“Welfare queen,” “thug,” “inner-city”: Since the Nixon administration, coded appeals to white supremacy have been part of the Republican playbook. These “gentle slurs” have come to be known as “dog whistles,” or terms that, according to Wikipedia, “use language which appears normal to the majority, but which communicate specific things to intended audiences. They are generally used to convey messages on issues likely to provoke controversy without attracting negative attention.”
Campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, described how these dog whistles came to be in an interview uncovered by The Nation in the 2012 article, “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,” in which he explained how Republicans would appeal to white supremacists without appearing to be supporters of white supremacy:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—-, n—-, n—-.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—-‘—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 “N—-, n—-.”
Dog-whistle politics in the Age of Trump are so amplified that many now refer to them as “bull-horn politics.” From the name “George Soros” becoming synonymous with anti-Semitic “Globalist Jewish conspiracy,” to “America First”—a phrase adopted from the nativist KKK movement of the early 1900s. The latest example of this is the 45th President’s several attempts to cast Black votes as “illegal” in the 2020 Presidential election.
NPR’s newly published article, “Trump Push To Invalidate Votes In Heavily Black Cities Alarms Civil Rights Groups,” points out that the Trump administration’s lawsuits have been “targeting ballots in cities with large Black populations in an attempt to overturn the president’s defeat and retain power.” It goes on to quote senior legal advisor to the Biden campaign, Bob Bauer, as saying, “Trump campaign’s targeting of the African American community is not subtle. It is extraordinary” and that “it’s quite remarkable how brazen it is.”
It’s the brazenness of Trump’s “bull horns” that should trouble Republicans, not the rest of us, because, though the lack of subtlety may have galvanized his white supremacist base, it also exposed these “word games” that have been employed by the party for 50 years. When over half of the country’s white population condones and supports unvarnished racism, the dog whistles of old are not likely to return. In a 2016 article from Vox.com, “Offensive political dog whistles: you know them when you hear them. Or do you?,” Ian Olasov explains, “Dog whistles only work as long as most people don’t know about them.”
Therein lies the problem for the GOP going forward: We all know what dog whistles are now, and we’re not buying what they’re selling.