The notoriously Machiavellian Republican operative Lee Atwater once famously revealed his party’s strategy to use so-called “dog whistles” to communicate racist sentiments without overtly racist language:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N****r, n****r, n****r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n****r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N****r, n****r.”
Donald Trump doesn’t subscribe to the Atwater School of Subtle Racism.
Trump last week declared the Latino judge presiding over the Trump University case unfit strictly because of his ethnic heritage. The Wall Street Journal reported:
In an interview, Mr. Trump said U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the litigation given that he was “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyers’ association. Mr. Trump said the background of the judge, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants, was relevant because of his campaign stance against illegal immigration and his pledge to seal the southern U.S. border. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” Mr. Trump said.
Who needs dog whistles when you can just be overtly racist?
Trump’s decision to accuse a Latino of being incapable of performing his job impartially is a strategically suspect one. He regularly brags that he will win the Hispanic vote. He has argued that his support of a border wall wouldn’t be a factor, saying “I think I’m going to win the Hispanic vote. And I frankly don’t think it matters.” His case is that Latinos will vote him “because they know I’m going to bring back jobs from lots of places including India and China and lots of places that are taking our jobs.”
But now, he is tacitly conceding – by saying the wall creates “an inherent conflict of interest” with anyone of “Mexican heritage” – that the wall is designed to bring harm to many Latino families. (Note that Mexican-Americans compromise nearly two-thirds of the Latino population.)
Why would he do that? Why would he undercut his own argument that he can win – will win! – Latino votes because bluntly stating his position is diametrically opposed to their interests?
And why would he make an overtly racist argument that people of “Mexican heritage” are not capable of being impartial judges?
There is no political logic to it. There may have been a dark logic to the code words of Atwater’s time – appealing to those who harbor racist attitudes without offending moderate sensibilities. But in today’s more diverse America, the dog whistle strategy has diminishing appeal. And brazen racism, in addition to being immoral and appalling, is political malpractice.
The inherent illogic leads to only one conclusion: He is so consumed by racism that he can’t contain it. He is blinded by it, and is incapable of rational political decision-making.
This is a man who is quite comfortable with political pandering. He regularly and eagerly takes both of sides of issues in hopes of scooping up votes across the political spectrum. But when it comes to race, he can’t control himself.
We are in the middle of a year-long spectacle of unfiltered racism on the national stage. No doubt watching it will be deeply unsettling. The hope is that being forced to confront it will make America stronger.