How Trump used and evaded dog whistle politics to win the presidency

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Since the beginning of President Donald Trump’s involvement in politics, race has been a centerfold issue.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in a 2015 speech announcing his bid for the presidency. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

This was the first of many times that race would dominate the conversation surrounding his campaign. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump called for a “total” ban on Muslim immigration and in December 2015, he attacked an Indiana-born judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University, saying that he would be unfair to him because of his Mexican heritage.

Former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke openly supported Trump’s bid, saying that Trump was an ideal candidate for President because he “understands the real sentiment of America.” When CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked Trump to condemn Duke’s and other white supremacist’s endorsements, Trump declined to do so, saying that he did not know enough about the group to denounce their endorsements.

His first and arguably most prominent pre-election tool used former President Barack Obama by claiming he is not born in the United States. This debunked theory was denounced as ‘racist’ by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton. Trump has yet to concede that he was wrong about this argument.

“In recent times, whiteness as an overt political tactic has been restrained by a kind of cordiality that held that its overt invocation would scare off “moderate” whites,” Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote.

The need for “dog whistle politics,” became prevalent near the end of the Civil Rights movement, according to a former political operative Lee Atwater. In a 1981 recording, Atwater discusses how he used dog whistle politics to play out his southern strategy to circumvent societal disdain for outright racism help Republicans like former President Ronald Reagan into the White House.

Former President Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s Magazine that the Nixon White House intentionally targeted the anti-war left and black people.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said.

The War on Drugs, which was not created in response to a drug epidemic, according to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, made it possible for politicians to play with the fears of black people.

“Almost overnight,” she wrote, “the media was saturated with images of black ‘crack whores,’ ‘crack dealers,’ and ‘crack babies.'” Alexander wrote that these images seemingly confirmed “the worst negative racial stereotypes about impoverished inner-city residents.”

Political operatives took advantage of these stereotypes and released attack ads on their opponents. Atwater specifically played with fears of the ‘silent majority’ in helping to get former President George Bush elected in the 1988 election.

The Bush campaign released an attack ad on then-presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis by attempting to link him to violent crimes.

“By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate,” Atwater said.

But the strategy of dog-whistle politics was somewhat evaded in the last presidential election. Trump’s campaign strategy was extremely blunt about his scapegoating of racial and religious minorities in an attempt to rally his voting base.

Trump used this tactic when, specifically, talking about Muslim and Mexican immigrants. But, he did not speak directly about African Americans. Instead, he used more subtle but still racial language, according to American University professor Sherri Williams.

He “has positioned black people to be the enemy as people who are getting entitlements and benefits and not really working for them,” Williams said in an interview. Williams says that Trump has positioned all three of these groups–African Americans, Middle Easterners and Mexican immigrants– “as enemies as what people to see as…’real’ Americans.”

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