01/21/2016 04:18 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

Donald Trump, Racial Figleaves, and The Breadth of Bigotry

The racial dogwhistle has been an important political technique in recent decades-- a carefully coded message, designed to tap into racial prejudices without the unwitting target realizing that this is what is happening. Tali Mendelberg has argued that such techniques gain their force from twinned but countervailing forces: there is a Norm of Racial Egalitarianism, which brands outright expression of racism unacceptable. But there is also, in most white people, a high level of what is called 'racial resentment', simmering unacknowledged and unarticulated. A dogwhistle utterance exploits this: by talking about 'the culture of the inner city' or 'welfare' a politician may avoid mentioning race, while still causing voters to bring their racial resentment to bear on their voting decisions.

Donald Trump is no dogwhistler: he proudly tosses around racial terms, paired with the most hideous stereotypes. And he rises, and rises, and rises in the polls. Does this mean that the Norm of Racial Egalitarianism is no longer in place? I'm not so sure. Some of Trump's supporters clearly reject this norm, openly advocating white supremacy. But there is no reason to believe that this group of voters ever accepted it--the norm was widely accepted, but not universal. So what of the other supporters? It seems to me that two important things are happening: First, Trump is employing another technique in place of a dogwhistle, one which still allows supporters to believe that he (and so they) are not racist. And second, he's revealing just what a shallow and limited norm Racial Egalitarianism is.

The technique Trump has been employing is one I'll call the "racial figleaf". It involves uttering what would otherwise be clearly a racist claim, and then following up with something that just barely covers it. On some level, we all know what's there--something you're not supposed to show in public--but the figleaf lets us avoid acknowledging it.

Trump's much-reported comment about Mexicans as rapists was not in fact a claim that all Mexicans are rapists, though it was widely reported as such (and he may well have known it would be). It included caveats about some Mexicans being good people, and the suggestion that the Mexicans who don't come here are good people. This figleaf matters, because it gives his audience a way to nod along with Trump without seeing themselves as racist.

Trump has been equally clever in his expression of anti-black racism. Trump tweets
false crime statistics taken from a white supremacist and expresses endorsement of his supporters assaulting a black protestor. But his criticism of Justice Scalia's recent comments about affirmative action works as a figleaf: it allows his supporters, once more, the chance to see him (and themselves) as not racist. Trump's figleaf gives people the carefully constructed chance to endorse vile sentiments and applaud acts of prejudicial violence without ever seeing themselves as racist.

But the racial figleaf does not explain all of what we see. To fully understand it, we need to understand that the Norm of Racial Egalitarianism was always very limited. Racial resentment is measured by level of agreement with claims like "Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors." Recall that the targets of dogwhistles (and figleaves) are people who show a fairly high level of agreement with such claims while still adhering to the Norm of Racial Egalitarianism. This
alone shows us just how flimsy that Norm must be: one can say remarkably racist things, while still believing oneself to be non-racist. The main thing that seems to be ruled out by the norm is the old-fashioned racism that sees one racial group is biologically inferior to another. Cultural inferiority claims are far more acceptable.

And, crucially, the norm is silent on religion.Trump makes even stronger, more blatant claims about Muslims. He calls for Muslims to be banned from the country, and placed in internment camps. And his poll numbers rise. These utterances have been called racist. And there's something to that--'racist' is sometimes used as a synonym for 'bigoted' and there's no doubt that these are bigoted. But the fact that their subject matter is religion and not race is crucial. Many Americans who consider it very important not to be racist are nonetheless quite comfortable with prejudice on the basis of religious belief, and not just against Islam. After all, 22% of Americans say they wouldn't vote for a Mormon and 40% would not vote for an atheist. Open bigotry is considered remarkably acceptable, as long as it is on the basis of belief. And yet--just in case--Trump offers a figleaf: "Look, I have many, many Muslim friends, living in this building. Muslims, they're phenomenal people, but like everything else, you have people where there are problems."

Donald Trump has shown us just where we may wind up if we do not expand our rejection of bigotry: We need to move beyond the narrowly defined Norm of Racial Egalitarianism, and toward a genuine full-throated rejection of all forms of bigotry--whether covered by a fig leaf or not.