Donald Trump’s attacks on black U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and the four progressive Congresswomen of color known as “the Squad” signal how the President, backed by other Republicans, intends to use racial divisiveness to stay in power.
“Dividing the races has been the principal weapon of the rich in the class war they are winning,” as University of California-Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López told me in a recent phone interview.
The author of the pivotal 2013 book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class, Haney López says addressing this long-term strategy offers the key for progressives to win in 2020 and beyond.
The new book that Haney López has forthcoming in October, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, has emerged from a partnership with Demos Action that involved a team of researchers and two years of discussions among activists for labor and racial justice. The researchers tapped polling that surveyed some 1,500 Americans across the country about how they see race, class, and government.
Messages that target economic inequality and bridge programs like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All with an explicit acknowledgement of race, the research found, could significantly help unite working people across racial divides.
Trump and Republicans are using a time-tested formula, says Haney López.
“Act One is using a term that brings out strong racial overtones but gives plausible deniability against charges of racism to those using it,” he says. “Act Two is forcefully denying that you are racist and the notion that anyone can properly be labeled ‘racist.’ Then attack your critics as the real racists. Say that it’s bigotry against me and my millions of followers.”
Indeed, Trump closely followed this playbook in July when he attacked Cummings over his “rat and rodent infested” district, a area that covers about half the city of Baltimore and other majority-black areas. Press reports termed the attack an act of retaliation after the House committee Cummings chairs approved subpoenas for senior White House officials’ communications as part of an investigation into potential violations of federal law.
Trump then called members of the Squad and Cummings “racist” and charged that Sharpton “hates whites.”
Only by combining a powerful economic message with a frank recognition of racial divides, says Haney López, will progressives find a way to beat this formula. And his team has the data to back that up. During their research, Haney López and his team found particularly interesting results from a poll conducted in Indiana.
Aan economically progressive platform there polled a stunning 40 percentage points over a conservative one, reflecting the public’s distaste for conservative economics. But when the conservative message was juiced up with racially coded phrases about illegal immigrants or people expecting handouts, the right-wing message prevailed among “persuadable” voters.
“Only the progressive race-class theme bested them,” Haney López and his colleague, communications guru Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote in the Washington Post last year. “Adding race to financial concerns doesn’t crater support from the middle — it helps turn a losing progressive message into a winning one.”
In Minnesota, messaging attacking “sanctuary cities for criminal illegal aliens” scored well initially. But the research team made headway with a formulation that began: “Minnesotans work hard to provide for our families. Whether white, black or brown, fifth generation or newcomer, we all want to build a better future for all children.”
“The combined race-class appeal generated an astounding 26-point jump in net approval over the class-only script among white voters initially keen on the racially divisive message,” the researchers reported. These experiments suggest that a message that merges race and class holds promise for dismantling Republican power fueled by racism.
Trump’s latest stream of venom essentially follows the Republicans’ basic “dog-whistle” appeal of the past half-century, Haney López points out. Beginning with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968, this dog-whistle politics has aimed to inflame submerged racial resentments among white audiences with coded references to “welfare queens,” people who are “dependent on handouts,” and “invading” illegal immigrants “infesting” the United States with drugs and gangs. Such terms are used instead of explicit slurs because they aren’t likely to alienate moderate Republican voters.
“It’s using dog-whistle messages to tell whites that the basic threat to their lives is racial, that between races is the fundamental reality of American life,” Haney López told PBS in a recent interview. “This distracts from the real threat: the power of the top one-tenth of one percent in America to rig the economy and siphon wealth up to the economic stratosphere.”
Trump is certainly stretching the leash of dog-whistle politics. But apart from his unhinged language, the President is also widening racial division.
“We need to focus on the basic division in American society,” stresses Haney López. “We need to shape whether the nation thinks that the most fundamental conflict is over race, or that it is over the way that the top one-tenth of the 1 percent have hijacked government for their own ends. The point is to build solidarity and build a future for all of our children. Racial injustice is the main weapon of the rich, and we have no hope without challenging dog-whistle politics.”
A new version of Haney López’s Dog Whistle Politics, updated for the Trump era, is set for publication in July 2020.
Veteran labor journalist Roger Bybee, the former editor of the Racine Labor weekly, also teaches labor studies. This analysis originally appeared in The Progressive magazine.