Nation

With ambiguity and euphemism, extremists are showing their skill in bending words

White nationalist Richard Spencer spoke to media members in his office in Alexandria, Va., on Monday. Spencer, self-described creator of the term “alt-right,” said he would speak at Texas A&M University and the University of Florida in September.
Alex Wroblewski/The New York Times
White nationalist Richard Spencer spoke to media members in his office in Alexandria, Va., on Monday. Spencer, self-described creator of the term “alt-right,” said he would speak at Texas A&M University and the University of Florida in September.

WASHINGTON — Ambiguity. Euphemisms. Dog whistles.

The coded language of the white supremacist playbook has been displayed in abundance since the Charlottesville, Va., rally exploded in violence Saturday, sowing confusion for the public and masking the sentiment behind some of the responses.

Trump’s initial, vague statement — and even some elements of his more specific denunciation Monday, two days after the protests horrified the nation — heartened extremist groups, who are adept at weaponizing ambiguous language and who cited Trump’s language as vindication.

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A prime example of the groups’ rhetorical tactics: a “Free Speech Rally” that may take place Saturday on Boston Common with scheduled speakers who have espoused white supremacist views.

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The feel-good title of the rally is intended to divert attention from its purpose of sowing racial discord, said Ian Haney Lopez, a racial justice professor at University of California Berkeley’s law school who has written a book on racial “dog whistles.”

“When you use a phrase like ‘free speech’ to mobilize those who are racially fearful, it switches the conversation. It pretends that the conversation is about the right to express unpopular views — which is a quintessential American value that is enshrined in our Constitution — when in fact, the dynamic is about the expression of ugly views of racial prejudice,’’ Lopez said.

Trump has previously been criticized for repeatedly talking about violence in “inner cities” and his multiple warnings about “thugs,” coded words often used to invoke stereotypical images of black men.

On Saturday, when he first addressed Americans in response to the Charlottesville rallies, he told the country to “cherish our history,” which some took as code that he was weighing in on the side of preserving Confederate memorials.

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“That was a very interesting comment,” white nationalist Richard Spencer, a founder of the “alt-right’’ movement told the Times of Israel. “I think there is reason to believe he wants an America where we can look back upon the Civil War as a deeply tragic event, but we can honor great men, like Robert E. Lee.”

Spencer told reporters Monday, after the president’s recent round of remarks, that he did not believe Trump had repudiated white nationalists or the “alt-right’’ movement, which combines elements of nationalism, racism, and populism.

“I don’t think he condemned it, no,” Spencer said. “Did he say white nationalist? ‘Racist’ means an irrational hatred of people. I don’t think he meant any of us.”

Hate groups have long worked to mask their views behind traditionally accepted language, in an attempt to make them more palatable to the public. Instead of denouncing America’s increasing ethnic diversity, they created the phrase “reverse-racism.” The term “alt-right” was born to rebrand white supremacist ideology as Internet friendly and cutting-edge.

The use of dog whistles — a cloaked political message that can only be understood by a particular group, much as dogs can hear whistles of certain frequencies that humans cannot — has become more common.

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American politicians have a bipartisan history of deploying coded words to dance around the topic of race. Lee Atwater, the Republican political consultant and former confidant to Ronald Reagan, had his infamous “Southern Strategy,” which he explicitly said was created to disenfranchise black Americans without being called racist.

‘Did he say white nationalist? “Racist” means an irrational hatred of people. I don’t think he meant any of us.’

Richard Spencer, white nationalist, on President Trump’s latest remarks about the violence in Charlottesville, Va. 

Reagan, during his presidential campaign of 1976, pushed a narrative that some black women were lazy and manipulating government aid. Hillary Clinton blasted youths in gangs as “super-predators.”

Where Trump stands out, however, is the specific way he emboldens white nationalists, said specialists who study racism in America. Trump “eradicates distinctions” by being uniquely obtuse and coded about his racial messaging, said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Information.

Instead of overtly criticizing then-President Barack Obama’s race, Nunberg said, Trump peddled the myth that the first black president was born in Kenya. On Saturday, Trump embraced a false equivalence between the bigots and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, condemning violence on “many sides.”

“There’s a cultural battle that’s going on that Trump is engaged in — and part of that is a redefinition of what is factual,” said Sam Fulwood, a fellow on race at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. “If they can redefine racism as what’s against white men . . . then they’re able to impose their will on society.”

Even in his stronger statement Monday, Trump denounced the Ku Klux Klan along with neo-Nazis and “other hate groups,” which he did not define. Combined with the fact that it took him days to address the criticism, experts said, this is the type of ambiguity that the extremist groups rely upon.

Many people posting in online forums, which often serve as testing grounds for the white nationalist ideology, said they saw hope in Trump’s statements. They pointed to his phrase “other hate groups,” which they interpreted as a nod to their main targets: civil rights organizations who advocate for nonwhites.

“He left the door open,” wrote one user on Reddit.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights organization based in Alabama that has tracked extremists groups for years through its blog “Hatewatch,” said extremists groups see Trump as a “champion.”

Part of this is the language he and his close advisers used on the campaign trail and on Twitter, including the sharing of popular white nationalist memes and using phrases such as “cuckservative,” a term combining cuckold and conservative that is used to describe Republicans seen as traitors.

In a post on its home page, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Richard Cohen, said Trump’s responses to Charlottesville will be interpreted by the “alt-right” as a nod of approval, a license that allows them to become more emboldened.

This also happened when Trump, during the 2016 campaign, took days to denounce the endorsements of David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, and the Klan at large.

Cohen said extremist groups saw that and took heart. And he said they would be encouraged again, after the president’s response to Charlottesville.

“I’m sure white supremacists remain reassured,’’ he wrote, “that they have a friend in the White House.”

Astead W Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.