Can Democrats Tie GOP Dog Whistlers to GOP Bigots?

by Michael Dorf

Since it became clear that Donald Trump was going to be the GOP nominee for the presidency, left-leaning commentators have been divided over how to characterize his bigoted statements regarding race, sex, and religion. One view holds that Trump is an outlier and a unique menace. I'll call this view Trump exceptionalism. The other view is that Trump simply states much more bluntly positions that are widely shared by Republican voters and other Republican politicians but that they are too polished to say expressly. I'll call this view Trump as GOP on truth serum.

My goal in this post is not to referee between exceptionalism and truth serum. For what it's worth, I think there are elements of both in any fair comparison between Trump and the majority of GOP politicians. My question here is whether Democrats can do a better job of making the argument for the truth serum view as a means of discrediting the GOP in this election and in future ones when, one hopes, Trump has gone back to private life.

First the conventional answer for why Trump exceptionalism has thus far dominated Trump as truth serum as the Democratic strategy: You try to win the election you're in. Speech after speech at the Democratic National Convention and the whole approach of the Clinton campaign aim to persuade the public that Trump is a unique menace who violates norms long accepted by Democratic and Republican candidates alike.

Promulgating Trump exceptionalism makes Democrats somewhat complicit in standard GOP dog-whistle bigotry, because it at least tacitly accepts that generic GOP rhetoric is not bigoted. Further, in the current election, Trump exceptionalism makes it harder for down-ballot Democrats to tie their Republican opponents to Trump, even as it helps Clinton broaden support for her presidential candidacy. It is therefore to be expected that over these last three weeks of the campaign, Clinton will continue to run on Trump exceptionalism while Democratic candidates for the House and Senate will run on Trump as truth serum.

I expect Trump exceptionalism to be more effective, except perhaps for those down-ballot Republicans who have tied themselves closely to Trump (either because they like him or, more likely, because they fear backlash from his supporters). In general, the truth serum approach has a limited audience. To explain why, I'll segment the electorate as follows:

1. Some portion of voters are committed Democrats. They already believe that Trump (and other offensive GOP candidates, like 2012 Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin) are simply stating more crudely what other GOP candidates say in code. They already believe that Trump is truth serum, so they don't need persuasion.

2. Another portion of voters are committed Republicans. Some of them hear and like the bigoted dog whistles. They fall into the deplorable basket. Arguing to them that Trump is substantively no different from other Republicans won't move them away from those other Republicans. Other committed Republicans (in the non-deplorable basket) wouldn't like to hear dog whistles and don't think that mainstream GOP candidates and elected officials use dog whistles; because they're committed to the team, they're effectively unreachable too.

3. Some voters are engaged in and care about politics but don't align neatly with either the Democratic or Republican coalition. Whether or not registered as Independents, they are effectively independent. They might be across-the-board libertarians. Or they might be social conservatives who favor active government social spending. Either way, in a typical Democratic-versus-Republican election, they need to decide which of their commitments are more important to them. These voters are sufficiently engaged that they will either be attracted to or turned off by the underlying policies of Republican candidates who make politer versions of Trumpian points, whether or not they equate those policies with dog whistles. A voter who is, say, a libertarian who generally votes Republican despite the fact that GOP politicians use dog whistles knows about the dog whistles and doesn't like them but thinks that other issues matter more. Persuading such a voter about the dog whistles is not necessary and thus ineffective.

4. That leaves just one group of voters who need to be and in theory could be persuaded that the likes of Trump, Akin, and Maine Governor Paul LePage are really just generic GOP politicians on truth serum: non-deplorable voters who are independent because they are "low information."

Let me be clear that I'm using "low information" as a term of art. Lots of voters with strong political views on the right or the left are "low information" in the sense that they believe things that are contrary to actual information, i.e., are false. E.g., Barack Obama is a Muslim; global warming is a hoax; 9/11 was an inside job; vaccines cause autism. That's not what I mean by "low information voters." I mean what political scientists mean: voters without a lot of information about politics. One could be an erudite genius about any number of subjects and still be a low information voter (although general ignorance will usually correlate with low information in the technical sense). The key point is that a low information voter doesn't know much about politics and doesn't care enough to find out. He or she knows and cares enough to vote, but that's about it.

Now we come to the difficulty. Suppose you want to persuade a low information voter that Donald Trump's incendiary rhetoric is merely generic Republican dog whistles plus truth serum. How are you going to do so? You would need to compare what Trump says with what other Republican candidates and officials say and do. But that's a pretty complicated task. You'll need to get and hold the attention of your audience, which is almost by definition impossible for low information voters. Worse, your efforts will be countered by Republicans wishing to distance themselves from Trump et al. The game isn't worth the candle.

Thus, I conclude that in addition to whatever tactical tradeoff the Clinton campaign is making, the more general phenomenon of Trump exceptionalism wins out over Trump as GOP truth serum because there's no truly reachable audience for the latter.

That conclusion is likely to be strengthened in future elections for two reasons.

1) With Donald Trump constantly in the news saying something outrageous, it is at least possible right now to get a little bit of the attention of low-information voters and to point out that he is after all running as a Republican. That may not count for much, but it probably counts for something. It's why Democrats have a decent chance of winning the Senate and an outside shot at the House. But assuming Trump loses, in future elections in which he is not on the ballot, Republican candidates can simply follow the same basic strategy that Mike Pence used in the Vice Presidential debate: "Donald Trump? Never heard of him." Low-information voters will not remember the nuances of which GOP politicians distanced themselves by what degree from Trump.

2) Indeed, in future elections, Trump could actually be useful for GOP dog whistlers. A Republican politician who caters to Islamophobia by opposing resettling any Syrian refugees will say that he never called for banning all Muslims from entering the country. One who opposes a path to citizenship for longtime resident undocumented immigrants to appease his nativist base will say that he never proposed building a gigantic border wall or called an Indiana-born judge biased simply because of his Mexican ancestry. And a Republican elected official who votes against equal rights for women will say that he never advocated or practiced sexually assaulting women. By defining deviancy down, Trump has made it easier for future politicians to maintain plausible deniability when they dog whistle racism, sexism, and xenophobia.