It appears that the GOP has traded in its dog whistle for a bullhorn when it comes to bigotry in the 2016 race for president. It’s as if the Republican presidential candidates are regressing to a time long gone.
There was a time decades ago that conservatives, and even Democrats like George Wallace, could and would openly demonize minorities in the most vile terms to attract white voters. But soon they realized the need to be subtler because times were changing.
The late GOP strategist Lee Atwater summed it up as follows (and forgive me the blunt language, but it’s what he said): “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.”
So began the racial “dog whistle,” or the politically acceptable way of telling white people in a coded message that we will keep you safe from blacks, immigrants, etc. The first Republican to utilize this is generally seen as Barry Goldwater during his run for president in 1964. Goldwater’s campaign sought to capitalize on the backlash among conservative whites to the recently enacted Civil Rights Act. One famous example came shortly after the July 1964 riots in Harlem when he stated, “Our wives, all women, feel unsafe on our streets.” The message being that blacks are coming to rape your women and I will protect you.
In 1968, Richard Nixon ushered in the Southern Strategy, which Nixon’s special counsel, John Ehrlichman, candidly summarized as, “We’ll go after the racists.”
Nixon used the dog whistle of opposing “forced busing” and promising “law and order,” which were polite ways to say he would slow down desegregation and protect white America from black criminals.
And it has gone on from there in varying degrees. There was Ronald Reagan’s invocation of “states rights” in his speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, and 1988 of course we had George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton campaign commercial.
Interestingly, during the 1996 presidential race, Bob Dole steered clear of dog whistles during his losing campaign. And George W. Bush, while supporting a constitutional amendment opposing gay marriage in 2004, refused to “kick gays” as some on the right urged him to do. Bush even rejected Muslim bashing after 9/11, instead making it clear that, “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”
Now, there’s no longer a need to be politically correct when demonizing minorities. The GOP has gone full bigotry.
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump appears to have cherry-picked the most effective dog whistles from past GOP campaigns and then injected them with steroids. Trump has plagiarized Nixon’s practice of appealing to the “silent majority” (white people) and promising “law and order.”
But he has gone much further. Trump not only released a Latino version of Bush’s Willie Horton ad which featured images of three scary-looking Latino men who had committed crimes, he has made stoking the flames of fear of Latino immigrants a central tenet of his campaign.
Trump told us in his very first speech as a presidential candidate that Mexico is “sending people” to America who “are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And on the campaign trail he has continued telling crowds that “illegals” had “raped, sodomized, tortured and killed” American women. (The GOP loves to invoke rape.)
Jeb Bush said over the weekend that Democrats lure black people to support them with the promise of “free stuff.” At least when Mitt Romney made his infamous comments that 47 percent of Americans support the Democrats because they “are dependent upon government,” he only implied it was minorities. But not Bush. (By the way, Goldwater made a similar remark in 1964 when he said, “We can’t out-promise the Democrats.”)
And Ted Cruz has unequivocally stoked the flames of hate versus the LGBT community with his recent remarks that the gay activists are waging a “jihad” against “people of faith who respect the biblical teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”
Then there’s Ben Carson, running neck and neck with Trump. Carson declared last week that Islam is incompatible with the Constitution and he would not support a Muslim American for president. On Sunday, Carson inadvertently summed up the GOP’s theme in 2016 when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper that only the media types are upset with these intolerant comments, “because the American people, the majority of them, agree and they understand exactly what I am saying.”
Yes, we do understand exactly what Carson and the other GOP candidates are saying. It’s no longer code; it’s now in our face. The GOP’s 2016 platform is that Latino immigrants are coming to rape you, blacks want handouts, gays are waging a holy war versus Christians, and Muslims are not loyal to America.
The scariest part of all this is that we are just a few months into the race. Who knows how much more ugly and hateful this campaign could get before November 8, 2016? But given the frontrunners in the GOP race, I would predict it might just become the most bigoted and vile campaign in the modern era of American politics.