When a politician says “Can I be honest?” it’s a signal that he hasn’t been honest so far, and what will follow is likely to be spin. In the case of QAnon, Trump tried to have it both ways. He does this a lot.
In 2016, Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I know nothing about David Duke.” As even the most casual news consumer knows, Duke is a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who, as a student, wore a Nazi-style uniform on campus at Louisiana State University. (In 1991 when he was running for office, Duke said he disavowed Nazism and the Klan, explaining
that that he had come to express, instead, “my love for Western civilization.” In July, Twitter permanently banned
Duke for repeatedly violating its rules on hate speech, including with anti-Semitic posts.
Trump had previously talked about him publicly
— at least
three times — but when Tapper asked about Duke’s endorsement
of his 2016 campaign, then candidate Trump drew a blank.
In that same interview with Tapper, in fact almost in the same breath, Trump said, “I know nothing about White supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.”
Trump has played this ignorance card many times, leaving the impression that he’s unconcerned
about the racist ideology that powers men like Duke. White supremacy was very much in evidence
at the violent 2017 Unite the Right
event in Charlottesville. At that time, after one rallygoer killed a counter protester
with his car, Trump noted there were
“very fine people on both sides.”
In the uproar that followed his “very fine people” observation, the President did condemn White supremacy
. But coming just days after the torch-bearing marchers had shocked the country with chants of “Jews will not replace us” it could seem to many as if Trump had succumbed to political pressure and that his original, spontaneous — “both sides” — statement was more authentic.
In the time since, White supremacists and their cousins the White nationalists, have apparently regarded Trump as a comrade
, if one who can’t proclaim his allegiance too loudly.
Trump performed the same dance of vague signals more recently when he claimed to reporters
, “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are.” To be clear, the Proud Boys are a violence-prone organization
that the FBI has classified
as an “extremist group with ties to White nationalism.”
Trump made his claim of ignorance
about the Proud Boys
the day after he had deflected a debate moderator’s request that he tell members of White supremacist groups to “not add to the violence.” “Proud Boys stand back and stand by,” was what Trump said at the debate, after Biden named the group. This statement was interpreted in the group’s ranks (as evidenced by a social media surge
), as a signal that Trump was their de-facto commander calling for them to be ready for action.
With his record of such coy statements, any claim the President makes to ignorance seems disingenuous at best. Although he cannot match Ronald Reagan’s performance as The Great Communicator
, Donald Trump has always known how to reach an audience with methods that might mark him as The Great Dog Whistler.
In politics, “dog whistles” are statements used by those who want to signal unsavory ideas to specific groups of listeners (who will readily understand what’s really being communicated), and in a way that allow for denials that may seem plausible to many viewers not familiar with these groups.
In the 2016 campaign, Trump’s attachment to birtherism (the claim that Barack Obama may not be American-born) was a racist dog whistle, as it had been for him for years. More recently his claim that his opponents
would “destroy your suburbs” has served a similar function. It tells White people that he will keep brown and Black people away from them. Similar bigotry seems to reside in the nickname he attaches to Senator Elizabeth Warren, the way he plays with the mispronunciation of Senator Kamala Harris’ name, and how he refers to Muslims.
Although some analysts see bigotry in QAnon
, its main ideas (if you can call them that) revolve around conspiracy theories about Democrats, celebrities and other powerful figures who the movement baselessly alleges control much of the world and secretly engage in all sorts of murderous and sadistic crimes.
Banned by major social media platforms, which deem QAnon dangerously extremist, the movement’s advocates often pose as defenders of children and along the way label figures they distrust as pedophiles. This is why the President said at the town hall, “They are very strongly against pedophilia. And I agree with that.”
It is a good thing to be against pedophilia but this aspect of the QAnon movement is a minor one. What matters is the flood of bizarre disinformation that emanates from believers
and the fact that they support Donald Trump. He cannot be ignorant of the “Q” signs carried by his rally attendees and the Q shirts and hats they wear. He must know too of the violence associated with QAnon. But as with David Duke, and the Proud Boys and the White nationalists, he just cannot bring himself to overtly reject anyone who might vote for him, no matter how dangerous they are.