Racism, Dog Whistles, And The Trump Phenomenon

A while back I watched the film Mississippi Burning, and was struck by how much of the KKK rhetoric in the film reminded me of that coming from the Trump campaign in tone and substance. No, I don’t mean the racist material–I mean everything else that they said in defending and explaining their movement and motivations.

Now before you say that Mississippi Burning was just a fictionalized version of events and so it shouldn’t count for anything, let’s stipulate that the film makers used archival material and actual quotes from KKK members to craft their portrayal of the KKK on film. Further, the racists whom I have met and known in my life employed this same kind of rhetoric. This is one reason why the film struck me so. It jogged my memories of long ago conversations and people.

Anyone who has been around John Birchers, Ron Paul supporters, or people who get their news from Alex Jones will know exactly what kind of rhetoric I am talking about. It is zero-sum, tribal in nature, conspiracy minded, always always about how America has fallen into disgrace and disrepair because of outside elements, and how by golly we need a strong, principled leader who will reinstate the Constitution as it was originally written and make America great again! We’re just proud, patriotic Americans who want our country back! Et cetera, et cetera.

This was and is the kind of rhetoric used by the KKK. Now, John Birchers, Ron Paul supporters, and people who get their news from Alex Jones are not necessarily racists. However, they travel in racist company, and at least from the John Birch camp and the Ron Paul camp there was always more than a little of a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the racists that, hey, we won’t say it openly, but we agree with you on race–we’re fellow members of your tribe.

Of course, the John Birch Society and Ron Paul are diametrically opposed on many issues. So what? Fringe movements by nature lack logical coherence and consistency. That’s why they’re fringe movements. The John Birchers who talked in my living room when I was a child could quite easily have supported Ron Paul a few years ago, and Donald Trump now. Further, as far as I can tell, everyone who claims to be alt-right now supported Ron Paul four years ago. They are by and large the same people.

Some liberal reports a few years ago invented the term “dog whistle” to refer to racist signalling by political campaigns. The idea was that a politician would say something in a speech that only the racists would hear and understand, showing that the politician was secretly on their side. Most of the past examples of these so-called dog whistles have been phantom in nature–it was a dog whistle that only the reporters could hear. The dog whistle was largely just a trope the reporters use to smear people as racist.

However, when a politician lifts rhetoric verbatim from racist fringe groups and makes that the very centerpiece of his campaign, it is no longer a dog whistle to racist groups–it is a train whistle, telling racists to climb aboard. By and large, this has been the Trump campaign up until now.

You don’t hear that whistle? The racists sure do. And not just the racists–the black community as well. There is a good reason why Trump’s black support has hovered at less than 1%. When they hear Trump speak, they don’t hear a white New York real estate speculator running for president. They hear the local Klan leader talking from the courthouse steps without his sheet, explaining how he isn’t a racist, but that he just wants to make America great again; how outside agitators and the press are stirring up trouble in their fine, peaceful community; and how happy blacks were, and how everyone got along so well together before others came along to muck things up.

Blacks have spent their lives hearing this exact kind of thing. They know the score. And no amount of pivoting or gyrations on the part of the Trump campaign will ever erase the fact that Trump has spent nearly a year doing everything but wear a white sheet to tell racists that he is one of them.

But Trump isn’t a racist, you say. Apart from a handful of white people who are doing the limbo to excuse Trump’s behavior, who on earth cares whether or not Trump is a racist, at this point? Arguably, many KKK members back in the day weren’t technically racists either, but joined the group out of fear or in order to enhance their careers, just as many Nazis did during the Third Reich. We have a saying down in Texas: You ride with a horse thief, you hang with a horse thief. Once Trump identified with the alt-right, regardless of his personal feelings or motivations, he became a racist. That’s just how things work.

Sadly, the GOP has heard this whistle and have jumped on his train. Many in the GOP fool themselves into thinking that things will be forgotten by election day, or by the time the next election comes. However, some things, once done, cannot be undone by a mere shrug of the shoulders and a pivot. Indeed, some things can never be undone.

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