BY: Jason Sattler*
"Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?" President Donald Trump called out to a Hispanic supporter Monday at a campaign rally in New Mexico.
You may hear this and think, “The polls are down so it must be racism time. He's suggesting, if not screaming, that you can't back Latino issues and still love America. He couldn't be any more obvious if he were carrying a Tiki torch at Charlottesville himself.”
If you thought that, you're right. But if you start calling Trump a racist or a white nationalist, bad news: You’re now a volunteer in the Trump campaign. This is the fight he wants to have.
In his upcoming book, "Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America," Ian Haney López reveals that Trump’s only really big innovation in dog whistling is that he invites charges of racism. He loves these indictments. His 2016 campaign even celebrated them.
No facts needed in dog whistle politics
Let’s step back. You know Trump used the racist conspiracy theory that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” sent to bring us “drugs” and “crime" to launch his campaign. You also know immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans (such as, say, members of the Trump campaign).
But facts don’t matter that much to dog whistle politics — which is why it didn’t matter to most Republicans that there was no evidence that Barack Obama was a foreign, Muslim traitor who faked his own birth.
Instead, for 50 years, dog whistling has painted a racist nightmare. From Richard Nixon onward, we’ve heard that people of color are dangerous, criminal threats to "law and order." From Ronald Reagan forward, we’ve been told people of color don’t deserve our care: They’re “welfare queens” rather than “hardworking Americans.”
Among many critics today, it’s common to charge Trump with blatant racism. He plays the race card “face up,” historian Joseph Ellis recently said. Watch liberal-leaning cable news and you’ll soon hear something like, “Those aren’t dog whistles, they’re foghorns!”
This is definitely true … but only for Trump’s critics, Haney López observes in his book. They hear the obvious racial undertones and assume that anyone who doesn’t reject this hatred is as racist as Trump. But this sidesteps reality.
Don't let Trump distract you
The vast majority of Trump’s supporters do not believe he’s a racist. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in July found that about 9 out of 10 Republicans deny Trump is a racist. In fact, 57% of those who approved of his job performance in an August poll said discrimination against whites is a very or somewhat serious problem today.
Even more shocking to Trump’s critics is research from Haney López showing that majorities of Democrats and people of color view messages about “terrorist countries,” “criminal gangs,” “illegal immigration” and needing to “take care of our own people first” as commonsense and convincing. The code is still working — even with people of color and Democrats — even if the most engaged critics see through it.
El Paso shooting: Open season on Hispanics in America thanks to racist in chief
Why does Trump want to be called a racist?
Because then you’re not pointing out how he’s ripping you off, threatening human survival and crushing jobs.
Instead, you’re strengthening his basic story line. Trump wants voters to go to the polls believing that America is locked in a cage fight between warring racial groups: “Who is the real racist, the person warning about illegal immigrants or the person saying that’s racist?” When that’s the debate, Trump wins.
Racism is a deliberate strategy
Just calling Trump a racist is not enough, Haney López says.
Instead, he urges that we point out what kind of a racist he is: “a strategic racist,” the sort of person who intentionally scapegoats people of color, immigrants and Muslims to rile up voters and to distract from his tax cuts for billionaires.
Underestimate at your peril: Dismissing Trump as a crumbling, unfit fool will get us four more years. Don't buy it.
There’s good evidence that making this strategy clear can defang Trump’s messages of racial fear and resentment. For the past two years, Haney López co-led a research team of union activists, racial justice leaders, communications specialists and pollsters. Their research has since been replicated as well as put into practice in campaigns.
The bottom line: Dog whistle messages cannot compete with calls for Americans to distrust greedy elites sowing division, and to join together across racial differences to promote racial and economic justice for all families.
This is what Trump and Republicans fear most.
That’s why they’d much rather spend the next year and two months debating who the real “racist” is.
*Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors