Dog Whistles: Donald Trump’s Messages to Racist Voter Base

In the complex landscape of American politics, messaging can be as subtle as it is powerful. Often, politicians use coded language or shortened ideas to get a larger point across. These shortened forms of the language are simply meant to convey a larger message more simply or succinctly, think “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, you can get across volumes of meaning by simply using these smaller terms.

Sometimes those shortened forms have hidden meanings. What may seem to be an innocuous off the cuff remark or benign phrase can mean different things to different people. “Dog Whistles” describes one type of language used in this manner. The term was coined to describe the use of coded language that communicates to a specific group while appearing innocuous to others, much like its namesake, a whistle that dogs can hear that is outside of the hearing range of humans.

Dog whistling is a prominent strategy in certain types of political discourse. It allows a politician to make a statement about an idea or a group of people that is heard loud and clear by supporters who agree with them, while giving them plausible deniability to those who want to challenge them on it. This is nothing new, and politicians have been using dog whistles for decades, think “law and order”, which many understand to mean “policing black and brown people”, or even Ronald Reagan’s famous “welfare queen” messages, which the world understood to mean “poor minorities”…even if there are more whites on welfare than any other ethnic group. Despite it being an old tactic, Donald Trump has used it far more than most.

Donald Trump’s history, campaigns and tenure in the White House was marked by numerous instances of dog whistling, particularly towards members of his voter base with racist inclinations. Let’s delve into some of these instances and explore the implications.

The Mexican “Rapists” and “Criminals” Narrative

One of the earliest and most infamous examples of Trump’s dog whistling was during his 2015 presidential campaign announcement speech. He stated, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” This rhetoric not only perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Mexicans but also served to galvanize a segment of the population with anti-immigrant sentiments.

While studies show that undocumented immigrants have substantially lower crime rates than native-born citizens and legal immigrants across a range of offenses, this dog whistle plays into the “us vs them” mentality of many in Trump’s base of support. He reinforced the erroneous idea that “they” are a danger while “we” are virtuous, even though relative to undocumented immigrants, US-born citizens are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.

“Both Sides” in Charlottesville

In the aftermath of the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally, where white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, Trump made a statement that drew widespread criticism. He asserted that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict. While ostensibly calling for unity, this statement effectively equated neo-Nazis and white supremacists with those opposing their ideologies.

This refusal to unambiguously condemn white supremacy emboldened hate groups, and led the more radical among his supporters to believe he shared their views. This later resulted in him telling the Proud Boys, a North American far-right, neo-fascist militant organization that promotes and engages in political violence, to “stand back and stand by”, when questioned about them during the 2020 Preseidential debates. A dog whistle he claimed was innocent, but, which the Proud Boys themselves took as an offering of support and a call to arms.

Referring to African Nations as “Shithole Countries”

During a 2018 meeting on immigration, Trump reportedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries.” This derogatory language not only denigrated entire nations but also underscored a disdainful attitude towards predominantly Black and brown populations. Such remarks resonated with individuals harboring racist sentiments, reinforcing perceptions of superiority and entitlement among certain segments of Trump’s base.

“The China Virus” and “Kung Flu”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” or “Kung flu.” While ostensibly naming the virus based on its geographical origin, these terms played into anti-Asian sentiment and fueled xenophobia. The use of such language not only shifted blame onto an ethnic group but also fueled discrimination and violence against Asian Americans.

The rise in violence against Asian Americans behind this rhetoric prompted numerous townhalls, think pieces, rallys and even the funding of an anti-hate program by President Joe Biden in late 2021, but, no clarification was forthcoming from Trump. He said what he said. He meant what he said. His followers believed him.

The Southern Border and “Invasion” Rhetoric

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump frequently used inflammatory language to describe immigration, particularly from Latin American countries. He often characterized migrants crossing the southern border as part of an “invasion,” invoking fears of cultural dilution and crime among his supporters. This rhetoric not only painted immigrants as a threatening force but also appealed to underlying xenophobic and racist sentiments within certain segments of the population. His words also gave credence to the “Great Replacement Theory” conspiracy championed by many white supremacist groups, that fosters the idea that a nefarious cabal is trying to replace white Americans with non-whote Americans in an effort to gain power.

Trump’s administration implemented controversial policies such as family separations and the “zero tolerance” policy, which resulted in the detention of migrant children in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. While ostensibly framed as measures to secure the border and uphold immigration laws, these policies disproportionately impacted communities of color and perpetuated harmful stereotypes about immigrants.

Law and Order: Targeting Communities of Color

During his presidency, Trump consistently championed a “law and order” agenda, often portraying himself as a defender of police and a harsh critic of the Black Lives Matter movement. His response to protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others further exacerbated racial tensions. Trump’s rhetoric emphasized a narrative of “us versus them,” with law enforcement positioned as protectors against perceived threats from minority communities.

Trump’s unwavering support for law enforcement, coupled with his vilification of protesters, served to perpetuate systemic racism and shield abusive police practices from accountability. By framing issues of police brutality and racial injustice as a matter of law and order, Trump effectively downplayed the systemic issues at play and undermined calls for meaningful reform.

Conspiracy Theories and White Supremacist Groups

Throughout his presidency, Trump was criticized for his reluctance to unequivocally denounce conspiracy theories and white supremacist groups. From his reticence to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory to his infamous “stand back and stand by” comment directed at the far-right Proud Boys during a presidential debate, Trump’s actions emboldened extremist elements within his base.

Trump’s failure to condemn these groups in clear terms not only legitimized their ideologies but also contributed to a climate of fear and division. The proliferation of conspiracy theories and the normalization of white supremacist rhetoric under Trump’s presidency underscored the dangers of mainstreaming extremist views and the need for vigilant opposition to hate speech and intolerance.

Donald Trump’s tenure in office was marked by numerous instances of alleged dog whistling, where coded language and divisive rhetoric appealed to racist sentiments within his voter base. From derogatory remarks about marginalized communities to inflammatory language about immigration and law enforcement, Trump’s messaging often amplified existing divisions and fueled tensions along racial lines. While his supporters applauded his unfiltered approach to politics, critics argued that his words and actions perpetuated bigotry and undermined the principles of equality and inclusivity. As the United States continues to grapple with issues of racism and systemic injustice, understanding and addressing the impact of dog whistling in political discourse remains paramount for fostering a more just and equitable society.

While these instances represent just a fraction of the controversial statements made by Donald Trump during his time in office, they shed light on a troubling aspect of contemporary politics: the use of dog whistles to appeal to racist sentiments within certain voter bases. While Trump’s supporters often defended his statements as blunt and politically incorrect, critics argued that they perpetuated division and bigotry. Understanding and recognizing dog whistling is crucial for fostering a more inclusive and equitable political discourse.


  1. “Donald Trump Presidential Campaign Announcement Full Speech (C-SPAN).” YouTube, uploaded by C-SPAN, 16 June 2015.
  2. “Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: ‘Some Very Fine People on Both Sides’.” The Atlantic, 15 Aug. 2017.
  3. “Trump derided Haiti, African nations as ‘shithole countries’.” The Washington Post, 12 Jan. 2018.
  4. “‘Kung flu?’ ‘Chinese Virus?’ Trump reignites racist terms for COVID-19.” NBC News, 24 June 2020.
  5. “Trump border wall: How much has he actually built?” BBC News, 20 Jan. 2021.
  6. “Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy: What’s happening at the border?” Fox News, 25 June 2018.
  7. “Trump’s Racially Charged ‘Invasion’ Rhetoric Rejected by Most Americans.” Pew Research Center, 7 Aug. 2019.
  8. “Trump Encourages Police Officers to Rough Up Suspects.” The New York Times, 28 July 2017.
  9. “Trump stands by comments on Charlottesville: ‘I think there is blame on both sides’.” CNN Politics, 16 Aug. 2017.
  10. “Trump’s ‘Stand By’ Remark Stuns Both Sides in Wake of Debate.” Bloomberg, 30 Sept. 2020.
  11. “Comparing crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas”, Michael T. Light, Jingying He, and Jason P. Robey and Douglas S. Massey, Princeton University, 5 Oct 2020

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