Danville Advocate-Messenger, Sept. 20, 2012
Something very shabby happened at an Aug. 21 Tea Party rally on the steps of Kentucky’s Capitol. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, state Sen. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown)
told the crowd that Obama should be sent back to Chicago or Hawaii, “wherever he wants to go.” Someone shouted out that the president should be sent to Kenya. Thayer replied, “I'm not going to say that, but I appreciate your sentiments.”
What were the “sentiments” that Thayer so “appreciated”? Did Thayer like the way that “Kenya” reminded the crowd that Obama is black, and also suggested he was an African foreigner, not of European descent like real Americans?
Was Thayer happy to have someone else use a word he didn’t dare use himself, one that evoked for this crowd all the racist images that have shown up on Tea Party placards and in viral emails circulating among the GOP “base”? Was he inviting his base to savor the message conveyed by depictions of Obama in white-face or as a witch doctor?
Thayer’s remark was an example of a favorite Republican campaign tactic: the racial “dog whistle.” Literal dog whistles have a high-frequency sound that dogs can hear but not humans. The GOP dog whistles consist of code words or phrases like “Kenya,” “inner-city,” “states’ rights” and “welfare.” These have both an everyday meaning and an additional one that registers with the racist minority that is an important section of the party’s base.
“Kenya” reminds people of the “birther” controversy. Birthers say that Obama is not a legitimate president because he is not a natural-born American. Adam J. Berinsky, a Professor of Political Science at MIT, reports that as of July, 2012 only 31% of self-identified Republicans believe Obama was born in the U.S. The rest (69%) either believe he was not born in this country (33%) or are unsure (36%).
On July 27, 2009 Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of Hawaii’s Health Department certified that she had “seen the original vital records. . . verifying Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawai'i and is a natural-born American citizen.” Then came assurances from Hawaii’s Republican governor Linda Lingle, and the White House release of an official copy of the Obama’s birth certificate in April of 2011.
Yet, according to Professor Berinsky, the percentage of Republicans doubting or denying Obama’s birth in the U.S. is essentially unchanged. Nothing will convince them, for the simple reason that they cannot accept the idea that a Black man really is our President.
Three days after Sen. Thayer’s performance in Frankfort, Mitt Romney spoke at a rally in Commerce, Michigan. He used the occasion to blow a big birther dog whistle at the crowd: “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”
Donald Trump is a very prominent birther. Yet Romney happily shared the stage with him in Las Vegas, to receive his endorsement. He even invited him to speak at the Republican national convention—a treat denied to us when the first day of the convention was cancelled because of hurricane Isaac.
When asked by reporters about his willingness to be associated with an outspoken birther, Romney replied: “I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in. But I need to get 50.1 percent or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people." “Good people”? Trump is living proof that you can be very successful in business without wisdom, decency or class.
According to a Pew Research poll released in July of 2012, 34% of self-described conservative Republicans and 19% of moderate Republicans believe Obama is Muslim. Sticking this tag onto the President taps into the epidemic of Islamophobia in this country. Obama becomes the perfect Other—a Black Kenyan Muslim, an object of hate and fear for a rabid GOP base. They can feel free to pile on him other tags such as communist, socialist, or Nazi, stripped of any meaning except Evil Alien.
The base’s racist hatred even descends to animal imagery, as you can see if you google “obama monkey images.” Consider this ‘joke’ emailed by Montana's U.S. District Chief Judge, George W. Bush nominee Richard Cebull on Feb. 12:
"A little boy said to his mother; 'Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white?' His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!' "
Of course it’s not the case that every Republican or Tea Party adherent is a racist. However, the disease afflicting the current GOP is that it can’t risk a clear, ringing condemnation of these views because it needs the votes of those who hold them. What we get instead is winking and dog whistles.