Opinion

With Bannon Pulling the Strings, Trump Revives Reaganesque Dog-whistle Politics

Trump and Bannon have brought back to life the Southern Strategy, which deploys racist tropes while shielding its adherents from charges of racism.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to senior staff Steve Bannon during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White House in Washington, DC January 22, 2017.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Here’s the key question about the Trump administration’s decision to release the executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. on Holocaust Remembrance Day and to scrub their statement of any reference to Jews or anti-Semitism. Was it a dog whistle, part of their attempts to be “inclusive” — since, as Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks helpfully pointed out, like, Nazis killed lots of people — or mere stupidity?

I vote dog whistle.

Thanks to Trump’s own Karl Rove, known white supremacist and Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, we are witnessing the revival of the infamous Southern Strategy. It’s fitting, given a Trump regime where everything old is new again: Monday night’s Nixonian purge of acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates for refusing to follow orders she deemed unlawful. FDR-era policies that bar immigrants seeking safety from American shores. Holocaust denial.

First inspired by William F. Buckley’s National Review in the 50’s, and later perfected by Ronald Reagan’s Svengali, Lee Atwater, the Southern Strategy deploys racist tropes while shielding its adherents from charges of racism. Think of Reagan’s “welfare queen,” raking in a six-figure income by gaming the system, or the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks at the grocery store. Blackness is implied, but not said aloud.

From its beginnings, the Southern Strategy has included a discernable anti-Semitic twist. Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign from Philadelphia, Mississippi, a historic landmark for any southerner or student of history. That’s where three young civil rights workers — local James Chaney, who was African-American, and New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both Jewish — were kidnapped and murdered by white supremacists in 1964 for the crime of daring to register black voters.

Reagan’s speech in Philadelphia, extolling “states’ rights,” spoke to white southerners resentful of two decades’ worth of federal laws and troops intervening on behalf of the rights of African-Americans on their turf. Reagan went on to win over white Southerners who had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the Civil War, and Dixie has gone majority red ever since.

Bannon pulled off a similar feat in 2016 while serving as the chief executive officer of Trump’s presidential campaign. His key triumph was turning a formerly Democrat-leaning majority of white working-class voters red using the same tactics that won him a following among the faithful at Breitbart news. The site has made its fortune playing to its base, the so-called “alt-right.” This re-branded, post-WWII generation of white supremacists and anti-Semites feeds on conspiracy theories and takes cover under the ruse of defending itself against an alleged war against (mostly white, straight, and Christian) men, spearheaded by “political correctness.”

It’s not for nothing that Trump supporters, whipped up by the overt Breitbartian insistence that the mainstream media is “fake” (aka corrupt) and its none-too-covert claim that it is Jewish-controlled, harassed reporters at rallies during the presidential election by shouting “Lügenpresse!” (translation: shut up, lying press). Or that Breitbart news sent out London Editor Kareem Hassan, one of the organization’s token men of color, to try to cleanse the term of its Nazi-era taint by claiming that the term is now broadly used (well, yes, but primarily by neo-Nazi and right-wing groups).

It’s no coincidence that alt-right poster boy and Bannon acolyte Richard Spencer uses “Lügenpresse” in the infamous recent footage, where an enthusiastic crowd responds to his opening shout of “Hail Trump” (Seig Heil) with a wave of Nazi salutes. Bannon’s blowing the administration’s anti-Semitic dog whistle loud and proud when he chooses the famously Jewish-owned New York Times as the launching pad for his recent declaration that the press is “the opposition party” and should “keep its mouth shut.”
 
The moment of truth arrived via Freudian slip during White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus’ Meet the Press appearance. At first Preibus doubles down, repeatedly telling host Chuck Todd that the White House did not regret the words in the statement, while describing the Holocaust in terms better reserved for colds (“miserable”) and baked-not-fried corn chips (“terrible”). In all Preibus’ flailing, he just couldn’t seem to find the word “atrocity.”

And then Preibus says it: “If we could wipe it off the history books, we would.” 

Trump has galvanized the left as no president since JFK has. His firing of Yates last night has turned nativist Jeff Session’s Attorney General confirmation vote into a referendum on the Muslim ban and his immigration policies overall. The Schumer-led Democrats, pressured by the millions of constituents flooding the streets and their phone lines, have pulled together to boycott scheduled votes for the confirmations of Steven Mnuchin and Tom Price, Trump’s picks for Treasury secretary and secretary of health and human services. 

The left may rise again.
 
Nancy Goldstein’s work has appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the Nation. Follow her on Twitter at @nancygoldstein