Over the past month, President Donald Trump has taken a series of steps that, at first glance, may not seem related: He characterized white supremacists who caused chaos and violence in Charlottesville and counterprotesters as equally violent. He pardoned the former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio. He moved to give police greater access to military weapons. He’s considering revoking a program that shields undocumented immigrants from deportation.
But there’s a common thread linking all of these moves together. “It’s identity politics,” Paul Frymer, director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University, told me. “[Trump]’s playing to a group of voters who feel disaffected as whites. It’s not their only identity, but it’s an identity that they identify with and that he’s targeting and exploiting.”
In all of these moves, Trump is playing to his white supporters’ racial resentment. He’s putting the idea of “law and order” above all else, even if it means a crackdown on minority communities. He’s playing to people’s “white fragility” and concerns about white heritage disappearing if Confederate statues come down. And he’s pandering to concerns that undocumented immigrants are taking native-born (read: white) Americans’ jobs — by pardoning a sheriff who was found in contempt of court for profiling Latinos as unauthorized immigrants after a court told him not to.
But in all these moves, Trump is appealing to racial resentment while masking what he’s doing. In speaking about the violence in Charlottesville, pardoning Arpaio, and planning to give police more military weapons, the president and his administration frame these topics as attempts to combat crime and violence — not about the specific racial elements involved. This is the old dog whistle — used by many politicians on both the left and right before, but really brought to the forefront in recent years by Trump.
This is how, according to Frymer, conservatives play into identity politics. Although the term is typically used in a derogatory manner to discuss the racial and gender politics of the left, it’s one that political scientists argue applies just as much to the right. With dog whistles and coded language, it’s much more subtle than what the left does — but it’s a type of identity politics nonetheless.
This is the link that makes sense of what Trump is doing. He’s not out there simply screaming into the void (although surely there’s some of that, particularly on Trump’s Twitter feed). This all comes together to play to a base of white voters who feel that their government has taken advantage of them over the years to prop up undeserving minority Americans.
Trump is playing an old racist game
To understand what Trump is doing, it’s important to first understand how many conservative white Americans feel about the state of US politics. The best description of that comes from sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.
Hochschild spent years with Tea Party members in Louisiana. Out of that experience, she came up with a theory to explain how many of them feel: As they see it, they are all in this line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective, other groups — black and brown Americans, women — are now cutting in the line, because they’re getting new (and more equal) opportunities through various government services, new anti-discrimination laws, and policies like affirmative action. All of that builds resentment.
This is what Trump is speaking to. By playing into white fears of crime and concerns that minorities are taking their jobs, he’s signaling to his white supporters that he’s a politician who is finally taking their problems seriously. This is very much racialized (as the latter part of Hochschild’s analogy shows), but Trump does it through dog whistles that somewhat mask the racial element.
But here’s the thing: Many of Trump’s supporters may not even recognize that it’s racial resentment that’s riling them up. In fact, the way Trump and other politicians use coded language allows their supporters to think that these issues have little or nothing to do with race.
“The dog whistle metaphor suggests that the dogs — the intended audience — hear the message clearly. That’s wrong. The code is designed to hide the actual dynamics from the target audience itself,” Ian Haney-López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, told me. “It’s code designed to allow people who are racially anxious and who are easily fired up with racial narratives to deny to themselves that it’s race that’s agitating them.”
In this way, Haney-López argued that the coded language was embraced by many in Trump’s base to “protect themselves from the idea that they’re being mobilized by racist appeals.”
The classic examples of this are crime and welfare politics. Politicians will decry abuse of the welfare system as a way to appeal to fears of black people taking advantage of the welfare system and purportedly wasting taxpayer money. And they’ll point to high crime rates as a way to appeal to white Americans’ fears that black people are causing chaos and violence in America’s cities. These are masked under broad concerns — over the waste of taxpayer money and crime — but they’re really appealing to underlying racial resentment.
Haney-López gave other examples of this coded language: “So Trump says things like, ‘We got to ban Muslims from the US — not to ban Muslims, but to secure our borders. We got to make America great again — not to return to a time of culturally sanctified white dominance, but because we love our country. I didn’t pardon Joe Arpaio because he persecuted Latinos; I pardoned him because he was a wonderful civil servant that protected us from crime and illegal immigrants.’”
“This allows the base to say, ‘I’m worried about welfare and waste. I’m worried about crime. I’m worried about my country. I’m worried about borders. I’m worried about illegal immigrants. I’m not a racist,’” Haney-López added. “And they really do believe it.”
There’s evidence behind the correlation Haney-López is drawing here: As researchers Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel explained for Vox, racial attitudes are a very strong predictor for beliefs about government spending. “For decades, social scientists have found that attitudes about race, particularly toward African Americans, persistently impact political attitudes and opinions toward government services, spending, and welfare,” they wrote.
McElwee and McDaniel measured racial resentment, economic peril, and support for more government spending. They found that higher measured racial resentment correlated with a preference for decreased government spending and services, while more economic insecurity appeared to correlate — but not at a statistically significant level — with more support for increased government spending.
Obviously, not all people who oppose some or all entitlement programs do so on racist grounds. There are economic, budgetary, and philosophical arguments against how entitlement programs work today. But racial attitudes are a motive for a lot of people.
Trump did not invent this approach, although he has capitalized on it more than other national politicians in recent times. “This resentment and anger has been there for decades,” Frymer said. “I’m not sure there’s anything new about it or necessarily bigger than it used to be. But it’s been vocalized by Trump and others.”
Before Trump, there was the Southern strategy championed by Richard Nixon — in which Nixon tapped into white Americans’ racial resentment of the civil rights era to begin flipping white Southern voters from Democrats to Republicans. This continued through coded rhetoric about “welfare queens” and other dog whistles that suggest that big government is really a tool to help minority people at the expense, through higher taxes, of white working people. (Never mind that the plurality of food stamp recipients are white and that not all people of color receive welfare or food stamps.)
Racism as “a divide-and-conquer weapon”
The irony, Haney-López argued, is that racial appeals end up hurting white people too. “Racism is being used as a divide-and-conquer weapon against all of us,” he said. “You, racially fearful white people, are being betrayed by racism too. Racism is hurting you.”
The argument: Racism has been used over the past few decades to slash government spending and services. This has led to cuts for programs, from welfare to infrastructure, that benefit white Americans just as they benefit minority Americans.
An example of this is Obamacare. Just like studies show that opposition to government services are driven in part by racial resentment, other research shows the same is true for Obamacare. Yet the reality is that if Trump and Republicans succeeded in repealing Obamacare, it would rob possibly millions of white Americans of their health insurance — a total disaster for the big groups of people who voted Trump and Republicans into office.
This is something I’ve heard from liberal activists. “The racial narrative has been the weapon,” Heather McGhee, president of the left-leaning public policy group Demos, told me earlier this year, to get white Americans to vote for policies that go against their economic interests. (Haney-López told me he’s now working with Demos and McGhee on a project to countermessage the racial narrative that conservatives use.)
Conservatives argue, however, that they are not deliberately playing into racial fears — although that seems impossible to believe with Trump — and that cuts on government spending will spur economic growth that will help everyone.
When a nun asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) at a CNN town hall how he balances his Catholic faith with his opposition to government welfare programs, Ryan argued, “We need to make sure that we bring people into the workforce. The poor are being marginalized and misaligned in many ways because a lot of the programs that we have — well-intentioned as they may be — are discouraging and disincentivizing work.” (The research, covered by Dylan Matthews for Vox, does find some truth to this, although it doesn’t apply to all government programs.)
Whatever one believes about the effectiveness of different government services, the overall research certainly suggests that racism and racial resentment have been used to cut these types of programs over the years. In that way, Trump’s racial appeals aren’t just about riling up his base, but about advancing an agenda that cuts services to the poor and taxes for the rich, brings back “tough on crime” policies, and restricts access to the voting booth.