m building a wall. I’m trying to keep business out of Mexico,” Trump explained. “He’s of Mexican heritage, and he’s very proud of it, as I am of where I come from.” This imputation of bias on the basis of descent went too far. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan admitted it was “textbook” racism, and within a few days—as he had in the Klan brouhaha—Trump retreated, claiming his comments had been “misconstrued.”
As with his broadsides against Mexicans, his condemnations of Muslims typically avoid emphasizing descent or color, instead stressing religion as a source of supposedly deficient cultural norms and violent behavior. So Trump impugns the silence of Ghazala Khan, Gold Star mother of a decorated soldier; calls for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”; blames, with no evidence whatsoever, Muslim Americans for cheering the 9/11 attacks; threatens to reinstate waterboarding and worse torture in the Middle East; and insinuates that Muslim communities harbor domestic terrorists—but his supporters can tell themselves that this reflects not racism but “common sense,” as Trump likes to say, about religious differences. And they do: According to a recent PRRI report, “More than eight in ten (83%) Trump supporters embrace the idea that Islam is opposed to American values.”
Donald Trump may not care whether his critics condemn him for racial pandering—indeed, even beyond the free media attention, he may believe this helps buttress his pretensions as a populist under attack by liberal elites. Nevertheless, Trump is still dog whistling. He carefully and strategically weaves coded racial narratives that simultaneously stir racial panic, while allowing most of his supporters to believe they are not racists.
Trump’s brimstone campaigning has deepened political and especially racial divisions in the country, wounds we will need to heal. Perversely, in this context his dog whistling is good news, at least when compared to the alternative. Trump routinely polls at 40 percent nationally, with a bump after his acceptance speech; if he were doing so as a flagrant racist, we would be facing looming race wars. Instead, as we as a country confront the racial resentment at the heart of contemporary conservatism, we can take small but genuine comfort in the fact that most of Trump’s supporters reject naked racism and see themselves as moral rather than hate-filled. In the difference between dog whistling and open racism hangs the likely fate of our democracy.