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Brad Blitz on the rise of dog whistle politics

Brad Blitz - Credit: Archant

‘Trump is reinforcing harmful stereotypes and offering a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters.’

Those were the words of Hillary Clinton as she called out her Republican rival for the way his campaign is stirring up discord, division and hatred.

His has been one characterised by the dog whistle effect – the way in which the voting public can be divided by coded messages which appeal to certain interest groups.

The idea is that just as only a dog hears the whistle, carefully selected words which appear innocuous to large numbers of people may trigger a response from other groups who are sensitised to particular language.

While a common tool of the Right, especially in the USA, dog whistles have also been used by those on the Left in many other settings. As, for example, when Slobodan Milosevic won over Serbian nationalists, addressing a crowd in Kosovo feeling threatened by their Albanian neighbours, telling them, ‘no-one has the right to beat you. No-one will dare beat you again’.

Now, coded messages are being sent out to Trump supporters suggesting that those of Mexican descent are criminals, that African Americans are the source of voter fraud and that the election may be rigged and that Jews are behind Clinton’s staggering fundraising.

The way in which the dog whistle works can also be quite subtle. Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie noted the cynical ways in which Trump appeared to be targeting black voters, while actually pandering to white Republicans. Bouie commented on Trump’s attempt to reach out to black votes when he painted a generalised picture of crime and deprivation.

He claimed: ‘A Trump who wanted to reach black voters would speak to black churches, black colleges, and organisations like the NAACP or the Urban League. The actual Trump, instead, has made his pitch to lily-white audiences in towns and neighbourhoods with few black residents.’

The point is that, in order to win over sympathetic whites who might be put off by the extreme messages coming out of his campaign, and from his Twitter feeds, Trump needs to persuade the public that they are not voting for a full-on racist and that he too embraces the American ideal of diversity.

Yet, expressing concern for the plight of African Americans as he has done is one step away from Trump saying some of his best friends are black. As Bouie noted: ‘Trump didn’t describe life for black Americans as much as he described a white supremacist fantasy in which blacks live miserable, brutish, and nearly subhuman lives in cities dominated by feckless Democrats.’

With so many US newspapers commenting on Trump’s messaging, it is hard not to share the conclusion reached in a recent Washington Post editorial, ‘it’s not a dog whistle if we can all hear it’ – no, it is a blatant call-to-arms aimed at racists including Ku Klux Klan leaders, neo-Nazi groups, as well as suburban xenophobes.

Not surprisingly, Trump has been feeding off the darker side of British politics, which has both embraced the presidential candidate and inspired his campaign.

He invited UKIP’s Nigel Farage to share a podium with him in Mississippi, a state which championed racial segregation and which came to epitomise the frontline in the civil rights movement. Employing his own dog whistle, Farage told the crowd ‘anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment’ and has since written in the Daily Mail that Trump would be like a new Ronald Reagan. His enthusiasm has been shared by other populists like Katie Hopkins, who has also lent her voice to support Trump.

Over the course of the Brexit campaign and in the weeks following, UKIP made effective use of their own dog whistle. We saw Farage standing in front of a poster depicting a column of refugees between Croatia and Slovenia with the slogan ‘breaking point’, suggesting that large numbers of migrants were soon to flood into the UK.

Previously I reported how Suzanne Evans, currently suspended from the party but still espousing its views, claimed on Sky TV that asylum seekers were responsible for more than 800 criminal incidents, suggesting that Britain was facing a situation like Cologne, when in fact those who were arrested were held on immigration charges, trying to enter the country to seek asylum which they cannot do legally.

The main problem is that while UKIP’s actions have been reported to the police, they have been able to use suggestive language and imagery with impunity. Beyond print, television and radio which are subject to OFCOM’s oversight, Twitter has amplified the dog whistle and as a result nationalists have been able to reach a cross section of the British public which has been subject to verbal mobbing. Moreover, they feel empowered to do so.

While claiming ‘Brexit feels good’, we are now seeing the seeds of a mob emerging. Accounts of verbal abuse against East Europeans and Asians are not accidental.

The mob does not simply consist of those who look and sound like Al Murray’s character, the Pub Landlord. It includes housewives, cab drivers, professionals, and others who project nativist views. This is the point of connection with Trump – a firm belief that where one was born, and who one was born to determines your rights and entitlements. It is fundamentally anti-democratic. It cuts against the ideals of freedom of belief and expression, and maintains that some groups in Britain or the USA are worth less than others.

Many ethnic groups know what it feels like to be treated as second-class citizens in Britain and the USA. Now, however, you don’t have to be black or Jewish or learn how to parse innuendo and read the signs. The ‘alt-right’, the new right wing characterised by leaders like Trump and Farage, have erected large and loud beacons. More than 60 years ago, the German political theorist Hannah Arendt published an extraordinary account of the ways in which she believed totalitarianism was allowed to take over Europe as a result of Nazism and Stalinism. While parts of her account remain controversial, a central element is the way in which democracy was overrun by the confluence of racism and nationalism.

In her book, anti-semitism catalysed the mob and political factions to refashion a politics based on racial conflict, as opposed to class conflict. Ethnic attachments were prioritised and the state was weakened as a result. Among those Arendt held responsible were local people too concerned with bourgeois living, to mount an organised protest.

One of Arendt’s contemporaries, French critical theorist Roland Barthes offered another window for examining the ways in which nationalism gained purchase. Just as the dog whistle sends a particular signal, Barthes described how signs were elevated to the status of myths and how particular ideologies ‘naturalised’ worldviews.

This is of course what today’s proponents of the dog whistle are trying to do. They are presenting selectively manipulated images, accounts, and claims to direct opinion.

We are in a dangerous period, but this time we can all read the signs. In addition the march of Islamic State across the Middle East, the appalling horror of Assad’s assault in Syria and Russia’s involvement in that conflict and in Ukraine, democratic countries are at risk from internal division.

Race relations in the USA are at their worst ebb for more than 50 years. The extreme right has become mainstream in Europe and appears electable. In the 1930s, Nazis organised around Jews to win large support from people who had lived successfully alongside them. We are now witnessing a re-ordering of the British multicultural model around nativist claims. Immigrants and minorities are being used to pull apart political traditions which effectively safeguarded our democracies for decades. During the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove at least distanced himself from the racism behind UKIP’s messaging. As Hillary Clinton noted, previous unsuccessful Republican political candidates including Senators Bob Dole and John McCain have condemned racism in their parties.

But while the dog whistle morphs into a racist siren, we need to hear loud voices of rejection from those, like Katie Hopkins, who call themselves anti-racist.

The choice is simple, you cannot both endorse democracy and racism that seeks to undermine particular groups of people and discard their rights.

• Brad K. Blitz is a Professor of International Politics at Middlesex University and Senior Fellow at the Global Migration Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva

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