The New 'Southern Strategy': Blowing the Dog-Whistle on Black Trump Supporters
Updated: Jul 14, 2020
When the new White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany took to the stage on her first day last April, her gold cross gleaming in the overhead lights, she pledged to reporters that she’d never lie to them. I laughed. How she could possibly keep such a promise given her boss? But it soon became clear that Ms. McEnany had a plan—to sow confusion. She would transform the press room into a swirling vortex of circular reasoning where X is false because of Y, and Y is false because of X.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what she was doing. Then, I read Christian Schneider’s piece in the online publication, The Bulwark, and understood—Ms. McEnany was simply ‘deflecting without regard to context.’
According to Mr. Schneider, “Trump supporters (read: McEnany) fantasize that every damaging thing the president says or does happens in a vacuum, separate from all his other actions.” By ignoring context and history, Schneider argues, Trump’s supporters are able to hear him make clearly racist statements, and yet not actually view the statements as racist.
Nowhere is this practice more evident than among Trump’s most passionate Black supporters.
The most influential Black Trumpers like Candace Owens, Dan Bongino and Terrence K. Williams have established lucrative careers by parroting Trump’s nonsense comments and turning a well-timed blind eye to his racist behavior. These "thought-leaders" are entitled to exercise their right to free speech, of course, but one has to wonder if they are aware that by repeating Trump’s racist rhetoric they are amplifying the exact same offensive dog-whistles he uses to target and marginalize Black and brown people. There is some deep self-loathing at work here.
Anyone who chooses to follow them on Twitter can read their daily tweets parroting Trump’s unsubstantiated racist claims about President Obama or his transparent arguments about confederate monuments or his insultingly misleading and false statements about the hazards of voting by mail. By using the same dog-whistles Trump uses, Black Trump supporters have become willing pawns in a Trump 2020 amped-up version of Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy.’
The ‘Southern Strategy’ used to be about dog-whistling to White conservatives. Now it’s become about dog-whistling to naïve Black conservatives. In their book, The Long Southern Strategy, authors Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields help to explain the conditions that would enable Black conservatives like Owens to get swept up in the anti-black rhetoric of White racist conservatives.
The Southern Strategy first emerged after the Civil War as a way to encourage White Southerners to vote, by playing on their racial fears. In 1964, Barry Goldwater adapted the strategy for a modern audience in his bid for the presidency that year. And, in 1968, Richard Nixon tweaked Goldwater’s strategy to craft a subtle appeal to the country’s ‘silent majority’ of White voters who secretly opposed the expansion of civil rights.
In the 1980s, the Southern Strategy experienced yet another updating when Ronald Reagan used a series of dog-whistles about inner city crime and welfare queens to appeal to White voters. And, twenty years later, it was updated yet again to consolidate White evangelicals as a reliable voting-block in the Republican party.
Lee Atwater, the legendary political strategist who shaped the 1980s version of the strategy can be heard explaining its evolution in a recently surfaced audio recording. In it, Atwater shows just how essential dog-whistling is to the Southern Strategy and how sophisticated dog-whistling has become in recent years.
“In 1954, it’s N*gger, N*gger, N*gger. By 1968, you can’t say that, so you say stuff like ‘Forced Busing,’ ‘State’s Rights’… you get so abstract now…you talk about ‘cutting taxes’ and all these totally economic things and the by-product is that Blacks get hurt worse than Whites.”
If Atwater was alive today, he would have to smile at the irony of Black conservatives working so hard to help the Republican Party spread poisonous, ignorant lies about Black and brown people, using signals and strategies Atwater created specifically for that purpose.
Just as Donald Trump has done, Atwater would no doubt welcome Black Trump supporters to the White House and celebrate their efforts to “get the truth out” about the many ways the Democratic Party has harmed Black and brown people over the years.
And then, he would send them on their way, until the next time they can be of use.
K. Ward Cummings @kwardcummings is the author of Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers