How Donald Trump is making racist language OK again
Once upon a time, not too long ago, it was taboo for top level politicians to openly express racist sentiments. That’s why they tended to use code words, talking about “inner city crime” or “welfare dependency”. These are dogwhistle terms, which have been shown to appeal to voters’ latent racism without their full awareness. If politicians were too obvious in their racial appeals, political psychologists predicted, they would fail.
So how have we come to be where we are now, in a world where the President of the US speaks of “s***hole countries” and calls Mexicans rapists. How did this happen? Have all the prohibitions on racism evaporated? Is it now perfectly acceptable to be openly racist? It isn’t.
I think a key reason that Trump has been so successful is that he makes use of what I call a “racial figleaf”. A racial figleaf is an additional utterance which provides just enough cover for an utterance that would otherwise be seen as clearly racist. The figleaf serves to undermine the audience’s confidence that the racist utterance really is racist. I call it a “figleaf” because it serves to just barely cover something one isn’t supposed to show in public. If you use a dogwhistle, you don’t need a figleaf because the racism is already well-concealed. A figleaf is something that can cover up for racism that would otherwise be all too clear.
To see how this works, let’s look back at Trump’s infamous comments about Mexicans:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems … they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Most media attention focused, quite reasonably, on Trump’s appalling claim that Mexicans are rapists. But there are several other bits that serve as figleaves for this assertion – most notably the bizarre line: “Some, I assume, are good people.”