Donald Trump’s bombast boils down to this: “If you hate minority groups, you’ll love me, ’cause I’m gonna Make America White Again.”
Trump doesn’t use those specific words. Instead, he uses what University of California-Berkeley Professor Ian Haney Lopez calls “dog whistles,” phrases that perk up the ears of bigots. I am not saying that all of Trump’s supporters are racists; but a quarter of Republicans have responded enthusiastically to his dog whistles, so we need to be clear about what is going on.
Three years ago, Trump revived the dying “birther” movement. He probably didn’t really believe that nonsense, but he knew that many white Americans were angry and anxious about the election of a black man to the presidency. They needed a story to explain how such a thing could have happened — thus the fantastic tale about Barack Obama’s birth in Kenya. In some surveys, more than 40 percent of Republicans said they believed that story. This does not mean that 40 percent of Republicans are stupid. What it means is that many of them would say outrageous things to delegitimize Obama’s historic achievement.
Similarly, most of Trump’s supporters are not dumb enough to take his immigration proposals literally. They don’t believe that most undocumented immigrants are rapists and criminals, or that a President Trump would expel 11 million people from the country, or that he could make Mexico build a 2,000-mile wall, or that he could unilaterally reinterpret the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. However, they love to hear his dog whistle tweeting “We don’t want Mexicans here.”
“Chinese” is another of Trump’s code words. Few Americans are bothered by imports from China, which include everything from toys to iPhones to Trump’s own signature-label shirts. But for Trumpists, “Chinese” is another way to say “yellow peril,”reminiscent of the 1870s. What worries them is not China’s manufacturing capacity; it is Chinese immigrants. And for many Trump supporters, “Chinese” is an umbrella category for the millions of Asians – Vietnamese, Cambodians, Japanese, Koreans, even Indians and Pakistanis — who have immigrated into the United States during the past 50 years.
What solutions does Trump offer for the decline that he claims the United States has been suffering? How does he plan to “Make America Great Again”? By putting white men back in charge! Trump knows that he cannot reduce the number of blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans; but as president he could enhance the GOP’s voter suppression efforts. Reducing the voting power of minority citizens would help to restore what many Trump supporters believe to be the proper racial order.
A series of laws passed a half-century ago — the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1965 Immigration Reform Act — ended centuries of lawful white privilege. Then came the women’s movement. Men who thought they should be running things started to feel emasculated.
Trump is rich. He boasts that foreign leaders will do whatever he tells them to do — and one of his former wives has vouched for his sexual prowess. His phallic symbol is a long, sleek jet airplane. A few weeks ago, Ted Cruz posted a video of his own phallic symbol: a gun barrel wrapped in a strip of bacon.
Ridiculous as he is, Trump has helped to expose the breadth and intensity of prejudice in the GOP. The question is, do any of the other candidates have the decency and courage to stand up to their party’s bigots?
Dorn is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas. He is a former undersecretary in the Department of Defense and former dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs.