Is This the Most Racist Political Race in Years?

'Dog Whistle Politics' author Ian Haney-López says Donald Trump and others in the GOP field are preying on white fear and ignorance

Donald Trump has spoken out against Syrian refugees and Mexican immigrants as part of his campaign. Credit: Octavio Jones/ZUMA Pess/Corbis

This weekend felt like a low point for the 2016 race, and for Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric in particular, even in an election cycle that's seemed like an ever-accelerating race to some elusive bottom.

At a Trump rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Saturday, a Black Lives Matter protester was surrounded by a group of men, who he says punched him, kicked him and told him, "Go home n----r." Speaking about the incident the next day, Trump said, "Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing." (The activist, Mercutio Southall Jr., had interrupted Trump's speech to shout, "black lives matter!")

The same day, Trump tweeted a compilation of fake crime statistics that appears to have originated from an account with a stylized swastika for an avatar, and a bio that reads, "we Should have listened to the Austrian chap with the little moustache." (If you're curious, the Washington Post has the accurate statistics.) Days earlier, the leading GOP candidate suggested all U.S. Muslims be registered in a database, and falsely claimed Muslims in New Jersey cheered on 9/11.

All this, on top of Trump's comments about Mexican immigrants – not to mention other candidates' views on Syrian refugees, among other things – makes this feel like one of the most overtly racist political election cycles in recent memory.

Rolling Stone got on the phone Monday with Berkeley professor Ian Haney-López, the author of Dog Whistle Politics, to ask him about it.

"I would not call it overt racism," Haney-López says, of the broader 2016 race. "It's important to realize that you do not have a candidate who is saying, 'We have a problem with sp-cs in this country. We have a problem with sand n----rs in this country.'"

What we have instead, he explains, is "a rhetoric that is heightening racial fears, and that is seeking to communicate to people that there are black and brown 'others' from abroad, but also here at home, who are a direct threat... to white Americans."

"This is a sort of racism that is often hidden from even the intended audience — the people these politicians hope to mobilize through this discourse of fear," Haney-López says.

Take, for example, Trump's infamous stump speech in which he characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. As Haney-López notes, Trump says in the speech, "It's coming from all over South and Latin America, and it's coming probably... from the Middle East."

"What he's saying is: Our southern border is insecure, and these threatening people are coming across," says Haney-López. "That's language that allows people to say to themselves, 'I'm not a racist — we've lost control of our border.'"

The same framework is being deployed when Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz say they want to help only Christians from Syria, and when they and other candidates talk about "Muslim extremism" or "Muslim terrorism," he says; making the issue about religion or beliefs gives candidates a cover to say their stances are not about skin color.

"This is the sort of language and rhetoric that the GOP has been using for 50 years," Haney-López says, but it's gotten more difficult to pull off as demographics have shifted out of Republicans' favor. 

"They've been walking a finer and finer line, trying to use coded racial language to mobilize anxious white voters," he says. "The Republican Party draws roughly 90 percent of its support from whites, so they are working really hard, and strategically, to motivate those white voters, but at the same time they are trying to find language that is sufficiently coded and sufficiently moderate not to completely antagonize especially Latinos and Asians. The African-American vote they've largely given up on."

He points to George W. Bush's courting of Latino voters to win in 2000 and 2004, and Mitt Romney's failures to attract the Hispanic vote in 2012. If Bush's success at winning Latino voters, and Romney's failure to do so, are taken as examples, the xenophobia that is polling well now doesn't bode well for Republicans' chances in the general election, says Haney-López. "Trump doesn't give a damn about the future of the GOP, so he's willing to use this extreme rhetoric that plays so well for primary voters, irrespective of the damage it does to the party's prospects in the general election or its prospects from 2016 to 2020," Haney-López says. "Now you have Jeb Bush, who had planned to successfully attract the Hispanic vote, coming out and talking about 'anchor babies.'"

When it comes down to it, Haney-López says, Trump and his cohort's guiding principle is preying on white fear — and, really, white ignorance. It's about tricking white voters into voting for candidates who don't serve their interests.

"Racism in the United States is not just about mistreating minorities. Racism is fundamentally about scaring whites," he says. "And the people who are scaring whites with racism, they are not doing it because they don't like people of color. They are doing it because this is a way to win votes for politicians who are basically serving the interests of billionaires."