By Kyle Kusz
For the past year, I’ve been reading, collecting articles, taking notes, and generally doing what academics do trying to carefully make sense of the specific cultural ideas, logics, and performances that orient the wave of white supremacy that Donald Trump has stoked and ridden since he surprisingly emerged from the Republican primaries as the GOP’s nominee for president.
From the very start—and then time and time and time again—Trump has marked his candidacy by a nasty undertow of irrational fear and loathing of a host of racial, ethnic, and religious groups who are (once again) being scapegoated for changes taking place in American culture and society. It has been frightening to watch the unvarnished hostility and physical violence that some Trump supporters have unapologetically displayed at his rallies—especially when The Donald himself has spurred on such violence from the safety of his podium.
And it has been disheartening to observe countless television news commentators show reluctance to link Trump’s rhetoric and strongman antics to our national history of white supremacy, even as more and more on-line journalists began exposing the sordid details of Trump’s long personal history of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, hiring of undocumented workers, and regular habit of tweeting with, and drawing ideas from, members of the White Right. But perhaps this averseness to naming the various strands of white supremacist ideas and logics from which Trump draws his beliefs occurs because most white commentators—like so many white Americans—have only ever been acquainted with a whitewashed fantasy of American racial history. You know, the one that usually begins with Jackie Robinson (but rarely forgets Branch Rickey), empathizes with sweet, old, ‘tired’ Rosa Parks, only knows the King who spoke about the content of one’s character, and cites Oprah, Michael, Tiger, Barack and Michelle, and The Blindside as comprehensive evidence that the much-publicized post-racial good times that all Americans are said to enjoy today.
Of course, Trayvon, Sandra, Jordan, Philando, Eric, Renisha, Colin and so many others know better.
But as someone who has spent the last fifteen years studying the ways the ideas and logics of white male backlash politics have played out within sports media, watching Trump’s candidacy—marked as it has been by its ever-escalating vitriol, its disregard for facts, and its mind-blowing ability to bend the world to its paranoic fantasies—has seemed almost surreal, and yet not completely surprising.
It is important to keep in mind that Trump has not invented these ideas and logics, nor is he the first American politician to practice them on a national stage. On one level, he’s just another in a long line of white politicians who have dropped in on one of these persistent waves.
Three texts in particular have been particularly useful to driving home this point for me. Melissa Harris Perry’s commentary in The Nation helped me understand how the white hysteria expressed toward the Obama presidency by the recent Tea Party movement more accurately paralleled white Southern reaction to Reconstruction in late 19th century American history than the American revolution against the British. Next, James Baldwin’s amazing The Fire Next Time so eloquently conveyed the amazing strength of so many black folks who stand up in the face of these persistent waves. And while less heart-wrenching than Baldwin’s Fire, Stephen Kantrowitz’s excellent book, Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy introduced me to the story of Ben Tillman, a member of the planter elite who later became a prominent South Carolinian politician. Tillman used populist rhetoric and a dubious call for white unity to rally poor whites to fight by any means necessary to reverse the slight gains in economic self-sufficiency and enfranchisement that recently freed slaves enjoyed during the first decade of Reconstruction. Yet after receiving this support from poor whites, Tillman repeatedly refused to back policies that would improve their economic lots.
Now, while I clearly am not an expert on Tillman or this period in American history after reading a couple of texts over the summer, the parallels between Tillman’s ideas and rhetoric and those employed by Trump seem quite striking to me. Read together, these texts have helped me see, in a way I hadn’t fully felt before, how the wave of reconstructed white supremacy taking place today is not unique but requires a stand from white moderates.
Additionally, these readings have allowed me to better understand how this wave of reconstructed white supremacy that Trump has amplified is related to the rise of mass incarceration, the school-to-prison-pipeline, and the politics of law and order in the post-civil rights era (see Michelle Alexander’s game-changer, The New Jim Crow). Trump’s unapologetic reassertion of white supremacy via the promotion of white nationalism (‘Making American Great Again’) and his desire to reclaim ‘the white male prerogative’ have been built from the same ideas of ‘the Southern strategy’ and the repeated use of ‘dog-whistle’ racial politics for the last four decades. They are also drawn from the same logics that Bill Clinton used to end “welfare as we know it.” They are the same ones the cultural industries—movies, television programs, news stories, popular music, and popular literature—that have used to manufacture a steady (and profitable) stream of fantasies of white men in crisis for decades. These popular arts have long been mined by far too many white men for ideas and rhetoric to make sense of and to express their angst. Relatedly, the ‘Scaring White Folks industry’ as Rachel Maddow dubbed it, led by Fox News, Breitbart News, and the grass roots work of the ‘alt right’ (as these young white nationalist ‘bros’ prefer to call themselves) taking place on America’s college campus, has enabled white male paranoia to spread disproportionately throughout our land and become normalized as a common mode of sense making. Finally, the rise in vigilante and police violence—captured so grippingly on cell phones and social media—against unarmed men/boys of color and the interrelated fears, anxieties, and salve of militaristic nationalism constitutive of the ‘war on terror’ and the recent legislative and judicial efforts to constrict voting rights during the Obama era, especially for poor citizens of color, are also integral to this wave that Trump rides.
In fact, a host of scholars who focus their critical attention on studying contemporary American popular culture, including sports, have arguably led the way in diagnosing the politically potent mix of pale male fear, resentment, anger, and anxiety that have been fomenting in the U.S. for at least two decades now (see David Savran’s Taking it Like a Man, Sally Robinson’s Marked Men and the writings of C. Richard King and David J. Leonard, Delia Douglas, Ben Carrington, CL Cole, Michael Silk, Mary McDonald to name a few in sport studies).
When read within this context, it becomes easier to understand Trump and his performance of white masculinity as part of broader lineage; part of a fraternity of anxious American white guys whose most notable pop culture alum is Archie Bunker (not to mention his real-life ‘bros’ George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, Bull Connor, Lee Atwater, and Trent Lott to mention only a few), but that also include more recent pledges like D-Fens from Falling Down, Adam Carolla and Jimmy Kimmel in The Man Show, Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, the House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, and even Clint Eastwood’s conflicted Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (not to mention his awkward performance at the 2012 Republican convention where he played out a Republican fantasy of putting an imaginary President Obama in his place).
Like these pop culture and real-life figures, Trump’s main appeal with his white conservative supporters is his affect; the self-assured attitude he displays through the ways he comports his body, his will to speak his mind without apology or deference to anyone, and his unabashed taste for masculine authority. In today’s slang, Trump’s drawing card is his swagger. His guttural appeal to anxious white guys relates directly to his persona and the fantasy he spins of himself as the embodiment of the American Dream and a titan in the boardroom. He brings to life—not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Wolf of Wall Street (now showing on FX)—a retrograde fantasy of white masculinity that evinces what Dain Te Poel aptly described as “the reclamation of white male confidence.” And perhaps the most alarming aspect of his performance of white masculinity—because it demonstrates the power of this fantasy and performance of white manhood to change American culture—is how time and time again during this election season it has been able to defy and rewrite the conventional logics of how to be a presidential candidate to its will and advantage.
But for the rest of this essay, I want to offer some developing thoughts on Trump’s repeated use of white sportsmen—but particularly his twitter-based affection for Tom Brady—as dog-whistles to communicate his brand of white supremacy. I contend that Trump has used white sportsmen like the late Joe Paterno, Bobby Knight, and Brady as dog-whistles to connect on an affective level with American white men from various regions of the United States so they feel like Trump is a politician who finally understands them and will fight to protect and preserve the white male prerogative for men like them.
Over the summer I wrote a short piece highlighting how Trump’s name-dropping of white sportsmen during the Republican primaries was becoming an important ‘dog-whistle’ in his bid to become President. Since many Americans prefer to believe that sports and politics don’t mix, Trump’s use of white sportsmen as dog-whistles to convey coded racial and gender messages to his voters seemed like a potent political tool that needed to be exposed for what it was.
According to Ian Haney-Lopez, a ‘dog-whistle’ occurs when one communicates a racial appeal to a targeted audience without explicitly mentioning race. In Dog Whistle Politics, Haney-Lopez meticulously details how American politicians, usually Republicans, have used such coded race talk since the civil rights movement to appeal to white voters who fear that changes to American society have diminished their social status. Phrases like ‘law and order,’ ‘States’ rights,’ ‘welfare queens,’ and ‘the makers and the takers’ have been regularly used by politicians over the past decades as dog whistles to evoke stereotypes of racial ‘others,’ stoke white fears, and invoke whites’ desire for a return to individual over group rights.
By employing white sportsmen as dog whistles, Trump taps into a potent affective register for white male sport fans particularly if they believe the idea Sports Illustrated peddled back in 1997 that commercial sports are a terrain where white men have unfairly lost ground.
Through his puerile attempts to affiliate himself with ‘legendary’ white sportsmen like Brady, Paterno, and Knight at some of his rallies, Trump symbolically reveals how re-instilling cultural reverence for white men who are, in “total winners,” is a central part of vision to “Make America Great Again.”
At the same time, the white sportsmen Trump with whom he has connected himself are each polarizing figures who have controversially suffered public falls because of their own personal failings or dubious choices. Some on the Left have caricatured these white men as symbols of systemic white male entitlement. Yet in the minds of their devout supporters—folks who usually lean backward politically—these white male sporting legends were undermined by bureaucrats (“the PC police,” they might say) who no longer throw the weight of their institutional authority behind protecting and preserving the white male prerogative which previously allowed these white sporting legends to say and do whatever they wanted. Instead, these legends were unceremoniously dumped, made to feel disposable, and left wondering why their blank check of impunity was rescinded after so many years. In other words, Trump chose white sportsmen who not only enjoyed the status of sporting legends, but simultaneously symbolized the perceived peril of a growing erosion of institutional support for the white male prerogative.
Recall how Penn State students, the majority of whom were white, swarmed the streets of Happy Valley overturned cars, and took over that sleepy college town when Penn State fired their beloved ‘ball coach,’ Joe Paterno, despite his complicity in protecting Jerry Sandusky who was found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse of young boys under his care. Or, Bobby Knight’s astonishment when he was finally fired from his job as the basketball coach at Indiana University after decades of documented abuse directed toward his players, female staff, students, and administrators. IU students, just like those from Penn State, also took to the streets and even issued death threats to Knight’s final accuser, a white male IU student whose charge transformed him into a pariah.
So by invoking the names of Paterno and Knight (even Brady and Roethlisberger who also have had their moments of notoriety) at his rallies Trump speaks in code to bond his crowd around the idea that they’ve been let down by ‘their country’ that makes them feel disposable and ‘deplorable.’ It is a complex fantasy of white manhood that connects with his followers in their guts.
But the way that Brady functions as a dog-whistle for Trump’s vision of America requires more explanation.
Like Paterno and Knight, Brady has suffered a much-publicized fall through his role in the recent Deflategate scandal. We should not overlook how, even before he launched his bid to become President, Trump repeatedly tweeted his affection and admiration for Brady. In fact, Trump was perhaps Brady’s most prominent defender as the Deflategate scandal originally took shape as evidenced by a May 11, 2015 tweet sent from @realDonaldTrump that read: “Why do we always try to destroy our true champions and winners in this country, while at the same time leaving the losers alone? STUPID!”
And like Paterno’s and Knight’s supporters, Brady’s devotees have ardently alleged that he’s been railroaded by a NFL Commissioner who has capriciously wielded the institutional power of his office to illegitimately punish a living legend—in Trump’s vernacular ‘a true champion and winner’—who will one day be immortalized in Canton, Ohio.
The coded language of Trump’s tweet reveals that part of Brady fans’ impassioned fury about Commissioner Goodell’s punishment of Brady can’t be explicitly named. There are at least two racial dimensions to Brady’s supporters defense: 1) they seem unable to believe that a living white male NFL legend would not be protected by the League; and 2) they sense that Goodell targeted Brady because punishing him—a player who embodies all the virtues of all-American white sporting masculinity—would allow the Commish to deflect mounting criticism that his previous player conduct punishments were guided by a personal racial bias that was unfairly targeting black players. Who better to use to alleviate such an allegation than a white quarterback whose ‘I’m just here to play football’ pose, ferocious competitive spirit, and proven record of success makes him the ultimate symbol of American-state sanctioned white male perfection. What other act would better mitigate the Commissioner’s momentary development of a racial conscience?
But Brady’s potency as a Trumpian dog-whistle is also derived from the popular mythology made of his origin story. It is a tale of his being an athletic underdog who has only become one of the NFL’s all-time best quarterbacks because his strong work ethic, strict discipline, and smarts have enabled him to overcome the doubts and minimal opportunities afforded him by so-called football experts in college and upon his entry into the NFL. This tale transforms the flesh and blood Brady into the fantasy of the self-made American man, a figure that has been instrumental historically in masking, protecting and preserving the white male prerogative in American institutional life.
But it also subtly situates him within the racial politics of our times as the humble, hard working white guy who seems to lack any trace of social privilege, doesn’t display any inflated sense of entitlement and thus can be cited by defenders of the status quo to deny the idea that any systemic racial and gender privileges exist at all.
Together, these subtle racial ideas packed into Brady’s all-American identity as a ‘total winner’ hail the attention of Trump’s brain and spleen because they sync with the white supremacist fantasies that orient his worldview. Stated a bit differently, what becomes alarmingly apparent when Brady is examined closely as a dog-whistle is how the banal celebration of white male athletes who embody ways of being we signify as ‘all-American’ simultaneously function as potent symbols of white male perfection whose appeal only makes sense because it is rooted in the white supremacist ideas that still flow together to produce American culture as we know it.
Perhaps the best place to see just how easily Brady’s all-American/underdog/self-made man identity can be transformed into a disturbingly fascist image of ‘white supremacy as militaristic nationalism and white conformity’ is in a 30-second UnderArmour commercial that debuted on September 10, 2015—just five days after one of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” red hats was first discovered in Brady’s locker—during the national telecast of the opening game of the 2015 NFL season between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. (And note the similarity that exists here between UnderArmour’s peculiarly militaristic representation of Brady and the way that the figure of the white male veteran who has served in the war on terror has been deployed in the backlash against Colin Kaepernick’s racial protest as his most effective critic because veterans are imagined as the paternalistic providers and protectors of all the other freedoms and rights we American are lucky to enjoy.)
Titled ‘Rule Yourself,’ the commercial immediately grabs one’s attention as it employs a digital filming technique that visually clones Brady into hundreds, if not, thousands of copies. As if dreamt up by Baudrillard himself, the commercial offers viewers a veritable army of simulated Bradys, all conspicuously clad in gear that is conspicuously black and red (some of which is adorned with the stars and stripes and military fatigue motifs).
This vision of perfection—embodied by a white male athletic champion—is perhaps most dramatically conveyed in an overhead shot in the middle of the commercial featuring multiple football fields filled with thousands of white male Bradys working in almost complete unison toward perfecting their athletic craft.
If one can think outside of the myths and fantasies of racial colorblindness and post-raciality—ideologies that too often prevent us from recognizing the power dynamics of our racial past/present—then perhaps s/he could see how this Brady that is presumably intended to connote ideas of hard work, discipline, and national pride to American audiences so eerily transforms in the span of 30 seconds into a Nazi-like vision where racial difference is eradicated in favor of the valorization of an army of idealized white men moving in perfect conformity with one another.
In today’s language, ‘Rule Yourself’ offers a national fantasy where only white male winners matter.
It is a reactionary vision so resoundingly similar to Trump’s white nationalist fantasy about “making America great again.” And if we read “Rule Yourself” Brady intertextually with the living, breathing G.O.A.T who is frequently imagined as the man who has it all (the riches, athletic prowess, fame, supermodel wife, and healthy family), then part of Brady’s appeal—something that Trump and other anxious white men certainly recognize—is how, perhaps like Viagra or Oxycontin, it can feel like an antidote to those feelings of self-loathing they just can’t seem to shake.