Column: Trump’s racist ‘welfare’ dog whistle is nonsense just like Reagan’s

Donald Trump standing at a Formula 1 track
Former President Trump appeared at the F1 Grand Prix of Miami at Sunday, part of a weekend of campaigning and fundraising.
(Qian Jun / MB Media / Getty Images)
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Donald Trump took his dog whistle down to Florida last weekend, where he reportedly told a room full of donors: “When you are Democrat, you start off essentially at 40% because you have civil service, you have the unions and you have welfare.” He then drove home this point: “And don’t underestimate welfare. They get welfare to vote, and then they cheat on top of that — they cheat.”

It’s hard to believe that trope still works on people. It has always been nonsense.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

Of the 341 counties experiencing persistent poverty, the U.S. Census says roughly 80% are in Southern states that voted for Trump. In fact, most of our poorest states have voted Republican in every election since 2000 and have had Republican-controlled state legislatures for years. The “welfare vote,” if there were such a thing, is not going to Democrats.

Lord knows I’m not suggesting blue cities and states don’t have their problems. But with so many Americans living check to check nowadays, the problem of “poverty” is not uniquely urban. It’s also not a good proxy for whatever Trump really meant to convey — presumably race.


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You would think that by now there would be a less Reaganesque way to rally Republicans than to rail against the mythological “welfare queens.” Perhaps with all of his court appearances Trump didn’t have time to come up with new material. Or maybe he doesn’t need to. His audience knows what he means. Back home, they’re doing their best to keep “Black” synonymous with “poor.”

When President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” began in 1964, 1 in 5 Americans lived in poverty. However, the rate for Black people was 40%, a disparity elected leaders in Confederate states appear happy to uphold. For example, Republicans have had complete control of Mississippi’s government since 2012, and Black people in that state are almost three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts.

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It’s no coincidence that many of the poorest counties are clustered in the same red states of the Confederacy: Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas. It’s also not by chance that politicians on the right characterize poor people as lazy and deserving of their lot in life. This “welfare” dog whistle works for them.

In 2018, the Heritage Foundation, a powerful conservative think tank, issued a report on poverty that read in part: “If the amount of work performed in poor families with children were increased to the equivalent of one adult working full-time through the year, the poverty rate among these families would drop by two-thirds.”

Take a moment with that implication: Here we are at a moment in history when 78% of Americans are living check to check, and the Heritage report wants to spin poverty as if it’s a work ethic issue. Not one of rising inflation or decades of wage stagnation. Not one of systemic racism. And certainly not a side effect of Trump’s tax cuts that redirected even more wealth away from working people and toward the rich.

The Heritage Foundation has a plan for 2025 if Trump retakes the White House. Let’s just say when it comes to helping the poor (or not), the group’s views haven’t changed much. For the people in that room in Florida to whom Trump was airing his grievances, I’m sure that’s welcome news.


In the big picture, Trump is just the latest conservative to rail against the federal government’s attempt to help poor people. President Nixon did it. Newt Gingrich’s “contract with America” was all about that. Both Bushes. It’s all part of the conservative narrative that looks at infrastructure failures of large cities run by Democrats as evidence of too many “welfare queens” getting handouts. You know, as opposed to the loss of tax revenue stemming from white flight. Or federal underinvestment in infrastructure since the 1960s.

Meanwhile the same predominantly white rural stretches that Johnson referenced 60 years ago are still among the poorest.

And their residents keep voting for Republicans like Trump who slash attempts to help the poor. They don’t think a war on poor people hurts them. Presumably because they keep being told that they’re not the face of “welfare.”