By not calling out white supremacist vitriol, the president emboldens racists.
On March 28, surveillance video from the Oklahoma Democratic Party Headquarters in Oklahoma City recorded a woman armed with spray paint vandalizing the property with an assortment of slurs and other hateful content. Days later, the same woman was recorded once again committing similar crimes, this time defacing the Firehouse Art Center, McKinley Elementary School and the Cleveland County Democratic Party headquarters in Norman. The vandal defaced sidewalks, statues and windows with racist slurs and Nazi imagery in a crime that currently has one suspect in custody.
Thankfully, there was no shortage of solidarity against the hateful messaging, as several volunteers acted swiftly to erase the politically-charged vandalism. However, its contents held an all-too-familiar tone. The graffiti and defacement prominently featured swastikas, slurs and other white nationalist symbolism, alongside messages of support for President Trump’s re-election. The implication of this is yet another instance of Trump’s rhetoric being featured alongside destructive acts of white nationalist violence.
Many accuse Trump of encouraging white nationalists. White nationalist leaders Richard Spencer and David Duke publicly supported Trump’s candidacy and presidency. In the first year of the Trump presidency, Trump infamously refused to outright condemn the Neo-Nazi violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In his manifesto, the New Zealand shooter referred to Trump as a “renewed symbol of white identity.”
If Trump doesn’t actually hate groups of people in a classically racist sense, he’s certainly not straining to prove otherwise. He was elected due to the desire of voters to hear a non-politician tell it like it is. Unfortunately, the type of rhetoric used in Donald Trump’s speeches is open to interpretation.
The name for this type of messaging is “dog-whistling.” It essentially relies on speech that could be interpreted in a specific way. However, it’s insidious in the fact that the speech’s interpretations are subdued enough to take no explicit stance while implicating abhorrent views.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if a politician outright calls for a specific action; it’s more important that the speech doesn’t condemn or speak against an action. A noteworthy example of this being Trump’s infamous “both sides” comment following Charlottesville. This is all the justification needed, and this is the type of opening that encourages delusional people to do horrible things. If anything, politicians should be actively trying to prevent the misinterpretation of their words, especially if that speech is being used as cover to commit horrible crimes.
The entire concept of dog-whistle rhetoric relies on a certain amount of plausible deniability in relation to the hateful statements. However, I find it entirely reasonable to assume that deniability isn’t a priority anymore. Trump has repeatedly supported questionably intended statements; most recently, he defended a Fox News host’s implication of disloyalty targeted toward American Muslims.
Donald Trump is constantly pushing the limits of acceptability to his advantage. This creates an environment where extreme rhetoric becomes more acceptable. Accepting extreme rhetoric has consequences — hate crimes, intimidation or incidents like those previously mentioned here in Oklahoma.
When someone regularly uses language that is on the very edge of acceptability, it becomes incorporated into regular political discourse. The normalization of this type of rhetoric is not only distasteful — it is strengthened by apathy. The result of this is the poisoning of our political dialogue, as this new evolution of dog-whistling allows for the proliferation of two entirely different versions of reality.