On his MSNBC show Hardball, Chris Matthews called out Newt Gingrich and other Republicans for what he described as their “dog whistle” appeals to white racism during the South Carolina debate on Monday night.
He was correct in identifying the work that racism does for the Tea Party GOP and its candidates in their efforts to win over white conservative voters. However, Chris Matthews was too generous and kind. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and other Republican candidates are not engaging in subtle dog whistles to their faithful, where racism and white racial anxiety hides in the background, masked and hidden by other language.
Definitions matter: dog whistle politics are based on a signal or cue to the in-group, and one so subtle that those not in the know will overlook it as no more than quixotic background noise, a blip, a comment without context or meaning.
For example, during the 2004 election, President Bush’s mention of the infamous Dredd Scott Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with African Americans and slavery. Rather, it was a wink to a rabidly anti-choice conservative Right-wing audience that Roe vs. Wade would be overturned by his administration.
In 2008, McCain-Palin featured a negative campaign ad which borrowed from the movie The Ten Commandments and suggested that Barack Obama was the Anti-Christ. If one was not part of the Left Behind Jesus Camp Christian Nationalist Dominionist crowd, the visuals and narrative of the commercial were odd, bizarre, utterly strange, and devoid of context. The ugliness of these symbols and metaphors were so covert, that they made sense for those outside of the targeted audience only after Time magazine thoroughly deconstructed the campaign ad and its malicious intent.
In 2012, Republican candidates are using overt signals, what are for all intents and purposes blaring air raid sirens and signal flares that race, whiteness, and American identity are deeply intertwined. The appeals to white racism by the Tea Party GOP during the primaries are not background rhythms or subdued choruses. They are the driving guitars of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla,” the chorus of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” the opening moments of the Notorious B.I.G’s “Kick in the Door,” or the flipped samples of Justice’s “Stress”. You feel it. You know it. To deny the obvious is to close one’s ears to a driving drum line and cadence that travels up through your shoes…and to your bones.
How else can a fair observer excuse away Republican arguments that blacks are lazy parasites, whose children should live in work houses and pick up mops and brooms to learn a work ethic, that “illegal” immigrants should be killed by electric fences, or Muslim Americans should be subject to racial profiling, marked like the “Juden” of Nazi Germany?
In all, the Tea Party GOP’s campaign for the presidency rests upon marshaling white anger and rage at The Usurper, a perpetual Other, and one not fit for the presidency by virtue of his birth and skin color–he who we know as President Barack Obama. If Birtherism is not based on this calculation, on what else does it rest?
Race matters to the Tea Party GOP. It matters overtly. And it matters to the white populists of the Republican Party without apology or subtlety. This leads to the following practical question: how do we separate the subtle dog whistle from blaring conservative racism? What are the elements of the racial appeal? How can we identify it so that reasonable folk can neuter and castrate it? Is this even possible?
Knowing is half the battle. To that end, let’s work through elements of the puzzle:
The speaker effect. Using one of the most gross examples, when Newt Gingrich talks about lazy blacks on welfare and food stamps who do not know the meaning of hard work he is mindful of his audience. Remember, politics is ultimately about the creation and reinforcement of imagined communities. Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, and Paul know exactly how to talk to their respective audiences in order to get a response. To point: white conservative populists have disdain for non-whites, see them as lazy, outside of the polity, and as rightful targets for appeals based on symbolic racism. In the eyes of the Right, “those people” are not “real Americans.” They never can be.
The audience as a public who receives, internalizes, and circulates the Tea Party GOP message about race, white racial resentment, white oppression, and hostility to people of color. The folks in the audience and on the stage during the Republican primary debates “get” the terms of the conversation. In fact, they are deeply attuned to the language and rhetoric of the New Right, as anyone who either goes to one of these events, or votes in a primary election, are deeply invested in its outcome, and a return to white American normality. In all, they are chasing nostalgia and a Leave it to Beaver vision and lie of America. This audience is also “tuned in” to politics. Gingrich and his peers are sending signals to a group primed and ready for his racial appeals…without a need for explanation.
This reality speaks to why there should be no surprise when Republican audiences cheer the death penalty, dying people without insurance, or heckle soldiers who happen to be gay. There are unstated rules, a script, which govern social norms and behavior. The outliers who go to political debates are intimately familiar with this language. Like marks at a professional wrestling event they know when to boo and when to cheer.
Context matters. In isolation, perhaps it would be a more difficult case to suggest that Gingrich’s appeals to white audiences about lazy blacks are predominantly and clearly about white racism. However, given that communities are created through speech, and that “discourse” is about a sense of shared meaning with unstated assumptions, any argument for conservative colorblindness is judged to be insincere.
In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies, there was Ron Paul (a bigot whose newsletters continue to suggest that African Americans are ravenous, craven, criminal, stupid beasts); Rick Santorum (a man fascinated by bestiality and the idea that blacks are parasites who only want to live off of white people); and Newt Gingrich who sees all African-Americans and Latinos as being on welfare and the public dole until proven otherwise. In total, these candidates are a rogues gallery where white supremacist attitudes towards non-whites is a standing rule, one only to be disputed after the fact.
Juan Williams is an object of abuse, a means to prove a point. Juan Williams is a paid pinata for white conservatives. I do not know if he was legitimately hurt and surprised by their reaction to him, or if his pain was not feigned, and rather sincere and real. In understanding the logic of Republican racism and naked appeals beyond the dog whistle, Williams was the stand-in, the object of abuse through which to actualize rage and hostility. Barack Obama was not available. Any black body would do. The cheering, snide glee of Newt Gingrich dressing down uppity “Juan,” and the audience’s cheering of a “boy” being put in his place, would be missed by only the most in denial observer.
Juan Williams is/was a repository for the fecal matter of white conservative bigotry, and a need to maintain superiority over negroes who dare not to step off of the sidewalk when white folks pass. That in another life Juan Williams would be a critic of “negro agitators” during the Civil Rights movement is coincidental to his designated role on Fox News: he is exemplary of Joel Kovel’s theories about white supremacy, and how it manifests as a White society which is collectively (and individually) stuck in the fecal phase of human psychological development–it is all over his face. Juan Williams smiles while cashing his checks at the prospect of his politicalcoprophagia at the ass end of conservative politics. He revels in playing the role of the human centipede.
The excuse of ignorance and a lack of memory. One does not need to understand the root of a thing in order to buy into its power. White conservatives (and others) who traffic in racism do not necessarily need to be able to explain how blacks came to be associated in the White racist mind with apes. Likewise, those who hate Jews do not need to be able to give an exegesis on Nazi propaganda in order to be expert anti-Semites.
This is one of the greatest tools and defenses of the contemporary white racist–I didn’t know that, you are being unfair!; You are “playing the race card” for calling out my association of the Obama with watermelons and apes as “racist”; I never associated blacks with welfare or crime, people like you are the real bigots for calling attention to how Republicans talk about such things, we are really all Americans!; stop talking about slavery, my family never owned black people!; (and of course) whites are oppressed in America by Barack Obama!
There is a collective reservoir of symbols, assumptions, and narratives that individuals borrow from in a given society in order to make sense of their world. Knowing the wellspring helps; it is not a requirement to perpetuate common sense understanding(s) of the world.
Ultimately, Chris Matthews was correct in the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law. To defeat President Obama, the Republican Party is wallowing in white racism in order to win over racially and economically insecure white voters. However, Gingrich and company are doing this overtly. There is little subtlety. Looking forward, the 2012 Presidential season will make the infamous Willie Horton ad of the 1988 presidential election look like a celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. The challenge for liberals, progressives, and reasonable conservatives, is how to make the Republican Party pay for their race baiting, and desperate reaching back to the Civil War, Redemption, and Birth of a Nation as playbooks in order to defeat the United States’ first Black President.
Sadly, matters may be so dire that the white identity politics of years past are now “new school” rather than “old school.” To marshal that fear, insecurity, and anger one does not need nuance, sophistication, or dog whistles. White conservatives can put such feelings on blast and gin up the psychological wages of white fear, white anxiety, and white rage to try to defeat Barack Obama.
As always, the past isn’t even past. It is yesterday. Get ready folks. What occurred in South Carolina is only a warm up for what the Tea Party GOP is preparing to unleash in the months to come. What is coming to pass will be an ugly, wild ride.