Jenny Saul on ‘racial fig leaves’

Jenny Saul has an interesting article in the Huffington Post about Donald Trump and the phenomenon she labels ‘racial fig leaves’. Many of us are familiar with the political use of ‘dog whistles’ – subtle political messages meant to appeal to biases without explicitly championing those biases, or in some cases to appeal to a target audience without being readily identifiable as such an appeal to those who aren’t the target audience. But, as Jenny points out, Trump’s rhetoric is a long way from the subtlety of dog whistle politics:

Donald Trump is no dogwhistler: he proudly tosses around racial terms, paired with the most hideous stereotypes. And he rises, and rises, and rises in the polls. Does this mean that the Norm of Racial Egalitarianism is no longer in place? I’m not so sure. Some of Trump’s supporters clearly reject this norm, openly advocating white supremacy. But there is no reason to believe that this group of voters ever accepted it–the norm was widely accepted, but not universal. So what of the other supporters? It seems to me that two important things are happening: First, Trump is employing another technique in place of a dogwhistle, one which still allows supporters to believe that he (and so they) are not racist. And second, he’s revealing just what a shallow and limited norm Racial Egalitarianism is.

The technique Trump has been employing is one I’ll call the “racial figleaf”. It involves uttering what would otherwise be clearly a racist claim, and then following up with something that just barely covers it. On some level, we all know what’s there–something you’re not supposed to show in public–but the figleaf lets us avoid acknowledging it.

As she points out, the phenomenon of fig leaf discourse probably doesn’t explain the whole of Trump’s racist speech, but it’s at least an interesting aspect of it, and a clear departure from previous political discourse.