As most of us know by now, Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” It’s a carbon copy of Ronald Reagan’s, “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan in 1980. The ambiguity of Trump’s four words is immense. What exactly does “great” mean? And what is the word “again” referring to? There may be no real answers to these questions. This is definitely a possibility. But I think Trump knows exactly what he’s doing. (Not to say he’s not an idiot; he most certainly is.)
For many people, “Make America Great Again” is meaningless political rhetoric, but for some the implications of this statement are abundantly clear: Make America White Again. This is the kind of sentiment that Trump is purposely inciting with his slogan. In fact, it’s something that the Republican party has been dabbling in since before the days of Reagan.
Indeed, this is dog whistle politics at its finest. A dog whistle is a political message that means one thing to the general population, but has a different and more specific meaning to a targeted sub-group of people. In this context, the targeted sub-group is racists, and the meaning is that minorities have ruined America. Dog whistling is the subtle way that many Republicans appeal to racists, without ostracizing mainstream voters.
Why do Republicans do this? Around the 1960s, the party establishment figured out that using explicitly racist terms isn’t cool and is not a good way to get elected. But they needed to find a way to keep bigots voting for the GOP. They started using terms like “welfare queen” to reinforce the notion that the federal government only serves people of color.
Republicans’ first priority is tax cuts for them and their rich “one percenter” friends. The problem with this platform is that it does not translate into the necessary amount of votes to win the election. I hate to break it to you, but you need more than one percent of the vote to win elections. That’s why Republicans have added the Christian right to their coalition by taking stances against abortion and gay rights. And it’s also why Republicans have added racists to their coalition.
What’s interesting about Trump is that he has ditched the whole cutting taxes part of the Republican party. Trump has actually hinted at raising taxes on the rich, he is against free trade, and, in the past, he has spoken in favor of Planned Parenthood and gun control. As we can see from Trump’s success, it turns out that many Republicans do not really believe in the baseline conservative ideology of small government and low taxes. Many of these people’s strongest held belief is that people of color are ruining America. It’s no coincidence that Trump is so popular—his rhetoric has tapped into the hostility of a large part of the Republican base.
South Carolina’s primary exit polls show that 20 percent of Trump supporters believe that ending slavery was a bad idea, and 70 percent want the Confederate flag flying above official grounds in their state. Another third believe that Japanese internment was a good idea. A majority also believes that Muslims should be barred from entering the country. Incidentally, many of us have seen the video of fellow Bates student, Kiernan Majerus-Collins, arguing at a Trump rally with supporters who spew harmful and untrue Islamic stereotypes.
Trump’s success is the product of a half-century worth of the Republican Party’s subtle courting of racists and bigots.