Thursday, May 19, 2016

The dog whistle everyone hears

WHEN YOU first see the Pantone-red baseball-style cap, whether it’s on the head of its designer or not, you know that in this stupefyingly satire-rich political season, it could only be the work of Donald Trump, the working presidential nominee of the Republican party, heir to Lincoln and Reagan, the greatest carnival barker who ever worked the midway of the earth.

First there’s the color, long adopted as the GOP’s existential hue. Then there’s the slogan, in Trump’s signature bloviating style, its presumptive room for improvement suggesting it might have once been a tag line for Trump Hypothetical University:


The ubiquity of that damn cap throughout this campaign season, and its underlying theme of Trumpian madness, have been bad enough. What’s made it worse, made it that much more of a maddening everyday trial for millions of Americans is what that scarlet chapeau symbolizes: the endless injection of race into the narrative and the subtext of the current campaign.

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OF COURSE, this is America and race is never far away from anything. Some of the political discourse falls along racial lines as a default, by-extension line of inquiry, analysis and commentary that proceeds from race being what it’s always been: the inescapable third-rail issue, visible and invisible at the same time.

But the mainstreaming of racial dog-whistle politics this year is anything but incidental, and nobody’s accident. Throughout the campaign season, and certainly since Trump got into the contest almost a year ago, the discourse on the conservative campaign trail has been reliably crowded with the coded language of race in the service of a partisan agenda.

The dog whistle’s back, and in the hands of Donald Trump. But unlike a dog whistle, this one’s being easily heard on two frequencies: as a preaching to the choir of the most dogmatic conservatives, and, to everyone else, a statement of utter indifference to how the new conservative messaging comes across.

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Writing Tuesday in Salon, Chauncey DeVega goes a long way to explaining how we got to where we are. Conservatives this year welcomed back an old favorite: the birther meme:

“Fifty-four percent of Republicans believe that Barack Obama is a ‘secret Muslim,’” DeVega writes. “Forty-four percent also believe that Obama was not born in the United States. That’s now wedded to a new nativist mindset: “Forty-two percent of Republicans believe that Muslims should be banned from the United States.”

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THIS RIDICULOUS fiction has roots in the downbeat thinking expressed in a March report by the Pew Research Center, in which 66 percent of Republican and Republican-inclined respondents “say life in this country has gotten worse over the past half-century for people like them.” For want of a better phrase, these people seem to want to return to the “good old days.”

The “good old days” phrase isn’t Pew’s idea; the report never uses it. But as a distillation of what these Republicans are thinking — its emotionally animating sentiment, its wistful language — it works, and only too well. Their response to the Pew survey is a clear desire to usher in some imaginary grandeur of the past, to “bring back” the America lamented in 2012 by contributors to the White People Mourning Romney Tumblr web site. And even earlier.

It’s a longing for the America Before Obama. When presidential politics was happily ordained to forever be a contest among white Christian males and nobody else. Back before the darker hordes Invaded Our Shores. Back when women and people of color did what they were told. Back when they stayed in their place. Back when LGBT Americans stayed out of sight. “The good old days.”

DeVega writes: “This yearning for a return to a fictive golden age of white male Christian domination over American social and political life ... shows how white people are much more pessimistic about their futures than Hispanics and African-Americans.”

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In some ways, the right wing has had it easy for a while. Since 2008, those on the hardest edge of the right wing have had the ultimate target of opportunity: the face and biography of the African American 44th President of the United States. As candidate and as president, Barack Obama may have done more for image-editing software sales in this country than any other living person.

During both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, in posters and e-mail attachments, cartoons and rally placards, Obama was digitally dehumanized and vilified, transformed into an ape, a witch doctor, a street thug, The Joker, Big Brother, Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden and many other figures and creatures besides.

And it’s not just the president himself. Just this week, cartoonist Ben Garrison published a cartoon comparing first lady Michelle Obama and first lady manqué Melania Trump, a side-by-side look at the two women through a conservative lens.

It’s every racial stereotyper’s dream: Michelle stands, masculinized, frumpy and frowning, next to Melania, sleek, sparkling, smiling, alluring according to the Eurocentric model. Garrison’s caption says it all: “MAKE THE FIRST LADY GREAT AGAIN!” Quiet as kept, the thinking behind his cartoon is hardly an isolated thing; he’s not saying anything that the Republican base hasn’t said privately for years.

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THE PASSIVE-aggressive rhetoric that drives much of the current not-dog-whistle campaign was brought to you by Lee Atwater, the late Prince of Darkness Republican strategist and master of how to speak volumes to a constituency without saying a word. Or at least that word:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.

“Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites ... ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.’”

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DeVega picks up the threads: “Ronald Reagan and other Republican elites would leverage Atwater’s approach to winning white voters and elections. To point, Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the locale where American civil rights freedom fighters Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were killed by white racial terrorists. In that speech, Reagan signaled to the ghosts of Jim and Jane Crow and the neo-Confederacy by stating his support for ‘states’ rights.’”

“Reagan would continue to use overt and coded racial appeals to gin up white support through his references to a ‘lazy,’ ‘violent’ and ‘parasitic’ class of black Americans who he described as ‘welfare queens’ and ‘strapping bucks.’ George Bush would continue with the Southern Strategy when he summoned up white racist stereotypes and fears of ‘the black beast rapist’ in the form of Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential election.”

All of which establishes the antecedents, sets the stage for the rise of a billionaire attention addict to the pinnacle of the Republican party:

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DONALD TRUMP is not a political genius” DeVega says. “He understands what the Republican base yearns for and has been trained to believe – like a sociopolitical version of Pavlov’s dog – by its leaders.

“Trump says that Muslims should be banned from the United States because Republican voters respond to such hatred and intolerance.

“Trump lies that undocumented Hispanic and Latino immigrants are rapists and killers who want to attack white women because Republican voters find such rhetoric compelling.

“Trump uses social media to circulate white supremacist talking points about “black crime” because modern conservatives nurtured on ‘law and order’ politics believe that African-Americans are out of control ‘thugs’ possessed of ‘bad culture’ who live to prey on innocent and vulnerable white people.

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“Trump talks about China ‘raping’ the United States because this arouses anger and fear of a new ‘yellow peril’ where the manhood and honor of (white) America is sacrificed to a ‘sneaky’ and ‘scheming’ ‘Oriental’ horde who twist their Fu Manchu mustaches and seduce white women in opium dens while simultaneously negotiating multibillion-dollar trade deals.

“And perhaps most damning, Donald Trump has been endorsed by neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and the Ku Klux Klan: he has been reluctant to publicly reject and denounce their support.”

Dog-whistle politics? That’s not a dog whistle. That’s a train whistle. That’s a civil-defense siren warning of a tsunami on its way in.

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WHAT WILL BE missing this year is the conservative convenience of the singular racial symbol. There’s no black face at the top of the ticket this time; that fact complicates the dog-whistle tactics conservatives have employed before. Inference, innuendo, guilt-by-association are all they have right now, and that may not be enough.

As objects of ridicule, Clinton and Sanders may work almost as well. We’ll find out: The television sets of America are the test kitchens of the modern political campaign, and if history is any indicator of what’s next, Republican opposition research will be robust for months to come.

So will the Democrats’. Trump’s given them plenty to work with. Never mind the earlier 25 or 30 years of lavish, pugnacious, adulterous, ostentatious public life: The job #1 for his campaign is to convince the American people in the vast numbers that the xenophobic, willfully divisive candidate we’ve encountered for the last chaotic eleven months was all a figment of our imagination. That he in fact didn’t exist. That the real Donald Trump lies just offshore from our reality, waiting for the right time to walk up from the beach, with the right answers for everything (details TBD). Working on that will keep the Democratic war room happily busy.

And as this campaign plays out through late October, the GOP’s oppo marketeers may soon look back longingly at the last eight years, as their target-of-opportunity president surfs into the sunset, and they feverishly try to fit the Clinton or Sanders campaigns with the perceived misdeeds of the Obama White House ... pining for the times when things were better, when one image was worth a thousand ad buys, when the face of Obama made everything so incredibly, visually easy.

You know ... the good old days.

Image credits: The cap: Trump top: via @salon. Pew Center logo: © 2016 Pew Research Center. Michelle/Melania cartoon: Ben Garrison. Atwater: Dennis Cook/AP archive. Trump lower: John Minchillo/Associated Press. Official Obama 2nd term portrait: © Pete Souza. 

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