President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is often referred to as “dog whistle politics.”
In politician speak, a dog whistle is language that conveys a particular meaning to a group of potential supporters. The targeted group hears the “whistle” because of its shared cultural reference, but others cannot.
In 2018, The Washington Post wrote that “perhaps no one has sent more dog whistles than President Trump.”
When Trump this year planned a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the site of one of the worst acts of racial terror in U.S. history – on the Black holiday of Juneteenth, the media called the rally a “racist dog whistle.” That suggests that white nationalists would view the timing as an overture, while others would miss the date’s racism. Journalists have also referred to Trump calling COVID-19 “the China virus” as a dog whistle.
When Bush said during his 2003 State of the Union address that the American people had a “wonder-working power,” it probably sounded like a nice turn of phrase to most Americans. But evangelical Christians heard a line from the hymn “Power in the Blood” and understood that the president was one of them.
In a 2004 presidential debate, Bush said he wouldn’t nominate a Supreme Court justice who agreed with the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which ruled that a formerly enslaved man had no right to citizenship. Dred Scott is broadly viewed as a travesty of racial justice.
But Christian conservatives see in the decision parallels with Roe v. Wade – the Supreme Court case that protects abortion rights – because in their view, both reflect judicial overreach and human rights violations. So what evangelicals heard in Bush’s Dred Scott comment was that he, like them, opposed Roe v. Wade.
True dog whistles rely on there being an “outgroup” that can’t hear the politician’s coded message. They are so specifically targeted that there’s no need to deny their coded meaning because no one outside the intended audience even hears them.
This is why the term “dog whistle” does not accurately describe Donald Trump’s rhetoric. When Trump talks about “rapists” from Mexico, “shithole countries” in Africa and white supremacists as “very fine people,” the racial connotation isn’t hidden – it is obvious.
“This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists,” said Sen. Kamala Harris in a tweet about Trump’s planned Tulsa rally. “[H]e’s throwing them a welcome home party.”
As language and culture change over time, dog whistles evolve, too.
In the 1980s and 1990s concepts like “law and order” and “inner city” – phrases well used by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – might have functioned as political dog whistles. Appealing to white suburbanites’ perception of cities as crime-ridden places overrun with Black and Latino people, they therefore signaled their intent to use the law against people of color to protect white people. Plausibly, 30 years ago, the racial meaning of the phrases might have evaded other listeners.
Today news coverage shows that Americans broadly understand the racial connotations when Donald Trump talks about “restoring law and order” and protecting “the suburbs.” Such phrases are no longer dog whistles, though they are still referred to as such.
Incorrectly characterizing Trump’s racist rhetoric – like calling lies “alternative facts” – obscures the serious problems in this administration’s politics. It suggests that most Trump supporters are missing his appeals to white fear and resentment, not ignoring or endorsing them.
Saying the quiet part out loud
But Trump’s racism is not lost on voters.
One 2020 poll by The Washington Post/Ipsos found that eight in 10 Black Americans think Donald Trump is racist. Another, from Yahoo!/YouGov, found that 86% of Democrats and 56% of independents think Donald Trump is racist.
Meanwhile, only 13% of Republicans consider Trump racist. His supporters usually say he’s just a plain-spoken leader who tells it like it is. This turns the dog whistle notion on its head: It’s the outgroup that’s picking up on the hidden message in Trump’s rhetoric, while the ostensible target group takes his words literally.
Trump says the quiet part out loud. There is both honesty and danger in that.