How Dog Whistle Politics Is Changing Under Trump

Mar 2, 2017

For decades, politicians have used coded language to talk about race without addressing it explicitly. Terms like "welfare queen," "illegal aliens" and "thug" are used to elicit responses from target audiences without directly addressing race. The practice is known as "dog whistle politics." However, critics of President Donald Trump argue his rhetoric is antagonistic and divisive when it comes to issues of race and inequality.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Ian Haney Lopez, John H. Boalt professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, about the roots of dog whistle politics and how the rhetoric is shifting with President Trump. Lopez is the author of the book “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked The Middle Class" (University of Oxford Press/2014).Haney Lopez speaks tonight at 5:30 p.m. at Page Auditorium at Duke University. Lopez will also participate in the forum “Policing Color: Black, Brown and Blue” at Duke University’s Penn Pavilion tomorrow.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On the origins of dog whistle politics and coded language

It really comes out of the 1950s and ‘60s and the civil rights movement. The nation begins to change and the use of explicit racial language in politics becomes disfavored. It becomes a mark of moral backwardness. All the language that has been explicit now needs to change. At the same time, the fact that race relations was changing created a surge, a wave of anxiety among many whites that made race more important than ever, especially among concerns around integration. So in the 1950s and 1960s, you see politicians looking for a way to plug into racial anxieties without using explicit racial language. One of the first examples is going to be “states rights.” On its surface, “states rights” has no mention of race and sounds like an abstraction and pretends that the issue is federal and state relations when everybody understood that really it was a way to say southern states had the right to resist federal mandates that they integrate their schools. It was all about race but expressed in non-racial language.

On how President Richard Nixon’s use of the coded phrase “law and order” catered to white voters in the South

Part of the way the South responded to the civil rights movement was to say these people who were staging sit-ins at lunch counters and marching in the streets weren’t heroes defending civil rights; they weren’t Americans insisting on human dignity. They were common lawbreakers; they were criminals. So what you get in the '40s, '50s, and '60s in the South is this tight linkage between black activism and criminality. It’s very potent political language in the '60s, and Nixon seizes on it. He’s a part of this effort to shift the conversation away from demands for equality to a notion of black criminality as a threat to the country.

On how President Ronald Reagan’s dog whistle politics differed from Nixon’s rhetoric

Reagan isn’t just demonizing blacks at this point. Who is the real enemy here? It’s government because of the way it is wasting money on undeserving blacks... oney that it’s taking from hard-working whites through taxes. What happens here is that dog whistling takes on this additional character. Now it’s not just fear people of color--it's also resent the government and finally trust the marketplace.

On why Democratic politicians adopted dog whistling and Hillary Clinton's use of the label “super predator”

They saw the Republicans using race successfully through dog whistle campaigns, and they made the fateful decision to imitate them. They said to themselves, “If we can’t beat them, let’s join them.” So Bill Clinton introduces himself to the country as a new Democrat and what does he promise to do? End welfare as a way of life, crack down on crime and cut federal spending. All of those are Republican themes. What we hear with the “super predators” comment is Hillary Clinton coming in with the same sort of of rhetoric: fear crime. This is a way for politicians to say to white voters, “We understand your anxiety. We are here to protect you. The biggest threat in your life comes from people of color.”

On how President Donald Trump has changed the use of coded phrases and dog whistle politics

He’s still speaking in code sufficient enough to let his base believe that it’s not racial fear that is motivating him. At the same time, his critics are saying that calling Mexicans "rapists and drugs dealers" is race baiting. Did it hurt him? Here is part of the genius of Trump. He recognized having cultural elites criticize him as a racist actually helped him with his base, because one thing a lot of whites fear is that they are the new racial victims and that one form of racial victimization of whites is false accusations of racism. So when people accuse Trump of being a racist, many of his partisans turn around and say, “That just shows that people look down on us because we know we are not racist, and when you say one of us is that just proves he is one of us and that we are the ones who are actually embattled and victimized in this country.”