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How right-wing conservatives are dog whistling about ISIS — and Latinos, too

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This story first appeared at BillMoyers.com.

This is the third in a series of posts that Ian Haney López, the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, will be writing in the weeks leading up to the November election.

Using severe orthodoxy to justify barbarous violence, the Islamic State in Syria is a major destructive force in the Middle East that demands the attention of the United States, prompting political leaders from President Obama on down to warn the American polity of the danger posed by ISIS.

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Strikingly, though, many Republicans have been depicting ISIS not primarily as a foreign concern, but as a domestic threat that may portend the invasion, and even the potential collapse, of our country. Especially in the repeated linkage of ISIS to security on the Mexican border, conservative warnings on ISIS seem to constitute a new form of dog whistle politics, the dark art of using coded terms to stir racial anxiety among voters.

First, the claims:

Representative Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, warned earlier this month: “It is true, that we know that ISIS is present in Ciudad Juarez or they were within the last few weeks.” He continued: “So there’s no question that they have designs on trying to come into Arizona… If unaccompanied minors can cross the border then certainly trained terrorists probably can to. It is something that is real.”

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in a CNN opinion piece published on September 10, explained how the nation must prepare to confront ISIS: “First and foremost, Washington should resolve to make border security a top priority finally, rather than an afterthought . . . in light of concerns about potential ISIS activities on our southern border.” First and foremost, we should combat ISIS by focusing on our southern border? Yes, Cruz explained, for “[a]s long as our border isn’t secure, the government is making it far too easy for terrorists to infiltrate our nation.”

Many other Republicans have pounded out the same dire warnings about ISIS on the Mexican border, including conservative luminaries such as Texas governor Rick Perry, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

But perhaps the clearest evidence that stoking fear about ISIS in Mexico is now standard Republican fare comes from a just-released television ad entitled “Protecting America’s Freedom” by moderate GOP politician Scott Brown, running for office in New Hampshire, far from the southern border.

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“Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country,” Brown intones, with steely gaze fixed on the camera. “President Obama,” he warns, seems “confused about the nature of the threat,” but, he assures voters, “[n]ot me. I want to secure the border, keep out the people who would do us harm and restore America’s leadership in the world.”

These claims about a domestic threat from ISIS are not merely “overblown” — for that term suggests exaggeration of some appreciable level of danger, when instead, as Politifact shows in parsing these claims, there are no credible sources for the allegation that ISIS stands poised to strike from the south.

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Similarly refuting such scare-mongering, The New York Times quoted Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser during Obama’s first term and now a scholar at Dartmouth: “It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic, with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems — all on the basis of no corroborated information.”

But if these warnings are baseless, they are nevertheless stirring panic in voters — as Newsweek recently bannered, “ISIS Paranoia Reaches America.” Partly as a result, The Washington Post reports, “The President’s approval on terrorism has plummeted and the GOP now holds a huge advantage on foreign policy.”

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Why do these absurd claims sway large swaths of voters? To understand, we must go back in history — past 2011, when then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed that Hezbollah was working in Mexico; further back even than the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan raised a cry against “terrorists and subversives [in Nicaragua] just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.” Those episodes help pedigree the current GOP incitements about terrorists on the southern border, but we need to go deeper to understand the source of this trope’s power, back to the origins of US immigration law.

Beginning in the late 1870s, responding to rising xenophobia against Chinese immigrants, Congress enacted its first laws restricting immigration, passing a series of ever-more draconian exclusion laws targeting that group. When it first considered these statutes, the Supreme Court faced two questions: why should Congress — as opposed to the states, as previously thought — have the power to control immigration; and how did the racial targeting of Chinese immigrants square with the recently enacted 14th Amendment, guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws”?

In Chae Chan Ping (1889), also known as the Chinese Exclusion Case, the Court subsumed the second question under the first, reasoning that Congress must be able to regulate immigration to protect national security — and, because the nation’s fate was at stake, implicit authority over immigration could not be constrained by other constitutional niceties, like the command of racial equality. This case remains good law today: in guarding the nation through its immigration powers, Congress may discriminate on racial grounds.

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But in what sense does power over immigration implicate national security? The Chinese Exclusion Case reasoned as follows:

It seemed impossible for [Chinese immigrants] to assimilate with our people, or to make any change in their habits or modes of living. As they grew in numbers each year the people of the coast saw, or believed they saw, in the facility of immigration, and in the crowded millions of China, where population presses upon the means of subsistence, great danger that at no distant day that portion of our country would be overrun by them, unless prompt action was taken to restrict their immigration.

Chinese immigration, the Court concluded, “was in numbers approaching the character of an Oriental invasion, and was a menace to our civilization.”

The Court did not talk of national security in military terms, but rather, as a racial clash. At stake was the security of the United States as a white nation. In the 19th century, the notion of a white America was commonplace — indeed, as the historian Reginald Horsman masterfully demonstrated, it’s the foundation of Manifest Destiny, which depicted Anglo-Saxons as rightfully taking possession of North America from coast to coast, justly displacing racially inferior Indians and Mexicans. Chinese immigration did not threaten United States sovereignty so much as it risked eroding America’s putative whiteness.

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Today, of course, frank pronouncements that this is a white country are far more rare in mainstream discourse — though not entirely absent, as the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington demonstrated a decade ago in an article titled “The Hispanic Challenge” that appeared in the pages of the establishment journal Foreign Policy. “America was created by 17th- and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British, and Protestant,” Huntington argued, and their “values, institutions, and culture provided the foundation for and shaped the development of the United States in the following centuries.” In allegedly refusing to adopt “the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers,” Huntington warned, Hispanics threaten to sunder the country.

Though Huntington was a throwback in his frankness, he put into words a gut feeling shared by some whites — that white enterprise and values made this country; that this is and should remain a white nation. This pervasive sentiment is contested by many, including many whites, of course, who point out the contributions in labor, politics and culture made by nonwhite groups across American history. Nevertheless, the intuitive certainty that this is a white country endures, forming a powerful undercurrent that conservatives seek to convert into Republican votes.

To be clear, those who respond to this sort of dog whistling are not closet Klan members; quite the contrary, they are decent folks who oppose racism, people who would be quick to repudiate any politician who openly asked them to support continued white dominance. Nevertheless, many whites see the world in racially inflected ways, and sympathize with warnings that subliminally trigger fears of an America in racial transition.

This is the import of “the southern border” as a core feature of the GOP’s current terrorist meme. There’s relatively little discussion of ISIS agents entering the country through airports, visa in hand, as the 9/11 attackers did, and as government officials warn is a more realistic scenario (though still one which remains highly unlikely). And there’s almost no talk of that other porous border to the north — not even from Scott Brown, campaigning in New Hampshire.

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Instead, the spotlight is on the border with Mexico, in a way that combines fear of terrorism in the Middle East with metastasized anxiety over Latino newcomers. Just as with the Chinese more than a century ago, Hispanic immigration is often decried in the rhetoric of a flood, an invasion, a threat to our way of life.

Delving into this negative framing of Hispanics, anthropologist Leo Chavez writes in The Latino Threat: “But if there has been one constant in both pre- and post-9/11 public discourse on national security, it has been the alleged threat to the nation posed by Mexican and other Latin American immigration and the growing number of Americans of Mexican descent in the United States.” As in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Case, so too with Hispanics today: “national security” has nothing to do with military danger; rather, it implicates the security of the United States as a white nation.

It’s easy to shrug off as farcical the warnings of Cruz, Brown and other GOP figures about an ISIS invasion from the south — and then to look askance at those voters who credit such evident absurdities. But this misses the point. ISIS on the southern border is a dog whistle. Decoded, it’s a warning not of any actual military threat, but of accelerating demographic change. This is the real panic that the GOP seeks to harness in the voting booth.

Ian Haney López, a UC Berkeley law professor and senior fellow at Demos, is the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014). His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times. Follow Ian Haney López on Facebook and Twitter: @dogwhistlerace

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