Decoding dogwhistles

Trigger warning: racism, anti-immigrant violence, deportation, police violence, ethnic cleansing

On Tuesday, Donald Trump became frustrated at a press conference. To journalist and eight-time Emmy Award winner Jorge Ramos, Trump responded to a line of questioning about how on earth he was going to deport millions of undocumented people by saying, “Go back to Univision.” In case the thinly veiled language is able to pass you by undetected, one of Trump’s supporters confronted Ramos after he was expelled from the event and made it even more explicit.

“Get out of my country, get out.”

Donald Trump himself did say “Univision”, a Spanish language news network based in the United States, but the implications of it, that Ramos did not belong in the room, were heard loud and clear and seized on almost immediately by someone less able or willing to hide the nature of what was being discussed. That slipping of the curtain behind what Trump said and what others correctly heard him mean is not only a confirmation that “dogwhistling” – the use of subtle language to indicate support for unpopular and extremist groups – will continue to be a key part of the Republican presidential primary, but also a confirmation of what many had already suspected about the specifics of the anti-immigration animus currently propping up Donald Trump.

Jorge Ramos is a US citizen. While he was born in Mexico, he immigrated at the age of twenty-four with a legal student visa. The following thirty-three years of his life, he has lived in the United States first on that visa and later as a naturalized citizen. Whatever political stance you take on undocumented immigration isn’t a stance that at least personally implicates him, and yet, the language ultimately used to dismiss him is identical to that used against undocumented people. That’s because, for all the bluster about legality and criminality, Donald Trump’s campaign doesn’t care about documentation of immigration, they care about immigration, full stop.

In hindsight, this is obvious. In his announcement that he was running, Trump famously spoke with open hostility towards undocumented immigrants from Mexico, stating they were intrinsically criminal people guilty of not only failing to obey immigration laws but also habitually engage in various violent crimes. His description actually doesn’t connect what he sees as an anti-social nature among those immigrant communities to their undocumented status, but rather their national origin. “Mexico sends” them, is how he put it – technically including legally documented Latin@ immigrants like Ramos, who left his birth country after facing pushback for critical coverage of the Mexican government. While the focus is on what’s possible policy-wise to do towards the undocumented, the political desire clearly expressed targets all immigrants regardless of documentation status.

The anti-immigrant politics defining Trump’s campaign only become more obvious from there. The first of his rallies to attract the size of crowd first associated with Bernie Sander’s populist rhetoric was in Mobile, Alabama, where he appeared on stage with Senator Jeff Sessions. His host has previously used his weight in the Senate to upend proposals about legal immigration – essentially he’s opposed to immigration in any form. Trump has added him to his team specifically to design immigration policy for him. Tellingly, this is what the crowd that greeted the two of them in Alabama looked like:

trump in mobileFrom here.

Alabama is in many ways not just the type of place where Trump draws the largest support but also the kind of population that Trump wants to create with the policy of all undocumented people being “returned”. Years of anti-immigrant policies culminated in Alabama in 2011 with the passage of a strict profiling-encouraging law inspired by an Arizonan forerunner. As many news outlets noted at the time, one of the most immediate impacts on Alabama was that many neighborhoods were in essence ethnically cleansed. As the New York Times put it –

“By Monday afternoon, 123 students had withdrawn from the schools in [Albertville, Alabama], leaving behind teary and confused classmates. Scores more were absent. Statewide, 1,988 Hispanic students were absent on Friday, about 5 percent of the entire Hispanic population of the school system.

John Weathers, an Albertville businessman who rents and has sold houses to many Hispanic residents, said his occupancy had suddenly dropped by a quarter and might drop further, depending on what happens in the next week. Two people who had paid off their mortgages called him asking if they could sell back their homes

[…]

Rumors of raids and roadblocks are rampant, and though the new law has nothing to say about such things, distrust is primed by anecdotes, like one told by a local Hispanic pastor who said he was pulled over outside Birmingham on Wednesday, within hours of the ruling. His friend who was driving — and who is in the United States illegally — is now in jail on an unrelated misdemeanor charge, the pastor said, adding that while he was let go, a policeman told him he was no longer welcome in Alabama.

‘I am afraid to drive to church,’ a 54-year-old poultry plant worker named Candelaria said, adding, ‘The lady that gives me a ride to work said she is leaving. She said she felt like a prisoner.'”

For many this is perhaps a not terribly revealing moment, but this marks an opening in which the motivations behind policy are being revealed, making them visible for some for the first time. What Donald Trump is running is at its core an anti-immigrant campaign that is built to validate what was said to Jorge Ramos – that this is a White person’s country and not his. The basic idea that Trump’s campaign sells is that Ramos shouldn’t feel entitled to ask questions as a journalist, that Latin@ people shouldn’t feel entitled to drive or go to school otherwise exist in the US publicly, that Candelaria shouldn’t feel entitled to go to church. The targeting of the undocumented for deportation is just the most visibly violent part of the system he’s trying to set up.

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