BY STEWART SLATER
Dog whistles work because they are inaudible to humans. Accusing a politician, therefore, of using “dog-whistle politics” – couching a (usually controversial) message to their core supporters in terms the general public do not notice – is formally self-refuting for doing so implies that it can be understood not just by the target audience, but also by the opposition. If that is so, however, the “dog whistle” is just a whistle. For the metaphor truly to work, the message needs to be so far removed from the understanding and concerns of the wider public that it sails straight over their heads, as when film-makers insert jokes aimed at adults into cartoons aimed at children.
Accusing Donald Trump of dog-whistle politics for his use of the phrase “America First”, previously associated with isolationism and the Ku Klux Klan, is therefore inapt. The history of that period is too well-known, and racism too central to the concerns of the left for them not to notice. But there is an area with which liberals, generally, have little experience and with whose language they are unfamiliar, and that makes it ripe territory for dog-whistling: religion.
The observation that Republicans are more likely to be religious than Democrats has been made so often that it has acquired its own name – the “God Gap”. In 2008, 28% of the latter claimed to have no religious affiliation, compared to 12% of the former. By 2021, the difference had widened to 45%-19%. Among those who do claim to be members of a religion, the figures are even more striking. About 80% of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump twice.
The 45th President may not be most people’s idea of a devout Christian, but he is a salesman. He knows (as he has often told us) how to close a deal. Part of that involves winning over his potential clients by making them believe he is on their side and shares their concerns. Given the well-documented facts of his past, it is hard for him to pretend to live a Christian life, but he can use Christian language, particularly terms which have a specific meaning to that community to suggest that he is one of them. If that meaning is not widely known, then he can dog-whistle.
Trump has a well earned reputation for hyperbole. From claims of 1.5mn people attending his inauguration (roughly 600,000 according to the New York Times), to his assessment of a deal with China as “the greatest and biggest deal…in the history of our country” to his current self-characterisation as “the most innocent man in history”, bombast is what he does and he has been open about using it. When he talks about the next election as “the final battle” or casually discusses nuclear war during his post-arraignment press conference, therefore, it is easy to write such phrases off as standard Trumpian flights of rhetorical fancy. To one group of his supporters, however, these terms have a very concrete meaning.
Christians have long debated the exact status of the Old and New Testaments. Does the latter supersede the former, does it add to it, or is it to be used as the key to the former’s interpretation? One solution was proposed in the 1800’s by John Nelson Darby, who, drawing on the work of earlier theologians, created Dispensationalism, dividing history into a series of “dispensations” during which God has a different relationship with man. As a result, the New Testament builds on the Old, reflecting a new compact between humanity and the divine. This does not, however, invalidate the latter for it is still the word of God from which He has not resiled and both are, therefore, to be taken seriously and, for Dispensationalists, literally.
Although there is debate over exactly how many dispensations there are (the range is three to eight, with seven the most popular choice), the vast majority see mankind as living in the period before the return of Christ and, as such, are described as “pre-millennial” in reference to his prophesied 1000 year reign. Much attention has, therefore, been given to how the transition to the final Dispensation will occur. Although the specifics differ between accounts, most tell of a seven year period during which the Earth will be ruled by the Anti-Christ before Christ will return to defeat him in battle at Megiddo (Armageddon), ushering in the Millennium. This period is known as The Tribulation, when humanity suffers near constant disasters such as disease, earthquakes and war. In most accounts, the faithful avoid these by being taken up to Heaven before the start, but some place this “Rapture” halfway through the Tribulation, after the Anti-Christ has raised a statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem, demanding to be worshipped as a god (an event which also occurs in so-called “pre-Tribulation” accounts).
While the Temple of Jerusalem has yet to be constructed, a necessary precondition is the return of the Jewish people to Israel, an event achieved with the foundation of the modern state in 1948. With the countdown to the Apocalypse thus having started, Dispensationalists use a check-list derived from the Book of Ezekiel for Israel’s progress in the run-up to the return of the Messiah. The land will become fertile as it is tilled and sown (v.9), cities will be rebuilt and inhabited (v.10), the land will be repopulated by the Jewish people (v.10-12) and the Israelis will take possession of it (v.12). With the first two achieved in the early decades of the modern state, attention has turned to the latter, as is shown in the documentary “Til Kingdom Come” which chronicles the links between American evangelicals and the Israeli settler community. The Trump administration is seen by some as having promoted the fulfilment of these prophecies by abandoning America’s traditional opposition to Jewish settlements in contested areas and moving the country’s embassy to Jerusalem. It is partly for this reason that the former President is so popular with evangelical voters – he may not be godly, but he is working to bring about God’s Kingdom.
The Real Dog Whistle
With this background, it is easy to see a second layer of meaning in many of Trump’s seemingly bombastic utterances. His first campaign speech featured references to the “final battle” after which “their reign will be over”. To those of Dispensationalist views, this would bring to mind the battle of Armageddon which will end the Anti-Christ’s time in power. Even the setting was suggestive, with the speech being delivered at Waco, Texas, site of the compound of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic sect raided with fatal consequences by the F.B.I. in 1993. While there is little doubt that the allegations made against the cult-leader, David Koresh, were true, for many on the evangelical right, the event has become emblematic of an ungodly government persecuting true believers by taking away their ability to defend themselves.
His post-arraignment speech in the less theologically inspiring surrounds of Mar a Lago, contained references to nuclear war and people who want to “destroy America”. The latter is a necessary condition for the Anti-Christ who will lead a “one world government”, while nuclear weapons are one of the many travails speculated to afflict the world during the Tribulation (one is used against Chicago in The Remnant, part of the popular Dispensationalist Left Behind series of sixteen books and five films).
A dog-whistle is useless without dogs to hear it. Approximately 25% of Americans are evangelical, but it is difficult to say exactly how many are Dispensationalists, as not all churches under that broader label subscribe to the beliefs. The Left Behind series, which follows its heroes from the Rapture (as the title suggests, they are not included), through the Tribulation (they fight the Anti-Christ under the name of “Tribulation Force”) until the Final Victory, gives, however, some idea of the cultural import of Dispensationalism. Selling eighty million copies may not rank them with J.K. Rowling, but it is on a par with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Da Vinci Code and about twice those high school perennials To Catch a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby. More concretely, eleven million Americans have joined “Christians United for Israel”, founded by Texas pastor John Hagee, who has made Dispensationalist statements, which campaigns for the renewal of Israel as envisaged in Ezekiel.
If the dog-whistle has a wide potential audience, it is also clear that at least some of them are listening. Although Q-Anon believers and the Proud Boys attracted most of the attention following the Capitol Riot, there was also a significant evangelical presence – “We are fighting good versus evil, light versus dark” one told the New York Times. Research into posts on the social media site Parler in the run-up to the event unearthed numerous references to Dispensationalist beliefs – “if all is lost, it will be full confirmation that we are in The Tribulation”, “We are living in Biblical Times. Children of Light vs. Children of Darkness”. (Children of Light is another book series which is marketed as “End Times Christian Futuristic Fiction”, set between the Rapture and the Tribulation).
The events of January 6 show the risks posed by Trump’s rhetoric, risks which may be magnified in 2024. Not only does America have to cope with a further four years of polarisation, but the political situation is more amenable to being interpreted in a Dispensationalist fashion -the events of Biden’s term so far have included such staples of the Tribulation as plagues (the pandemic), natural disasters (the Turkish Earthquake) and war, and re-election would allow him seven years in power. A population primed to expect the end-times will find plenty of reasons to believe they are here and may behave accordingly.
To counteract this, Trump’s opponents need to become more aware of the beliefs of his followers, and use this knowledge to tailor their own messaging and avoid actions which reinforce his message. Summoning a leader to a hostile city to face a judicial process organised by a known opponent which may result in his (political) martyrdom may seem a pure matter of legal process to a secular mind, one educated in the religious beliefs of much of the country would see the potential symbolism of doing so the day after Palm Sunday. Describing the election as “a battle for the soul of America” as Joe Biden did in his video announcing his bid for re-election merely tells his opponents’ what they already think they know.
If the Democrats do not listen to what Trump’s audience actually hears, and he loses again, January 6th might just be the amuse bouche for America’s banquet of chaos.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.