It’s called a “dog whistle,” a word or phrase in a speech that is unobjectionable on the surface but conveys a coded message to partisans, by analogy to high-pitched sounds that are audible to dogs but not to people. Richard Nixon leaned on it heavily during his 1968 presidential campaign, referencing “law and order” and a “war on drugs,” further codifying racial appeals from Barry Goldwater for “states’ rights” and “freedom of association.”
Ronald Reagan took it to another level in 1976, demonizing a “welfare queen” who fraudulently collected $150,000 in government benefits, a barely concealed appeal to the race and class resentments of white voters toward Blacks.
By that standard, President Trump’s riff about the “good genes” found among the people of Minnesota — an 80 percent white state — wasn’t a dog whistle. It was a train whistle, folding in Trump’s long-held belief that some people, himself especially, are simply born with superior traits to others.
“You have good genes, you know that, right?” Trump said during his Saturday rally in front of a nearly all-white crowd in Bemidji. “You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”
“Trump’s allusion to ‘good genes’ in front of a mostly white crowd in Minnesota isn’t just ‘like’ Nazism, it’s classic Nazi eugenic theory, encompassing the belief that ‘Aryans’ — like the descendants of Swedes in Minnesota — are destined to become the so-called master race,” Silberman told Yahoo News.
“It’s not even a subtle dog whistle; Trump is just saying it, straight out, in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately impacts people of color and disabled folks. The ramifications of this for our society are deeply chilling, and made concrete in the soaring COVID-19 death tolls for these vulnerable communities.”
Trump has long espoused a belief in eugenics, stating in a 1990 Playboy interview that “I’m a strong believer in genes.” In the 2014 film “Kings of Kallstadt,” a documentary looking at descendants from a single German town, Trump said, “You know I’m proud to have that German blood. There’s no question about it.” At a January 2016 event in Mississippi, he said, “I have Ivy League education, smart guy, good genes. I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in.”
Ian Haney López, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, who’s studied the effectiveness of dog-whistle messaging, said Trump’s comments were consistent with his father’s reported beliefs on race science and an attempt to “trigger fears and resentments rooted in racist stereotypes, but in a way that allows a politician to deny that’s what they’re doing.”
“But what’s left of plausible deniability when you begin to talk about genes?” López told Yahoo News. “Because genes begin to connect up to eugenics and Nazi race theory. That ideology in the United States would lose favor and generally be repudiated, because that same system of thinking of races as groups you could and should control the breeding of would give rise to Nazism and in particular the effort to exterminate Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals. To have the president give voice to those ideas is profoundly dangerous for the country.”