Coded and Loaded: How Politicians Talk About Race and Gender Without Really Talking About Race and Gender

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Timed for the election, the new California magazine runs my exploration of dog whistle politics, from Nixon to Trump.

Richard Nixon had always been more of a rat-catcher than a heartthrob. All jowls and forehead, and sporting that rictus of a smile, he was a perennial runner-up. Willy Loman by way of Yorba Linda.

In the summer of 1968, though, with the country in flames, Nixon rolled out the strategy that would vault him into the Oval Office. Middle America was spooked by urban uprisings and draft-board bombings, bra burnings and street crime. The Great Society seemed to many a zero-sum game in which minorities won and whites lost, and as much as average white voters hated the Yippies, they feared the Black Panthers.

Nixon saw this bundle of resentments for what it was: a gift. He would speak to this “silent majority,” but he would speak sotto voce—the better to avoid criticism from the media.

Though the prejudice is much closer to the surface than it used to be, the vast majority of Trump’s tough talk still leaves at least a sliver of wiggle room, allowing the listener to fill in the blanks as he or she wishes. The anti-immigration rhetoric is ostensibly about public safety and American jobs, not biology or blood. In theory, Trump’s “border crossers” could be from anywhere. Most of them just happen to be from Latin America. For all of Trump’s bluntness, “He doesn’t say, ‘I’m here to represent the interests of white people against scary brown people,’” Haney Lopez says. “He doesn’t use the n-word. He says, ‘We’re going to take our country back.’”

To Trump’s critics, his strenuous denials of bias (“I am [sic] least racist person there is,” he tweeted) might feel like gaslighting. To his supporters, though, the denials make the coding more credible. Trump is telling it like it is, and if the media attacks him for it, well, that just means he’s doing something right. His status as an anti-PC warrior, meanwhile, serves as both sword and shield, allowing him to make over-the-top comments and refuse to apologize. That’s the Trump brand in a nutshell, says Berkeley linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg, “an incantation that allows him to say this crap and deflect criticism.”