Perhaps no one has sent more dog whistles than President Trump, who during the midterm elections campaigned against Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) by connecting him to President Barack Obama while making an “H” in the air to highlight Obama’s middle name “Hussein.”
While campaigning for Republican candidates during the midterms, Trump suggested that a caravan of Central Americans hoping to seek asylum in the United States could be infiltrated by people from the Middle East, something that was not supported by evidence. But the idea seemed meant to communicate to his conservative base that potential terrorists could be trying to enter the United States.
This year, many of Trump’s fellow Republicans seemed to follow him in the practice.
Most recently, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) made headlines while praising a supporter at a public event when she said: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
The comment drew widespread scorn, especially given Mississippi’s dark history of lynchings. Over a 90-year period starting in the late 1880s, Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Some lawmakers called the comments from Hyde-Smith, whose opponent is former U.S. secretary of agriculture and congressman Mike Espy, reprehensible and demanded an apology. Espy is black.
But in Hyde-Smith’s refusal to apologize, calling her remark an “exaggerated expression of regard,” the senator appeared to model what has become common in this political climate: widespread appeals to some on the fringes of decency at the risk of offending larger populations.
Hyde-Smith and Espy will face off in a special election runoff Nov. 27.
Republican Ron DeSantis, who remains in a tight race for Florida’s governor, was called out the day after he won his primary race for comments about his opponent that some deemed racist. The former lawmaker suggested that Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who could be elected Florida’s first black governor, would “monkey this up” if elected. The statement was followed by a robo-call from an anti-Gillum, self-proclaimed white supremacist group featuring monkeys making monkey sounds. DeSantis, who was not affiliated with the robo-call, called it “disgusting.”
In September, the National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad aimed at painting Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.), a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law graduate, as incapable of representing his district because of his past as a hip-hop artist. It ran ads featuring Delgado, a married father of two, as a profane and threatening inner-city rapper.
“Antonio Delgado claims he’s like us,” a narrator says before closing with: “His voice can’t be our voice.”
Delgado defeated his Republican opponent in the midterm election.
And in early September, Chris Pappas, who is New Hampshire’s first openly gay member of Congress, was accused of being weak and not tough — a jab sometimes lobbed at gay men to suggest that they are inferior to heterosexual men — by his Republican opponent.
And a week after a deadly shooting at a synagogue in October, a Republican candidate sent out a mailer featuring anti-Semitic tropes in his campaign against a Jewish Democrat challenging him for a Connecticut state Senate seat. The advertisement sent out by Republican Ed Charamut’s campaign showed his challenger Matthew Lesser staring at a wad of cash in his hands with a crazed glare.
Eddie Glaude, who chairs Princeton University’s Center for African-American Studies, said many voices in our political climate have moved from sending dog whistles to making blatantly racist statements knowing that they appeal to some voters. He told The Fix:
“These sorts of appeals only deepen the divides in the country. They also reveal that the problem of identity in our politics has little to do with black and brown people. It is really about what Michelle Goldberg called ‘aggrieved whiteness.’ It seems to me until we address this fact explicitly — name as something bad in our politics — we will find ourselves going down an even more dangerous road.”
Trump, of course, began the practice of dog whistling long before he was president. He was one of the main promoters of the birther conspiracy theory, which falsely claimed that Obama was a Muslim born outside the United States.
Following a midterm where voters were deeply divided by their identity groups, it is fair to expect divisions to continue. Some of the candidates accused of stoking discrimination and stereotypes saw victories. But for other candidates, playing to the worst stereotypes about people not like themselves did not prove to be as fruitful as they may have hoped. And that could reflect many voters' disinterest in talking about how individuals identify and more interest in how they lead.