Trump created yet another round of the racist/not racist game when he tweeted that four congresswomen should go back where they came from. Trump’s defenders, when they admit to knowing the content of the tweets, either simply deny that the tweets are racist or engage in semantic engineering to argue for that claim.
To concede the obvious, Trump did not use explicitly racist words in his tweets. For example, he did not refer to the women with standard racist slurs. As such, his defenders could argue that the tweets are not racist in that sense. This would, of course, require claiming ignorance of coding and how language works (such as inuendo and euphemisms). This fools no one but does allow for implausible denial that can be quite appealing. Because of this the use of coded language and avoiding explicitly racist words has become a standard tactic.
The first step in this tango is the use of such coded language or language that is racist, yet not explicitly racist in the way that using racial slurs. For example, saying “go back where you came from” contains no explicit racial slurs, yet is known to almost all users of American English to be racist. It is, in fact, recognized as the type of language that could count as harassment in the workplace. But since it contains no explicit racial slurs, it offers its users and defenders that implausible denial option, which leads to the next stage of the dance.
As would be expected, people who do not like racism (or are looking to score political or virtue points) will attack such statements. In the case of Trump’s infamous tweets, there was extensive criticism from the Democrats. This is presumably what Trump expected and hoped for, since this allows him and his defenders to make the next move in the dance.
The next step is to accuse the accusers of being racist. While this might seem odd, the tactic is to contend that since the critics were the first to bring up race explicitly, they are the ones who are racist. To use an analogy, this would be like a worker using sexual euphemisms in the workplace and, after being called out for sexual harassment, claiming that their critic is the sexual harasser since they were the first to explicitly use the word “sex.” This is obviously absurd, as it is absurd to say that a critic of racist remarks is thus a racist because they bring the issue of race into the open. This tactic does have considerable psychological force and is worth considering as a type of fallacy.
While a full analysis is needed, a common explanation of the effectiveness of this tactic rests with the fact that most Americans think that racism is bad and that they are not racists. Trump and others are, however, making racist remarks seem to be non-racist by using the coding tactics developed over the years. For example, immigration is presented in terms of crime and a threat to jobs, so it does not “feel” racist when one is worried about brown people committing crimes and taking one’s job. After all, the worry is not because they are brown, but because they are criminals and job stealers. If someone accepts that the coded racism of Trump and his ilk is racist, they must either accept that they are racists if they go along with the charade or reject the charade and accept it for what it is. It is easier to simply deny that it is racist, thus allowing a person to hold to their views that racism is bad, and they are not racists, while still giving in to the feelings of fear and anger that Trump and others have fed so well. Thus, good people can become ardent defenders of an evil they would reject if they saw its true face.
This racist tango can lock critics into the dance of racist or not racist, which distracts from the true concern—namely the racism. This tactic is thus very effective. First, it allows Trump and others to appeal to those who are racist. Second, it allows him to appeal to people who are not racist, but whose fear and anger influence them to accept the coded racism that scares and incites them as not being racist. Third, it gets the critics and media arguing about whether the racists or racism exploiters are really racist or not—thus wasting energy on a red herring. While this tactic serves Trump and his ilk well, it is doing considerable damage to the social fabric and moral fiber of the United States.