It occurs to me that calling the Trump campaign’s racist messaging “dog whistles” is increasingly inaccurate.
An actual dog whistle– a high-pitched whistle used to train dogs– typically has a sound inaudible to humans. Politically, the term has been used to describe messages aimed at particular constituencies that can hear them, but using language or imagery that the broader public will not “hear” or understand.
Trump’s messaging, on the other hand, has gotten less and less subtle. We’ve gone well beyond the “very fine people on both sides” response to the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. These days, messages aimed at his most reliable supporters–racists–are heard and understood by growing numbers of the general, non-racist public.
Just this year, we’ve had several examples. There was the rally scheduled for Tulsa on June 19th. In 1921, Tulsa was the site of one of the most horrific racial pogroms in American history, and June 19 is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the day slaves in Texas learned they were free. Until recently, most white Americans were unaware of both, but that has been changing as history texts have begun including the less savory parts of the country’s past. (Ironically, given the blowback to Trump’s announcement, many Americans who were unaware of that history now know about both.)
Then there was the announcement that Trump’s acceptance speech would take place in Jacksonville, Florida, on August 27. Black people in Jacksonville know August 27th as “Ax Handle Saturday”–a day when people participating in a 1960 NAACP demonstration were chased through downtown Jacksonville streets and beaten. Another “coincidence.”
More recently, Trump retweeted a supporter shouting “White Power.”
And of course, there was the truly horrifying campaign message conveyed along with Trump’s current fixation on the ANTIFA of his imagination. A campaign attack on ANTIFA was illustrated with the same upside-down red triangle the Nazis had used in concentration camps to designate political prisoners.
Fewer Americans are familiar with the history of the red triangle, so its use by the campaign probably fits the dictionary definition of a “dog whistle.” The symbol was used in Facebook ads and on the “Team Trump” page, alongside warnings of “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups” and requests that supporters sign a petition about ANTIFA.
And as if the triangle wasn’t explicit enough, the campaign placed exactly 88 ads using the symbol–88 is a white supremacist numerical code for “Heil Hitler.”
Nixon had his “Southern Strategy.” Reagan was regularly accused of dog whistles to bigots. The GOP has long been accused of covert messaging to America’s distressingly large number of voters who exhibit “racial grievance”–or are outright white supremacists. Even at the GOP’s worst, however, most campaigns have tried to have it both ways–appealing to the racists while not being blatant enough to alert the people in their own party who would be repelled by such messages.
Not Trump. For one thing, he can’t spell subtle. For another, his personal history suggests that he is entirely sympathetic to the “cause” of white supremacy. The evidence stretches from his early refusal to rent apartments to African-Americans, to his truly reprehensible vendetta against the young boys wrongly accused of a Central Park rape, to his ridiculous, disgusting “birther” campaign and his obvious, obsessive effort to destroy anything and everything done by Barack Obama.
Let’s not dignify the Trump campaign by suggesting that it uses “dog whistles.” Let’s call it what it is: a campaign by a white supremacist, for white supremacists.