When “President” Donald Trump approached the microphone far too many hours after white supremacists attempted to assert themselves by murdering 32 year-old paralegal Heather Heyer in cold blood in the streets of Charlottesville, VA, part of America watched in stunned disappointment as he addressed the situation with only vague platitudes. The “alt-right” – which has become coded language for white supremacists ranging from your casually racist cousin to literal Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan – on the other hand, watched with glee, with many of them flocking to praise Trump’s speech. Despite Trump’s dog-whistling that he was giving these domestic terrorists a free pass, they were still able to hear the message loud and clear.
The art of political dog-whistling is simultaneously complex and yet very simple. In short, it’s when someone’s speech has one understood meaning for the larger general audience, but also has a secondary meaning for a smaller subgroup. The whole idea of dog-whistling as a rhetorical strategy stems from actual dog-whistles, which sound at a frequency that only dogs, but not humans, can hear. It’s also nothing new – not historically and, as Vox points out, not even for Trump himself.
Take his inability to call his supporter, the infamous white nationalist David Duke, out for the bigot that he is, instead denying that he knew “anything about David Duke” when asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper, before reverting to meekly calling Duke a “bad person.” Or there’s the way he responded to white supremacists who embraced him in the immediate aftermath of the election, saying merely that he “[didn’t] want to energize the group.” And we can’t forget his entire campaign message of “America First” has a history of anti-Semitism and was basically a cloaked anti-immigrant and anti-POC platform.
So Trump’s dog-whistle response to the tragedy in Charlottesville as being violent on “many sides” and of how we must “cherish our history” in reference to the Civil War and monuments praising racist leaders of the even more generally racist Confederacy came as a surprise to almost no one familiar with his own history. It’s equally horrifying and ironic when you catch onto the pattern, especially when you remember this silently divisive rhetoric is coming from the man who accused former President Barack Obama of being racially divisive.
Trump’s dog-whistling of white supremacists was not the worst-case scenario for marginalized populations, but it was bad enough. As Trump’s bigoted fanbase saw it, it was a necessary inconvenience – their newfound political hero could not, of course, openly condemn Saturday’s counterprotestors, especially when one of them had died. Openly pandering to racists would also mean running the risk of alienating members of the GOP who were in borderline districts in next year’s upcoming election, putting desperately needed Congressional support on the line for no reason. And so, white supremacists cheered at Trump’s vague condemnations of violence on “both sides,” recognizing that this was the most assurance they were going to get from the White House.
Or so both the white supremacists and the side of human decency both thought – until Trump dropped his dog-whistle and picked up a bullhorn. After giving stiff, clearly scripted remarks condemning the Nazi-driven violence in Charlottesville approximately 48 hours too late, Trump returned and blasted what he called the “alt-left” in a series of unscripted remarks, calling them “very, very violent people” who allegedly came “charging” at first “us” — which he then corrected to “alt-right” (again, read: Nazis and KKK members), effectively lumping himself in with the white nationalists, with “clubs.”
Trump then blatantly lied further, calling the white nationalists “very [quiet],” with “some very fine people on both sides,” before asking if George Washington’s statue should be removed too in light of demands to remove Confederate statutes like Robert E. Lee’s (quick fun fact: Lee himself opposed Confederate memorials).
Beyond that a case for removing George Washington’s statue can also be made (because apart from the fact that he was our first President, he did absolutely nothing about the slave trade beyond requesting that his own slaves be freed after his wife’s death, and instead punted the problem further down the line for almost another entire century), this is more than dog-whistling on Trump’s part. By comparing George Washington – the legitimate first President of the United States – to Robert E. Lee – a general who was willing to fight and die for the right of white people to own and abuse other people on the sole basis of their skin color – Trump grants the Confederacy and all the bigoted “heritage-not-hate” campers legitimacy, blowing the door wide open for bitter white nationalists of all sizes.
The Confederacy lost, and for good reason. Legitimization of the beliefs of those who saw other people as sub-human due to the color of their skin is an openly dangerous and downright bigoted move, leaving no room for questioning Trump’s intentions. We cannot pretend that Trump voters can cherry-pick their support for him anymore, or that he has the interest of “all Americans” at heart, no matter how deeply we bury our heads in the dirt.
Trump has now endorsed a white supremacist rally as a quiet, orderly, group of “some very fine” people with historically “legitimate” racist motives. There’s no getting around it. We must all acknowledge that support of Trump unequivocally means support of this position.
So, “cherish our history,” Mr. Trump? No thank you. True “patriots” that are not blinded by your amateurish and manipulative rhetoric will acknowledge that our history is one of stolen native land, subjugation and enslavement of our fellow people over nothing more than the amount of melanin in their skin, and the constant demonization of the visible “Other.”
We should not “cherish” our history. Rather, we should do well to remember our history – with the real, not alternative, facts – because as the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it – no dog-whistles necessary.