It’s now commonplace for President Trump’s critics to accuse him of blatant racism and even of being a white supremacist, as Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke recently did. But in his public persona, Trump is not performing as a Klan grand wizard. Instead, he speaks in thinly coded terms to his base. Relatively speaking, this is good news.
If Trump were openly proclaiming white supremacy, then it should follow that his supporters recognize this and support his racism. Indeed, an emerging theme among many liberals follows this reasoning: “Trump is a racist. If you still support him, so are you.”
But in fact the vast majority of Trump’s supporters do not believe he’s a racist, so this kind of argument more often offends rather than convinces them.
Responding to a poll taken the week before the 2016 election, almost 9 out of 10 Trump supporters, 87%, said that Trump was not a racist. An almost equal proportion of Hillary Clinton supporters, 91%, said he was. These numbers have remained remarkably steady. A Quinnipiac poll conducted late last month again found that about 9 out of 10 Republicans deny Trump is a racist and virtually the same proportion of Democrats insist he is.
How can Trump’s supporters deny the racism so evident to Democratic voters?
For one thing, Trump is practicing dog-whistle politics — using rhetoric that operates in code. Terms such as “shithole countries” or “go back” are silent about race, but they provoke sharp racial reactions.
Using code has the benefit of preserving plausible deniability. It allows Trump to stir up strong racial emotions while denying that he’s doing any such thing. When confronted with the racism of his “go back” comments aimed at four congresswomen of color, Trump responded, “Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”
It’s also important to understand how the code works for the audience. As a former Republican governor of Virginia once explained: “The tactic was simple: Lace your speeches with coded appeals to racists in Southern states. ... The intended target of the message — the racist voter — understood completely, while leaving the politician ‘plausible deniability’ with non-racist voters.”
Is this what’s happening now? Not unless 90% of Trump supporters are not only racists but committed liars to boot.
More likely, these coded messages work by strongly resonating with voters who do not see themselves as racist but are jolted to action by warnings of racial threat. The success of this sort of dog-whistle politics depends on hiding the racist nature of the messages from the intended audience itself. Rather than seeking to speak to self-conscious racists, the coded words aim to reassure those riled up by racial appeals that they are not bigots.
The point is to peddle group resentment. Its uglier forms — explicit white supremacy — would have little appeal to the broader audience. Instead, the dog-whistling politician uses words that appear to promote ideas of security, pride or patriotism. For these voters, the cloaked language is more comfortable; it hides the racial character of what the politician is actually selling.
But for most Trump supporters, his underlying appeal remains largely racist in nature. As the political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck report in their book “Identity Crisis,” a study of the 2016 election, support for Trump “was strongly linked to how Republican voters felt about blacks, immigrants, and Muslims, and to how much discrimination Republican voters believed that whites themselves faced.”
Trump’s supporters reassure themselves that he and they are not racist by defining racism incredibly narrowly. A supporter at a recent rally defended Trump against the charge of racism by insisting, “He didn’t say nothing about the color of somebody’s skin.” By implication, if Trump attacks people’s culture, religion or country of origin but avoids mentioning biology, it’s not racism.
Another Trump defender, Dennis Prager, writing in RealClearPolitics, offered this test to Trump supporters to tell whether they are racists: “Do you have more in common with, and are you personally more comfortable in the company of, a white leftist or a black conservative?” A “racist,” Prager wrote, “would prefer the whites.” Supposedly, then, no one is a racist unless their hatred for other racial groups overpowers every other consideration in their relationships.
It’s tempting to dismiss these defenses as little more than face-saving gestures by reprehensible jerks. But people are not just one thing. As the study of implicit bias shows, almost all of us — whether we voted for Trump or not — both embrace ideals of racial equality and harbor deeply internalized racist assumptions. Few of us are entirely racial saints or racist devils.
Look again at the recent Quinnipiac poll that found that 91% of Republicans deny that Trump is a racist. It also found that 50% percent of whites, 44% of Latinos and 11% of blacks share that view. They are not, to use an infamous Hillary Clinton phrase, “a basket of deplorables.” These are members of our society.
People of both parties and every color can be moved by dog-whistle stories about supposedly dangerous and undeserving “thugs” and “illegals.” This is a sad lesson about the enduring power of politicians to divide us by stoking racial terrors. Rather than condemn each other, the way forward depends on Americans coming together to fight those who purposefully divide us.
Ian Haney López is a law professor at UC Berkeley and the author of the forthcoming “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America.”