Back in 1992, I was starting a graduate degree in political science at San Francisco State University (I’m happy to report that I completed it in 1994) when I was assigned to “present” a couple of books in a seminar on American politics. The presentation was mostly summarizing the books to the class, and then either pointing out the book’s flaws or suggest areas where the writers could expand their work. Everyone had to do it, and it helped spur a larger discussion on politics. The books I chose were “Why Americans Hate Politics” by E.J. Dione, and “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics” by Mary and Thomas Edsall. At the time, both these books were new, and my professor was very keen to get his students reading the latest books that were either published on popular presses or from university presses.
Both books were similar in many ways, but the Edsalls’ work focused more on the how the GOP successfully leveraged the social changes of the ‘70s (borne out of the late ‘60s social and political movements that largely came from new left and countercultural groups) to peel away parts of the New Deal Coalition and make them “Reagan Democrats.” How was this done? Well if you just look at the subtitle in the Edsall’s book, you’ll see that overt racist political language is a sure fire way to lose elections, but if a savvy (and Machiavellian) politician uses coded language to convey racist views that appeals to anxious whites…well then, you get Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and even Bill Clinton as president. Ronald Reagan couldn’t say “lazy niggers” on the campaign trail, so his people used the story of a real grifter (who, conveniently, was a black woman) to propel the stereotype of a “welfare queen” conveying to whites that blacks were indeed undeserving of welfare because they bilk the system through fraud and abuse.
Reagan and Bush couldn’t say fags, thugs, bimbos, and dykes have special privileges “they” hijacked the government from “us,” instead they could talk about special interests and how “your taxes” were being used by a liberal elite to fund civil rights for “them.” George H.W. Bush’s supporters used the image of a black prisoner named Willie Horton in a TV ad to scare whites into voting for Bush because he would protect white society from the menace of the black rapist.
Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah Moment” — where he publicly rebuked the rapper for saying there ought to be a week where blacks kill whites — was designed to distance himself from radicals in his own party and bring back Reagan Democrats who felt the party had become a haven for who’s who of identity politics.
Slick Willie knew what he was doing because he wanted anxious whites whose racial prejudice against “others” was finding a home in the GOP to come back to the New Democrats. It worked, just as Reagan’s welfare queen ancedote worked, and just as Bush’s Willie Horton ad worked. In a perceived chaotic world where blacks are advocating killing whites, were traditional family values are being undermined by feminism, where homosexuality has gone from being a degenerate and illegal behavior to being “okay,” the moral foundations of our society are eroding and the purity of our American character is being sullied by “them.”
Before the GOP’s dominance of TV news and radio with Fox News and an endless parade of right wing talkers on AM radio, political ads on high rotation on TV was one of the most effective ways to get “the base” to the polls. Now? Well, TV is still important, but it’s all about the soundbite that gets picked up by media outlets and syndicated and repeated free of charge via social media. The echo chamber of social media seems to be more effective than the wall the wall coverage on TV. Sure, 24 hour cable news is key in generating content (and it’s watched by mostly people over 50), but to have an effect on people’s opinions, you need easy to digest social media memes. Polarizing language, used economically, leads to results. Why else would Donald Trump or Ben Carson repeat lies or half-truths if they didn’t pay dividends? Donald Trump says racist things almost every week, and even when the media attempts to call him out on it, he doubles down on his views. Why? Because it’s making him more popular with his base — which is mostly made up of whites with high school educations who believe what he’s saying because he speaks in such emphatic tones. So, Trump can go on about Mexicans being rapists, blacks killing whites, people (i.e., Muslims) in New Jersey cheering as the twin towers went down on 9/11, and the need to build a “big, beautiful wall” between the U.S. and Mexico with impunity. The press loves people who know how to create a spectacle because it gets them clicks and pageviews that leads to more advertising and staying in business. In a way, the press needs a guy like Trump (and Carson, to a lesser extent) because their head-shaking bullshit means “pay day” for the media. It’s a dangerous game, however. Because the more time given to an authoritarian racist like Trump, the more he knows that to remain in the spotlight he has to keep feeding the beast of racial fears, prejudice, and hatred. The GOP is aware if they want to win national elections, the numbers aren’t there if they only count on Trump’s supporters. What can they do? Well, Vox has a story about the GOP getting ready to launch an anti-Trump campaign to unite the more establishment candidates against him. But, as the article states, the problem is that by doing so, they may alienate Trump’s base — whose votes they need to beat the Democratic nominee. If Trump goes “third party,” he takes his voters with him and essentially pulls a Ross Perot. In other words, he hands the presidency to a Democrat. For a party that’s used the proverbial dog whistle of race politics for decades, it’s not going to be easy to motivate voters to go to the polls and vote for a candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio with the same kind of enthusiasm Trump supporters have demonstrated — and demonstrated sometimes in violent ways. As UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López, the author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” recently said to Rolling Stone:
“Racism in the United States is not just about mistreating minorities. Racism is fundamentally about scaring whites. And the people who are scaring whites with racism, they are not doing it because they don’t like people of color. They are doing it because this is a way to win votes for politicians who are basically serving the interests of billionaires.”
The irony is that while many on the right decry Obama acting like a king by circumventing congressional inaction through executive orders, many right wingers are supporting a guy whose speeches are laced with violent and authoritarian language more reminiscent of the Supreme Commander of North Korea than a U.S. president.