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Trump’s dog whistle politics 2.0

Trump appropriates the rhetoric of black radicalism, while at the same time, courting white supremacists. How is that possible?

Daniel Kato
27 September 2016
Donald Trump, September 2016. John Locher/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump, September 2016. John Locher/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Many have rightfully critiqued Donald Trump’s recent attempts at ‘outreach’ to black communities. But one of the things that I have found striking in such episodes is just how eerily similar Trump’s language comes to black radical activists like Michelle Alexander.

Take for instance, the Donald, speaking in Akron, Ohio on 22 August 2016:

“Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing. No homes. No ownership. Crime at levels nobody has seen.”

And this is Michelle Alexander, in her seminal 2010 book The New Jim Crow:

“They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education and public benefits.”

Despite their affinities however, I have the distinct feeling that when Trump addresses racism, he wants to further embed it, whereas Alexander wants to dismantle it. How can both be saying somewhat identical things, and yet have completely different conclusions? 

Of course, some of this is easily attributable to political opportunism. Trump is talking about racism in an attempt to court black voters (or better yet, discourage black voters from voting for Clinton.) But as much as political opportunism might be at play here, it still does not answer the question of how a racist demagogue like Trump can mirror sentiments traditionally deployed by black radicals, in a manner that seems to only solidify his support amongst whites.   

Beyond simple personal gain, Trump’s ‘outreach’ reflects a new way in which racism is being perpetuated. The conventional manner was predicated on pursuing a colour-blind approach that nevertheless had racist policy implications. Ian-Haney Lopez referred to it as dog-whistle politics: coded talk on race that provides support for policies that would otherwise be seen as running counter to those national values that support equality and oppose racism. The racist stereotypes of the ‘welfare queens’ is a classic example. By never mentioning race, politicians could claim deniability against accusations of racism, despite the disproportionate impact these policies would have on communities of colour.   

Although the coded language of dog-whistle politics has been very successful, another kind of politics is emerging. I like to call this bullhorn politics. On the one hand, Trump laments the housing crisis befalling African-Americans, even though he himself was cited by the Department of Justice for violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Even though Trump will talk about how blacks are unfair victims of crime, he championed the death penalty for five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted.

Unlike the dog-whistle politics that obscures the racialised effects of policies by hiding behind non-racialised rhetoric, bullhorn politics screams institutional racism so loud that it drowns out and subsequently exonerates individuals. Whereas dog whistle politics obscures policies by focusing on individual behaviour, bullhorn politics obscures individual behaviour by focusing on policies. The process is the opposite but the consequence is the same. 

More specifically, bullhorn politics is bound up in the de-politicisation of institutional racism.  Trump is just one example. Another can be found in the trial of police officer William Porter for the death of Freddie Gray. William Porter was an officer with the Baltimore police department who was accused of criminal negligence and recklessness, for declining to provide Freddie Gray with medical attention when he was hurt, and for allowing him to be transported in the back of a police van without a seatbelt.

Porter’s defence attorney went to great lengths to depict a “dysfunctional police department” in the hopes of convincing the grand jury to be “unwilling to convict Porter alone for the sins of a department at large.” In that it was the defence attorney, not the prosecutor, who raised the issue of the dysfunctional state of the police department as a way of exonerating Porter from the death of Freddie Gray, the defence argued that because everybody was guilty of misconduct, no one person should be held accountable for such misconduct.

The situation is akin to that which Hannah Arendt described in Eichmann in Jerusalem: a “criminal pointing to the statistics on crime – which set forth that so-and-so many crimes per day are committed in such-and-such a place – and declared that he only did what was statistically expected, that it was mere accident that he did it and not somebody else, since after all somebody had to do it.” Not only was the entire police department complicit in such murderous behaviour, but it was also the case that the American style of jurisprudence lacked the capacity to prosecute individuals operating within such an environment for their actions. The trial of William Porter reveals how collusion with dysfunction can be a legitimate defence for exoneration. 

It is no longer the case that racism is primarily perpetuated by the myth of a colour-blind society. A new tactic has emerged that involves the calling out of institutional racism as a means of denying individual culpability and responsibility. Because racism is so deeply embedded, presidential candidates and defence attorneys sense that they can take advantage of it.

Trump has appropriated the rhetoric of black radicalism, while at the same time, courts white supremacists. The disingenuousness of Trump’s message is not that he is wrong about many African-Americans are suffering. It is that he transformed a message that was originally tailored as a rallying cry for a radical transformation of the political system, into a way of consolidating his own electoral base. The insidiousness of Trump goes a long way beyond the theatrics.

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