Donald Trump and dog-whistle politics: How to beat him — and build long-term progressive victory

Ian Haney López on how a "race-class narrative" that includes white people can transform democracy in America

Published October 5, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Trump Rally VS Black Lives Matter Protest (Ralph Freso/Spencer Platt/Getty Images/Salon)
Trump Rally VS Black Lives Matter Protest (Ralph Freso/Spencer Platt/Getty Images/Salon)

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Ian Haney López, author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” has an important new book just published this week, “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America.” In it, López explains the power, as well as the historical and political logic, behind a new approach to defeating dog-whistle politics. It's what he calls the "race-class narrative" approach, which I reported on last June

His argument is simple, López told me. “The major problem in American life today is division, and the way in which division is being exploited by greedy billionaires and the politicians they fund.” A top-performing message his researchers tested in California began:

California’s strength comes from our ability to work together — to knit together a landscape of people from different places and of different races into a whole. For this to be a place of freedom for all, we cannot let the greedy few and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from or how much money they have.

But a simple idea that works has never been enough for progressives. Really thinking things through is generally a good idea, and that’s what “Merge Left” does. In my two-part interview with López, we first discussed the history and political logic of dog-whistle politics, right through its latest incarnation in Donald Trump. In Part Two, we begin with a more precise exploration of how Trump is still deploying the dog whistle, and proceed from there to how the race-class narrative approach can enable progressives to defeat dog-whistle politics, not just as Trump practices it but in any form it may take. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

While Donald-Trump is still engaged in dog whistle politics, you point out that he approaches it a bit differently than past politicians. He's highly inflammatory but still uses coded language. Can you explain that a little? Why is it important to define that? 

It's important to recognize that Trump is dog whistling because it’s necessary to understand how to respond and also how not to respond. People should not respond the way almost all Democratic presidential candidates are currently responding. Trump wants his voters to go to the polls in 2020 thinking that the main division in the United States is between racial groups, and that they need to choose racial sides. That basic message of the fundamental conflict between racial groups is deepened when progressives call Donald Trump a bigot. 

Because what Donald Trump turns around and does is he says, “Hey, look, I didn't say anything about race. I just said, 'Send them back,’ or ‘shithole countries,’ or ‘illegal immigrants,’ or ‘sanctuary cities,’ but I never said anything about race. I never said ‘black’ or ‘brown’ or ‘white.’ I never used a racial epithet. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” That's the first thing he says.

The second thing he says is, “But you know who did bring race into the conversation? Those liberals, those angry minorities and their politically correct supporters who are accusing me of being racist. But they’re racists, because they’re stereotyping me as a racist when I didn't say anything about race. You know what else? They're portraying my supporters as racist.”

It sounds like a perfect setup for Trump — at least for securing his base.

We get this dynamic in which this corrupt billionaire gets to pose as a man of the people by saying, “Hey, my base, my supporters, I'm just like you. Those angry minorities and their pencil-neck, politically correct supporters look down their noses at all of us, accusing us of being racist, but we know were not racist."

Trump just loves that charade because it allows him to build a sense of common victimization with his supporters. It allows him to deepen the basic narrative that the United States is on the verge of race war. 

This is precisely the role that Trump assigns to progressive critics. Trump has this play that he has in mind, this theater. In this theater he is going to dog whistle, and then we are going to criticize him for being a racist, and then he's going to punch back by saying, “I'm not a racist. You’re the racist!” And then we’re going to have this enormous brouhaha which is going to consume all the air in the room about who the real racist is. Is it Trump and his supporters, or is it the angry minorities and their liberal supporters? That's the debate that he wants us to have. 

What he does not want us to do is talk about the way he’s a corrupt billionaire who is strategically manipulating the country into racial conflict, so it won't notice the way he and his corrupt cabinet are rigging the rules for a new oligarchy that’s siphoning the wealth of all of us into the economic stratosphere that they alone inhabit. That’s the conversation that he doesn’t want to have, and what we did with the race-class narrative project is unearthed in the evidence that shows that's a conversation that will actually set us free.

So, obviously, my next question: What is the "race-class narrative"?

The race-class narrative is a direct response both to what the party of big business has been doing the last for the last 50 years, and to the story it's been telling. So what the party of big business has been doing is dividing people by race in order to build support for plutocracy. And it’s been doing so through a dog-whistle story that says, first, fear and resent people of color; second, hate government; third, trust the marketplace. 

The race-class narrative responds directly to that history. It starts by telling the truth. It starts by saying, this is what's happened to us. You see all the racial division in our country? You see the incredible economic inequality that plagues all of our families? Those two are not separate; they're the same damn thing. 

They're related because the new oligarchy arose by using racism as a weapon to divide and conquer. It’s racial division that gets us fighting each other, that is used by economic titans in order to divide and distract while they write the rules of the economy to help themselves and while they hijack the government to their own ends. These two central dynamics, racial division and surging economic inequality, they are flip sides of the same thing, of dog-whistle politics. They are not separate phenomena. 

So what follows from this analysis?

Because they’re the same thing, this tells us how to fight them.  We need to respond by saying,  we see the game that the greedy elites are playing, we see that they’re engaged in racial division for their own economic gain. So, one, distrust greedy elites sowing division. Two, if divide and conquer is their game, then unite and build, come together across racial lines. Three, demand the government work for people and not for corporations. This basic reframing, this basic story about what's happened to us and where the threat comes from and how we move forward, this is a frame that we tested in the race-class narrative project that we ran over a couple of years, and it's a frame that has tremendous power. 

What does that power look like?

The power comes on several different levels. First, the power comes because it’s telling the truth about what's happened to us and it's the truth that many people intuit. When we name it, they can see it. We say, “Hey, greedy elites like Donald Trump, a corrupt billionaire, are intentionally provoking racial division so that they can break the rules for themselves,” people can see it. People can see, “Yeah, he said ‘build the wall,’ but what he did was pass a tax cut for billionaires.” They can see it. That’s part of the power. This is the truth about what's been happening in our society. 

That’s part of the power. What else is there?

Second, this reframing of racism makes it clear that racism is not fundamentally in this country a deep conflict between racial groups. Racism is fundamentally a weapon of the rich against all of us. 

Now, used as a weapon of the rich, it will produce conflicts between racial groups. Don't get me wrong: That conflict is there, but we have to understand that what's fueling it, what's funding it, what’s supporting it, is the agenda of today's economic titans. It's the Koch brothers, it's the Mercers, it's the Trumps. They are providing the material support that stokes racial conflict.

This is a paradigm shift in how we think about racism. When we recognize that racism is a weapon against all of us, whatever our racial group, it creates a basis for cross-racial solidarity rooted in all of our interests and protecting our own families. It says to white families, the biggest danger in your life is when whites vote racial fears about people of color, because racism is being used as a weapon of the rich against all of us.

This suggests something more, doesn’t it?

It brings us to the next great strength of the race-class approach. It answers one of the most important questions facing the country today: What is the future of whites in a country that is moving away from white dominance, and toward a no-majority, multiracial democracy? What is the future of whites in this emerging multiracial democracy? This is the key question that dog-whistling answers all the time. Dog-whistling and Donald Trump say that the future of whites in the multiracial America is horrible. It's disastrous. There's going to be carnage.

Progressives have tended not to answer that question. But we need to answer it. Because people want to know. Whites want to know what the future holds for their children. People of color want to know which way whites are going. 

Progressives need to say the future of whites in the multiracial America is to be one more racial group that is far better off by seeing their linked fate with other groups and coming together to reject racial division, to make sure that the government and economy work for all of us. That's the future of whites in multiracial America — being part of the racial tapestry and being better off because of it. The race-class narrative says that clearly and expressly. And it has a lot of power because of it.

You did some testing where whites were mentioned explicitly as a racial group and showing what difference that made. It struck me as a crucial finding. What did you find, and what’s the significance? 

This is incredibly important to recognize. The conventional wisdom among progressives is that you can't talk about race, and you can't link race to progressive policy agendas because it destroys support for progressive policies. At one level you can see where that's coming from. It's precisely because of the right's success in linking things like welfare and public education to people of color that so many whites have walked away from supporting those sorts of policies, those sorts of government interventions.  

But it’s an enormous mistake to think that the lesson there is that you can't talk about race at all. Instead, the lesson is that you have to talk about race the correct way. You have to point out that government activism around health care, the economy, the environment, schools, welfare — government action on all of those levels is good for all of us, white, black and brown.

And that phrase, ”white, black and brown,” is really important because people understand that we’re engaged in a racial debate. If we don't expressly name race, we’re letting the right control the debate. They’re the only ones talking. When we say, “Government activism is good for all racial groups, white, black and brown, whites included,” we’re naming what people are already wondering about: Where are they going to fit, what's going to happen with whites. 

One thing I really want to emphasize here. In our research we found that if we said, “Hey, how much do you support these policies?” and listed progressive policies, they got pretty high support, because these are popular policies. But when we said, “to help working people,” and added the phrase “white, black and brown,” support went up. Here again, it's like people know that we’re racially divided. They have in mind this right-wing narrative that these government programs are giveaways to undeserving people. It's important for them to be reassured that, no, government activism is for all of us. 

Can you explain more specifically what was going on there — not just with whites but with people of color?

This is really important. Support for progressive policies went up when whites were included, with people of color. People of color were more enthusiastic when whites were included. And this is a key point that it's easy to lose. When we talk about racism as a class weapon and whites having their own self-interest in participating in cross-racial alliances to reclaim control of government, this message is incredibly important to communities of color.

Communities of color want to know which way whites are going. They understand that most whites are not going to act out of altruism. They want to know why whites are likely to join a cross-racial coalition, if they are at all. They're not going to be convinced by this sort of high idealism, “We’re all going to do this because it's the right thing.”

The moral argument is important for many white anti-racists, but we are atypical, and it’s certainly easier when morality and self-interest coincide.

In addition, one of the things we found is that in many communities of color a message that says, “The problem that our country faces is that for 400 years it has betrayed its basic values and doesn't value the lives of black and brown people” — that message is overwhelming. It says to people, “Hey, we gotta solve 400 years of racism that is deeply embedded, widespread and everywhere entrenched.” When people hear that, they say, how are you going to do that? What's the mechanism? In the face of that sort of overwhelming impossibility, many people, I think, tend to retreat. That actually demobilizes people. 

When instead we say, “This is a divide-and-conquer policy, it’s hurting all of us and we all have an interest in coming together, whites included,” then many people of color responded by saying, “We see that whites are being hurt by this racism. We don't think they are being hurt in the same way. We are clear about that — they are not being hurt in the same way — but they are being hurt. If whites could get it through their heads the way that racism against people of color is hurting them, then yeah, maybe we have a chance of having a cross-racial coalition. And if we actually did put together a cross-racial coalition, we could take this country back from corporations and the new oligarchy.”

So this message of racism as a divide-and-conquer weapon of the rich, and the importance of cross-racial solidarity, proved more effective in mobilizing and energizing communities of color than the message that said the problem is white racism and that's what we gotta fight.

There’s a passage in your book where you write that the race-class narrative approach would facilitate wave elections that could “get government back on the side of working families, rather than giant corporations." But for generations Democratic politicians have essentially been defensive: They win one wave election and their instinctive response is not to act boldly, not to reward their base voters, but instead to start worrying about losing power in the next election. How do we deal with that?

The problem we confront in the Democratic Party is itself a response to dog-whistle politics. The Democratic Party from the New Deal through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was committed to the program that supported economic justice for working people, and also, to a more limited extent, civil rights for African Americans, for Mexican Americans and for Puerto Ricans, who were important parts of the New Deal coalition.

Once racism through dog-whistle politics became an effective weapon against that coalition, Democrats made a fateful choice. They decided that they needed to wait out this racial reaction to civil rights, and they needed to wait it out by backing away from civil rights. 

But the very process of backing away from civil rights also meant that these evolving generations of Democratic politicians would also walk away from the labor movement, and from labor generally. Because labor and civil rights are tightly linked, and once you give up on civil rights, you're pretty quickly going to give up on labor. You're pretty quickly going to give up on working America.

It happened: The Democratic Party itself shifted its source of support from working families to Wall Street. And now we have a Democratic Party in which significant and perhaps dominant elements are indebted to Wall Street — not just Wall Street itself but to corporate donors, and to wealthy family dynasties. In that context, many Democratic politicians we are electing are not committed to a restructuring of the economy in a way that begins to push all the wealth that’s been siphoned upward back downward and outward. They’re simply not committed to it. 

So where do we stand today?

Right now, in 2019, we are in the midst of a deepening national crisis that has several elements to it. One is a crisis of democracy in the face of concentrated wealth, another is a crisis of democracy in the face of intentional efforts to destroy social solidarity as a route to power. A related crisis is the climate crisis, the looming environmental catastrophe, which in turn reflects unregulated capitalism or a capitalism that writes its own rules, more accurately stated. Plus, racial division as an intentional weapon to win power for the plutocrats — the Koch brothers were the big funders of the Tea Party.

All these crises are focusing our attention on the way in which we are losing control of our democracy, of our society, of a decent future for our families, of a habitable planet for all of us. Because racial division has been such an effective weapon in driving us apart and allowing rule by and for the rich.

So what’s the response?

This very depth of this crisis also means all the energy in the street, all the protests, all the marching, all the people who are newly engaged and energized about politics. All this energy means we have an opportunity to really change this country’s direction. We can change this country's direction and put the country back on a trajectory in which this really is a country by and for the people, but now the people means everybody, undivided by race.

That means a country in which “liberty for all” means every person, no matter where you come from, no matter what your color, no matter which God you worship, no matter what language you speak. And in which we understand that "liberty" means the liberty that comes through people supporting and taking care of each other, and making government work for us rather than corporations. Not the false liberty of “You’re on your own, devil take the hindmost,” but the true liberty of a country in which we recognize that our fates are linked and we take care of each other.

So this is a moment of profound crisis, but it's also a moment of profound opportunity. This opportunity for change is much bigger than driving Trump out of office. It’s much bigger than electing Democrats. The opportunity we have before us is to build the vision of a society we want, in which we recognize our shared humanity, we understand that government must work for us, and we understand that the economy must be regulated in a way that ensures that prosperity is widely and fairly shared.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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