Unveiling a racist, anti-immigrant ad just days ahead of the midterms, Donald Trump is making unprecedented use of a decades-old “dog whistle” political strategy that demonizes people of color in the service of policies that benefit “rule by the rich,” says UC Berkeley law professor and author Ian Haney López
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
A spate of white supremacist terror has not slowed President Trump’s embrace of racism, xenophobia, and nativism. Instead, just days before the midterms it appears to be his main campaign strategy. On Wednesday, Trump shared a racist anti-immigrant advertisement on his Twitter page, along with the message “Vote Republican now.” The ad features a Mexican man who was convicted of killing two police officers in California earlier this year.
Louis Bracamontes, the Mexican immigrant shown here, was deported twice under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The ad also shows unidentified crowds riding and pushing down barriers in unidentified locations. It has been described as one of the most racist political ads in the U.S. in decades. But it is not an exception. The 2018 midterm campaign has seen a number of racist ads, particularly targeting candidates of color. Take, for example, this ad from Republican Duncan Hunter, who is currently under federal indictment for corruption. This is how Hunter is campaigning against his challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Latino Arab-American.
DUNCAN HUNTER CAMPAIGN AD: Ammar Campa-Najjar is working to infiltrate Congress. He’s used three different names to hide his family’s ties to terrorism. His grandfather masterminded the Munich Olympic massacre. His father said they deserved to die. A Palestinian Mexican millennial Democrat named Amar Campa-Najjar doesn’t get the support from the people of San Diego.
He is being supported by [care] and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a well-orchestrated plan.
Ammar Campa-Najjar: A risk we can’t ignore.
I’m Duncan Hunter, and I approve this message.
AARON MATE: An ad from Congressmember Duncan Hunter. Well, joining me to discuss racism as a campaign strategy in 2018 and well before is Ian Haney Lopez. He is a law professor at UC Berkeley, and the author of Dogwhistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Welcome, Professor.
Let me start by asking you about this ad tweeted out on Wednesday by President Trump. What was your reaction, and where do you think it rates in the history of racist campaign ads in this country?
IAN HANEY LOPEZ: Somewhere near an all Muslims, Mexico is sending rapists, MS-13 likes to kill people slowly, and their animals. That is, I think this rates pretty much typically for Trump’s campaign from 2015 through the election, and in the way he’s governed.
AARON MATE: All right. Let’s go back a little bit, because people are comparing this ad to the Willie Horton ad of 1988. And it’s important to know this history, because otherwise there are some who might think if Trump was doing something unprecedented. But as your book Dogwhistle Politics well documents, this is a very old campaign strategy. So let’s go back to 1988 and play the Willie Horton ad. This is at a time when the Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis, he was leading in the polls, ahead of the Republican nominee Vice President, at the time, George H.W. Bush. And then Bush’s people, Lee Atwater, his campaign manager, masterminded this ad featuring Willie Horton, who was a prisoner who was let out of prison, and committed crimes while he was let out. And this was the ad that the Lee Atwater conceived of and that changed that campaign.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH CAMPAIGN AD: Bush and Dukakis on crime. Bush supports the death penalty for first degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.
AARON MATE: That was the infamous Willie Horton ad that changed the course of the 1988 campaign. Professor Haney Lopez, talk about the Willie Horton ad, and what it meant then, and how it has influenced politics since.
IAN HANEY LOPEZ: Dogwhistling really starts in the mid-1960s when the Republican Party, which was more or less equally committed with the Democratic Party to civil rights, but when Republican Party leaders figured out that they could exploit rising white anxiety generated by the civil rights movement. And it’s this same dynamic that we see in terms of rising white anxiety around the election and re-election of a black president. There’s really been a 50-year process. All throughout this process, the Democrats have understood that the Republicans were using racism as a strategy. They are using it as a wedge issue to break apart a New Deal Democratic coalition of African-Americans, the white working class, and white liberals.
They’ve understood this since at least 1970. How would they respond? Initially they decided they wouldn’t respond at all, they would ignore it. It just seemed too difficult to challenge Republican racism. That seemed to backfire, because it seemed to accuse not just the Republican politicians, but Republican voters, white voters, of being racist. So the Democrats opted to stay silent. They hoped the whole thing would blow over.
Now, you get Reagan’s election and the so-called Reagan Democrats, which are white Democrats who flee the Democratic party, switch to Republican, because Reagan was dogwhistling about welfare queens and cracking down on crime. But again, Democrats were staying silent. Then you get the Bush-Dukakis run. Dukakis isn’t talking about race. And all of a sudden, George H.W. Bush comes out with the Willie Horton ad. He comes from behind in the race. He takes the lead, he goes on to win. And so this is huge, and it’s huge on a couple of different levels.
One, it proved that staying silent was no solution at all; that if you stayed silent, you were going to lose. You had to address race. Two, it left the Democrats in a trap. They couldn’t stay silent. They had to address race. But they couldn’t allege racism. What should they do? Enter Bill Clinton and the so-called new Democrat. Their strategy? Imitate Republican dogwhistling. So Bill Clinton says, I’m going to end welfare as a way of life. That’s a dogwhistle. Whose way of life are we talking about? Or Bill Clinton says, I’m going to crack down on crime. Well, who supposedly are the criminals. And so what we get after Clinton, after the Willie Horton ad with Clinton, after the Willie Horton ad, what we get is a competition between the GOP and the Democrats as to which party can most appeal to fearful whites with the message that that party is going to crack down on undeserving, dangerous people of color. And this is really where, for example, mass incarceration and the war on crime come from. Not from Republicans alone, but from Republicans and Democrats together competing in terms of dogwhistle politics.
Last key point about about Willie Horton. It soon came out that the masterminds behind Willie Horton like Lee Atwater confessed to their racial motive. And so the Willie Horton ad today stands as a classic example that everybody recognizes as dogwhistling. So the move for people to compare what Trump is doing to Willie Horton is a move to say see? What Trump is doing is dogwhistling because we know the Willie Horton ad is dogwhistling. Only thing is, Trump is doing something much much worse, if you really look at the sorts of messages that he is spreading in the public.
AARON MATE: How so?
IAN HANEY LOPEZ: So, the Willie Horton ad was really evasive. Yes, it pictured Willie Horton. No, it didn’t picture the victims. It was one ad; the campaign didn’t own it. They said, we disavow this. This is being run by somebody else. We’re in a completely different setting now. Now we have a president who funded the creation of that ad. This isn’t just some other group and he happened to tweet it. He paid for that ad. He’s directly endorsing that ad. And his message is not- the Willie Horton ad, if you think about the victims, they were never pictured. It was a white couple. They never were pictured. But it’s implicit. Trump over and over again talks about and centers white people as the supposed victims.
So we’re now in a sort of a political era in which we have a president of the United States surrounding himself within his administration by white nationalists, people like Stephen Miller, elected with the help of white nationalists like Steve Bannon, applauded by white nationalists. Someone who says that white supremacists, when they riot, that some of them must be very fine people. This is a level of racist provocation that we haven’t seen in the United States- we haven’t seen this sort of racial poison since the 1950s. And in terms of a president spreading this sort of white nationalism, you really need to go back to the civil war, and to the years just after, to the years just before, before national figures of Trump’s stature and power were spreading this sort of racist hate.
AARON MATE: OK. So on that point, let’s go to a clip from 1981 featuring Lee Atwater, who later on masterminded the Willie Horton ad, and ran the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign; after that chaired the Republican National Committee. But in 1981, Atwater was working inside the Reagan White House, and he was interviewed about his electoral strategy. And he laid out, in stark and offensive terms- and a warning now, because in this clip the N-word is said multiple times by Lee Atwater. But he told the interviewer about he wanted to appeal to voters through racially coded language and the audio wasn’t covered by the Nation magazine a few years ago. But this is from 1981.
LEE ATWATER: Here’s how I would approach that issue as a statistician, or a political scientist- no, as a psychologist, which I’m not, is how abstract do you handle the race thing? In other words, you start out in- you don’t want to quote me on this, are you? 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 forced busing, state’s rights, and all that stuff. And you get so abstract, now, you’re talking about cutting taxes. And all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things. And a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, that we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Do you follow me? Because obviously, sitting around saying we want to cut taxes, we want to cut this, and we want … Is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger. ” You know. So any way you look at it, race is coming on the backburner.
AARON MATE: That’s Republican strategist Lee Atwater speaking in 1981. Now, later on in his life, about a decade later, he developed a terminal illness. And it’s said that on his deathbed he developed remorse for his actions, and he even wrote letters of apology to people who he had targeted with his racist smear efforts. But there he is, laying out in stark terms the strategy that he masterminded. Haney Lopez, is it fair to say that that Atwater strategy is still very much alive today?
IAN HANEY LOPEZ: Very much so. But I want to, I want to stop and really make two points about what Atwater is saying. We hear him saying the GOP is going to campaign in racial code. That’s point number one. Most people don’t get past that. What’s actually most important about that Atwater quote is the second thing he’s saying, that the GOP can talk about tax cuts and attack, and attack- and they can sell tax cuts through a racial narrative of dangerous and undeserving people of color. And we really, really have to unpack that. That’s the only way we’re going to understand Donald Trump and his racist fearmongering, and Donald Trump and a trillion and a half dollar tax cut for his billionaire backers. Those are not two separate things. They’re directly connected through dogwhistling.
It’s really important that we understand that dogwhistling has an ideological project. Not just stir racial panic, but convince people that the real threat in their lives is government; get white voters to turn against government in a way that allows the right to hijack government for their corporate donors. So I want to stop, and I want to really go through that.
Here’s the message. For example- and Ronald Reagan perfected this- talk about welfare queens. The minute you talk about welfare queens, you conjure the image of undeserving black women cheating and ripping off the system. But then pivot and say, you know who the real enemy is? It’s government, because it’s government is taking hard-earned tax dollars from decent, innocent whites, and giving it to these undeserving black people. Right? So the message is hate and resent people of color. But really hate government. Government’s the enemy. It coddles minorities with welfare, it refuses to control them through lax criminal law. It’s why we have to crack down on crime. It refuses to control them through unsecure borders. Does it matter to Trump that we have the highest sustained levels of deportation in the history of the nation? No. The narrative is you can’t trust government. You’ve got to hate government, because government is opening the doors. Government refuses to control these people.
Now, what should you do if you hate government? One, starve it. Cut off its funds. Cut taxes for the billionaires. Two, if you can’t trust government, you should reward the people who are the real engines for progress in America, the corporations. Let them write the rules. So we say deregulation, or the right says deregulation. What they really mean is let corporations write the rules of the game. And they are. Three, if government is a problem, then all of those social programs- you know, things like public education, or healthcare, or environmental regulation- get rid of those, because government really cares more about undeserving people of color than it does about hardworking, decent, real Americans.
The narrative of dogwhistling is a narrative that says resent people of color, but hate and turn against government. And when you turn against government, you get rule by the rich. In other words, you get Donald Trump. Donald Trump, more than any politician that we’ve had in the last 50 years, absolutely crystallizes the sort of fundamental politics of dogwhistling. Racial fearmongering to help elect a billionaire who is completely corrupt, and all he cares about, his billionaire friends and his billionaire backers, and has just rewarded them with a trillion-dollar tax cut that’s coming out of the pockets of all the rest of us. Meanwhile, they’re busy trying to cut off our healthcare, trying to make sure that people with pre-existing illnesses can’t get health coverage, because that way they can shuffle a few more dollars to the billionaires.
That’s the story that we need to tell. That’s the politics we need to understand to truly understand how dogwhistle politics is working today.
AARON MATE: Ian Haney Lopez, UC Berkeley law professor, author of Dogwhistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, thanks very much.
IAN HANEY LOPEZ: Thank you so much.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.