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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.”
The racehorse theory is the belief that some humans have a better genetic endowment than others, and by breeding two superior people you end up with superior offspring. The belief in eugenics, the pseudoscience of trimming out “inferior” bloodlines to increase the quality of the gene pool, is part of a long, racist history in America, from forced sterilizations to research funded by the Carnegie Institution, among other wealthy foundations. Earlier this month, charges surfaced that a doctor at an ICE facility was performing unwanted and likely unnecessary hysterectomies on detained immigrant women, which would prevent them from having more children.
“It’s not just eugenics in theory, but it’s eugenics in practice,” said Steve Silberman, a historian whose book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” discusses 20th century theories of eugenics in both the United States and Nazi Germany.
“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.”
He has often cited a paternal uncle who was a professor at MIT as certifying his own superior intellect.
In a 2016 PBS documentary, Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio claimed Trump and his father were big believers in the concept of good breeding.
“This is a very deep part of the Trump story,” D’Antonio said. “The family subscribes to a racehorse theory of human development, that they believe that there are superior people, and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get superior offspring.”
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.”
“To have an audience that’s overwhelmingly white, that’s no surprise,” López continued. “What is shocking is to see the way in which rhetoric that has been coded is returning to a form of naked endorsements of white genetic superiority. Trump didn’t say ‘white genetic superiority,’ he just said ‘genes,’ so there’s still some slight cover.”
During the same speech Saturday, Trump also disparaged refugees. He has made Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee who won a seat in Congress from Minnesota in 2018, a frequent target of racist attacks. Omar is one of the first female Muslims ever elected to federal office.
“One of the most vital issues in this election is the subject of refugees,” Trump said Saturday. “You know it. You know it perhaps better than almost anybody. Lots of luck. You’re having a good time with the refugees. That’s good. We want to have Omar. He said Omar. That’s a beauty. How the hell did she win the election? How did she win? It’s unbelievable.”
“Every family in Minnesota needs to know about sleepy Joe Biden’s extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet,” Trump continued. “Well, that’s what’s happened, and you like Omar a lot, don’t you?”
More than 52,000 Minnesota residents trace their ancestry to Somalia, in East Africa. Trump had previously attacked them in 2016, stating that Minnesotans had “suffered enough” as a result of “filthy refugee vetting.” During a 2018 Oval Office meeting, Trump criticized protections for refugees from “s***hole countries” in Latin America and Africa while expressing a preference for immigrants from Norway.
According to a 2019 book from New York Times reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael Shear, Trump asked why he couldn’t ban refugees from “f***ing Somalia.” At a rally in October 2019, he promised to protect native-born Americans from an influx of immigrants from Somalia.
“In the Trump administration, we will always protect American families first, and that has not been done in Minnesota,” Trump said, adding, “We will not make the mistakes made in European countries and allow a violent ideology to take root in our country, on our shores. We’re not going to allow it to happen.”
López said one reason Trump continues to return to dog whistles is that, according to López’s research, it works.
“Trump in his own way has a more sophisticated understanding of how race works in American politics than many progressives or journalists,” López said. “Trump understands that the majority of Americans are susceptible to these messages of racial fear and understand them not as racism but as common sense. I say this not simply as an observer of Trump but as someone who ran two major research campaigns to figure out how this rhetoric is working and multiple dozens of focus groups and major polling campaigns. This sort of rhetoric comes across not just as convincing to majorities of whites but to majorities of Latinos, majorities of African-Americans, majorities of Democrats and majorities of union households.”
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