2022 midterms

Tommy Tuberville Doesn’t Understand How to Blow a Racist Dog Whistle

Tommy Tuberville brings some old-school Dixie racism to a rally in Nevada. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Since explicit, outspoken racism became unfashionable in the 1970s (at least in most parts of the country), conservative politicians have become adept at appealing to racist sentiments with just enough subtlety to pass a less discriminating smell test. This has occurred most frequently when crime is rising or is perceived to be rising, making racially tinged law-and-order messaging effective and sometimes ubiquitous. But since most voters don’t like to admit they are susceptible to racist appeals, it’s important to blow a dog whistle rather than to come right out with blatant bigotry.

The way to do this is to talk about the menace of runaway violent crime and the indifference of liberal lawmakers to this terrible scourge while showing images of Black and brown men who have committed or supposedly appear likely to commit crimes. As my colleague Matt Stieb recently noted, the classic pattern was set in a famous 1988 ad wherein George H.W. Bush’s campaign scared white voters with terrifying images of a Black convicted murderer named Willie Horton, whom Bush’s opponent Michael Dukakis had furloughed. Pennsylvania Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz’s “soft on crime” attacks on Democrat John Fetterman follow a similar pattern:

When the candidate under attack is a person of color, blowing the dog whistle gets even easier since the images of ostensibly scary non-white people can be more liberally sprinkled throughout the message to make this implicit point: Democrats are the party of criminals! This is happening in Wisconsin, where attacks on Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes hammer in that association:

Alabama Republican senator Tommy Tuberville apparently didn’t get the memo. Last weekend at a Republican Party rally in Nevada headlined by Donald Trump, Tuberville forgot the importance of subtlety and misdirection and just came out with an explicitly racist identification of Black people, crime, and Democrats:

If you can’t parse Tuberville’s rhetoric, he’s identifying reparations for Black people (which few Democratic politicians support) with reparations for criminals (which no one supports) and calling Democrats “pro-crime” rather than just “soft on crime.” “They want crime, to take over what you’ve got,” he concludes.

Punctuating this racist smear with an obscenity was a nice Trumpian touch from a senator who thinks of himself as a champion of Christianity and high moral standards:

Now Tuberville is famously not the sharpest tool in the GOP’s shed; perhaps he just got carried away by the excitement of a MAGA crowd. So far, other Republicans in Alabama, Nevada, and elsewhere have ignored the incident, aside from this defense offered by Alabama GOP chairman John Wahl.

“I did not watch the rally, so I don’t know the exact context of Senator Tuberville’s remarks. However, Coach Tuberville is well known for his work with people of all backgrounds, both on the field and off,” Wahl said. “His record and respect of others speaks volumes about his integrity and character.”

It’s unclear what sort of “context” could possibly justify what Tuberville said, but Wahl seems to be saying that because the longtime former college-football coach spent years ordering Black athletes around, he could not possibly be racist. One of his former star players at Auburn University, Karlos Dansby, however, did not agree that his coach was showing “respect of others.” Dansby called Tuberville’s comments “unnecessary, dead wrong, ugly.”

University of Alabama political scientist Richard Fording offered the obvious critique of his state’s junior senator. Per Alabama.com:

Fording said Tuberville’s comments lacked the subtlety of appeals to certain white voters and groups who are receptive to racist messages, appeals sometimes called “dog whistles.”

“There’s a lot of research on this kind of rhetoric and it’s a big turnoff for a lot of people,” Fording said. “The dog whistle works because it’s a dog whistle and subtle and not very explicit. So, yes, he went over the line in a lot of ways.”

Or maybe it’s just the new normal, circa 2022.

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Tuberville Doesn’t Know How to Blow a Racist Dog Whistle