Wednesday, August 10, 2016

That Wasn't a Dog Whistle, Friends

Dog whistles are subtle. Donald Trump is not. (Reuters photo)
Speaking in North Carolina Tuesday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose notorious off-the-cuff comments make George W. Bush look poised and eloquent, fired off one of his most inflammatory statements yet. “By the way, and if [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he told a handpicked crowd of loyal sign-wavers. “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody more explicitly calling for violence against one’s political rivals. In stating that “Second Amendment people” could “do” something about Secretary Clinton’s political appointments, he was pretty unambiguously advocating armed attacks on anyone the audience disagrees with. He could defensibly hide behind the equivocal “maybe” and “I don’t know” in the statement, but that’s condom talk. The deed is done, regardless of DNA evidence.

Besides the statement itself, which is pretty damned appalling, I have been thunderstruck by how commentators have handled these comments. When a friend casually called this a “dog-whistle threat,” I dismissed that as flippant misuse from a non-specialist. But Rolling Stone magazine also blatantly called it “Trump's Assassination Dog Whistle,” and despite their rock music roots, RS is a respected journalistic source. They should know that isn’t a dog whistle.

I’m somewhat unclear where the term “dog whistle politics” originated. Like many semi-technical terms, it gets bandied around in often slapdash conditions. However, it does have specific meaning. According to legal scholar Ian Haney López, author of the book Dog Whistle Politics, dog whistles involve language that is superficially neutral, which can be argued away as trivial or functionally meaningless, but which includes allusions target audiences recognize as loaded language.

Haney López cites, by way of example, Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 1968. Facing ignominious defeat before not only Democrat Hubert Humphrey, but also hugely popular independent candidate George Wallace (who ultimately won five Southern states), Nixon began a campaign citing a demand for increased “law and order.” These terms are at least somewhat neutral, and even many bleeding-heart liberals agree a free society absolutely requires rule of law.

Ian Haney López
However, as applied, Nixon’s rhetoric didn’t single out the groups nonpartisan Americans agree are criminals. Nixon didn’t target muggers, rapists, and killers. Nor, in an increasingly globalized economy (driven by that cutting-edge technology, the Telex), did he single out shady derivatives traders and stock-swap swindlers. Instead, he inveighed against the ill-defined malefactors who made Americans fear to ride the bus, who interfered with the mechanisms of civil defense.

Nixon’s intended audience knew clearly who he meant. Law-abiding citizens putatively feared to “Go Greyhound” because of Freedom Riders, who protested segregation of public transportation by boarding buses en masse and deliberately sitting together. And the mechanisms of civil defense were being sabotaged, not by cop killers or Weather Underground bombers, but by draft dodgers. “Law and order” meant cracking down on civil rights protesters and hippies.

That, friends, is a dog whistle. Nixon rode a wave of public outrage to the presidency by ginning up middle-class, white opposition to two derided populations. He stirred high feelings without naming his target. He could deny ever baiting hippies and Blacks, because he never explicitly did. Whereas Trump, small-fingered opponent of subtlety, directly called “Second Amendment people” to “do” something. Only true believers and paid spokesmodels could misinterpret that.

Trump’s comments came quickly after saying that “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” according to NBC news. This latter statement is entirely consistent with Republican talking points: the idea that Democrats will seize Americans’ legally protected firearms has been unquestioned dogma on the organized Right for generations. This although no Democrat has suggested banning anything but high-yield assault weapons since Jimmy Carter.

That, arguably, is a dog whistle, since it implies without stating anything, that Democrats don’t respect the Constitution. I’ve seen sources who unambiguously declare that Democrats lack Constitutional foundation, often themselves relying on vague, choppy legal understandings. Trump didn’t say Clinton dismisses the entire Constitution, but insisted, without source, that she considers parts disposable, apparently by executive action. Committed followers of Rightist dogma know what that means.

Dog whistle language works, partly, because it goes unnoticed. When Ronald Reagan spoke repeatedly about “welfare queens” in 1976 and 1980, even staunch critics took months to realize his audience understood those “queens” were black. Trump’s statements were so unsubtle, the backlash began before his speech ended. That wasn't a dog whistle, friends. That was a flaming bazooka of turd gravy at a church picnic. Keep things in perspective.

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