Politicians have been using code words for many years [Remember “states rights,” one of the all-time classic code words, meaning institutionalized segregation and racism?] In 2016, we may have established a new record: It seems that there are more new “dog-whistle” words and phrases in this cycle than in any previous era.
I’m going to attempt to list and analyze some of these new words later in this post. But first, a definition and a bit of history.
Wikipedia defines political code, otherwise known as “dog-whistle politics,” as:
…Political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is often used as a pejorative because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently distasteful to the general populace. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.
But you knew that already.
You may not know—as I didn’t—that, in 1981, infamous Republican political trickster Lee Atwater described the evolution of political code—specifically “states rights”– in a very non-academic, realpolitik [and highly offensive] way that we all can understand and abhor: Wikipedia quotes him as saying:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—–, ” “N——,” “N——-..” By 1968, you can’t say “n——-” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—-. n—–.”
That’s about as direct a definition as you can get. And that way of speaking in political tongues has not gone away. The difference today is that there’s a lot more of it.
But to get back to academics just for one paragraph: You may vaguely remember your high-school or college years, when some English professor or another tested you on rhetorical terms, one of which was “metonymy.” That’s the figure of speech that replaces the name of a thing with the name of something else with which it is closely associated. Example: Using “the Crown” to refer to the English monarchy. [Remember learning the differences between metonymy and simile, metaphor and synechdoche? Yeah, me neither.]
Anyway, political code words and phrases are examples of metonymy.
So, here are some of the newer examples of political code words and phrases, with my personal, unofficial, un-dictionary-ike translations:
Make America Great Again
Translation: Preserve the dominance and unquestioned political ascendancy of white males. Keep America ‘pure. Stop letting immigrants ‘steal’ our jobs. Stop letting these pesky women, with their ideas about equal pay, gain power in the boardroom and in politics. Let’s go back to the days when white people ran the country and we didn’t have to attend to the needs of minorities or even associate with them or acknowledge ‘their’ existence.
Republican Mike Pence slipped this in during the 2016 Vice Presidential debate.Translation:“Men are better warriors. Women [Hillary Clinton, of course], with their narrower shoulders, weak female bodies and yukky monthly menstrual cycles, aren’t manly or aggressive enough to stand up for America. Women do not belong in the military—they are destroying morale.
Donald Trump and his surrogates use this term to describe his followers.Translation: angry, alienated, willing to call people names, prone to using racial, xenophobic and misogynistic slurs and even resorting to violence.
Hillary Clinton used this label to describe some of Trump’s supporters. See ‘Passionate.”
Trump says that Hillary Clinton lacks the stamina to be President. Translation: Testosterone, balls, masculinity. Basically, she’s a woman: They bleed from their ‘whatever.’.
The Presidential look
According to Trump, Hillary doesn’t have it. Translation: Only men can be presidents.
The term du jour that attempts to sanitize, with a new name,the extreme right-wing of the Republican party. Translation: People, organizations, websites, bloggers and news outlets that espouse extreme, radical, white supremacist, nativist hate. Much more muscular than the Tea Party. Not to be confused with traditional Republican conservatism, which is mild and wimpy by comparison.
Caught on tape bragging about his own entitlement to engage in sexual assault, Trump dismisses the conversation as locker-room talk. Translation: Boys will be boys. This is normal conversation and behavior for males. We brag to each other about our sexual predilections, fantasies and conquests, and no one thinks there’s anything wrong with that. People who complain about it are wimps [not masculine like me]. Get over it. Women lie about sexual abuse all the time. Sexual abuse is not a problem.
This code word has different meanings when used by Trump and by Hillary Clinton.
Translation for Trump: She’s a woman. They cry. They complain. They’re weak. They lie. It’s all their fault. They’re ball-breakers and should just go back to changing diapers, getting our dinner on the table on time, and stop trying to take our power away from us. Also, see “stamina.”
Translation for Hillary Clinton: Donald Trump is psychologically unstable, thin-skinned, can’t take any criticism. His anger is out of control. He throws public temper tantrums. He’s an emotional 6-year-old who should not be trusted to use mature judgment when given the power of the presidency. He’s dangerous and unfit for public office. Bat-shit crazy and out of control.
Republican haters of Hillary Clinton, as well as political pundits and commentators [some of them women], have variously advised her to “smile more,” and “smile less.” Translation: Woman. Too ambitious. Not nice, not ladylike. Too strong. Too weak. Not attractive the way a lady should be. I just want to ogle women [the ones I think are attractive enough for me] and not have to listen to their “ideas.” Out of place in a world where males should be in charge. Too wonky for a woman—stop worrying your pretty little head about these things, little lady. And not just you, Hillary–all you gals. Just be pretty for me and serve my needs–that’s your job–be happy with what you’ve got..
Donald Trump and his minions claim that it’s a virtue to buck the prevailing norm of political correctness.Translation: We can be as offensive as we want to be. We can insult minorities, shame women, incite violence, and make up our own facts. We’re “outsiders,” so we don’t have to care about being diplomatic, or displaying common decency or courtesy. That’s for suckers, losers and touchy-feely left-wingers. We’re entitled to say anything at all, and who cares who gets hurt or whether we are permanently undermining the civility that is a basic underpinning of a democratic system. We won’t play by the rules. We’re having a tantrum, and you can’t stop us.
One final comment: Although code words are still very much in play–and we can expect more in the days and years to come–the dog-whistle world seems to be evolving. While coded language can be and is used to hide real sentiments, there’s a simultaneous trend toward just coming right out and expressing whatever offensive thing comes to mind at the moment. At least the use of code words served as a tacit acknowledgement that it was societally unacceptable to say some of this stuff outright. The way things seem to be going, it’s becoming more normal for people to talk openly and unabashedly about–and even act on–their worst impulses. And that may be even scarier than the code words themselves.