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Trump’s rise pushes GOP further right

Dog-whistle rhetoric alienates large segments of electorate

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 9/2/2015, 10:37 a.m.
At a news conference last week, Donald Trump told Mexican American news anchor Jorge Ramos — who is often called ...
Activists from Centro-Presente, an immigrants’ rights group headquartered in East Boston, were among those who turned out to protest Ernie Boch Jr.’s fundraiser for Donald Trump in Norwood last week. Raul Medina

At a news conference last week, Donald Trump told Mexican American news anchor Jorge Ramos — who often is called the Walter Cronkite of Latino America — to “go back to Univision” after he questioned the Republican presidential frontrunner about his immigration plan.

For many political observers, the comment was a form of racial dog whistling, a not-so-subtly coded way of saying, “Go back to Mexico.”

“I found his quite demonstrative approach in shutting him down in the way he did to be a kind of symbolic battle with the Latino presence in the United States,” says Matthew Hughey, co-author of the book, “The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama.” “It set Trump up to be this victorious, politically-incorrect white warrior. He was trying to send a message that he’s a man about business, he’s going to guard the border, and he’s not going to let people speak to him that way, especially people who aren’t white.”

But most of Trump’s rhetoric has been far more explicit. In June, the real estate mogul called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” accusing them of “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” into the United States. In July, he said that if elected president, he would build a wall along the Mexican border — and that Mexico would pay for it. In August, he called for the mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants and an end to birthright citizenship, which has been guaranteed since 1868 by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Hughey says that xenophobic and nativist language has been used throughout the history of American politics. What’s different about Trump is his use of explicit language in the post-Civil Rights era. “I find it striking that his comments are so overt in an era in which racist rhetoric is a lot more subtle and colorblind on the surface,” he says.

But Hughey isn’t surprised that this racism has resonated with a large segment of Americans. “Social scientists have found over the past decade an increasing amount of white victimization attitudes, in which whites feel that they are economically, socially and politically disenfranchised and discriminated against the most,” says Hughey, also associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. “Those attitudes are a 180 from the reality of the situation — when you look at political, social and economic wellbeing, whites are doing better than most people of color — but that reality doesn’t stop the attitude from proliferating.”

While many of Trump’s incendiary comments have shocked political observers, they haven’t shocked Latino voters, says Gabriel Sanchez, director of research for Latino Decisions, a leading Latino political opinion research group. “For most Latino voters, this is just piling on to the already existing baggage with the GOP on inflammatory immigration language,” he says. “It’s not as though Republican support is going to drop extensively, because it’s already at low levels.”

Trump’s platform isn’t too far off from other politicians’, explains Sanchez. Mitt Romney called for “self-deportation” in the 2012 election, and the Obama administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in U.S. history. Trump’s call to end birthright citizenship also isn’t new: In 2011, four Republican congressmen introduced legislation to do the same thing. “Post-2006, the political climate surrounding immigration policy has been pretty rough for Latinos,” says Sanchez, “so this is just another more recent example of the same rhetoric.”