I think nearly everyone has seen Donald Trump’s Fulton County Jail mugshot. A lot of people were psyched to see it released. A lot of people — on both sides of the political spectrum — are making money off of it. But one of the things that struck me was the way that conspiracy theories sprung out of his post-mugshot tweet (or whatever it’s now called when someone posts on the platform-formerly-known-as-Twitter).
That was it (except that it was all in caps).
Now, of course, the supreme irony is that he had JUST SURRENDERED. That’s literally what it’s called when someone has an arrest warrant and shows up to be booked. He surrendered. In point of fact, he has now literally surrendered on four occasions.
But the conspiracy theories (and I’m sure I haven’t seen or heard them all) were swift. Qanon aficionados have pointed to several elements of the tweet. For one, the first letter of each line in the tweet spell out “END.” In a former post, Q wrote: “There is no step five. End.” The conspiracy theorists put together the fact that this was Trump’s fourth indictment (there is no step five) and the word “end” to conclude that this was the signal that Trump would rise to power again. Prophecy was being fulfilled.
Other Qonspiracists noted that Trump was recorded as weighing 215 pounds and being 6’3” tall. If all those numbers are added together (2+1+5+6+3), they total 17. What is the 17th letter of the alphabet? Q. Case closed.
Well, this is all entertaining and mind-numbing. But what does any of it have to do with Trump and racial dogwhistles? Nothing.
Except that the point I want to make may look like, at first blush, the same kind of conspiracy theory. I would argue that it’s not.
On August 14, 2023, the Fulton County District Attorney, Fani Willis released the indictment of Trump on RICO charges for attempting to subvert the Georgia election results. Almost immediately, Trump posted on his propaganda site, Truth Social:
They never went after those that Rigged the Election. They only went after those that fought to find the Riggers! (Trump, August 14, 2023)
Trump’s use of the word “Riggers” here is significant. It’s not an accident. Apart from referring to individuals who work on oil rigs, “riggers” is not a common word. True, Trump has a history of mangling words and uttering some unusual words and phrases. Could it be another example of this? Although Trump does have a history of seeming to make mistakes in his tweets (cofeve, etc), he is skilled at these sorts of communications. He knows how to reach and motivate his base.
It’s also true that the English language (like most) is quite flexible. Recall when George W. Bush exclaimed: “I’m a uniter, not a divider”? It also sounded a bit unusual. However, it is a feature of the language that we can form nouns out of verbs in this way. “I like to run. I’m a runner.” “I divide people. I’m a divider.” But these two nouns (uniter, divider) are not common and struck many people as strange sounding.
Is it possible that Trump merely exercised this feature of language and turned the verb “to rig” into “rigger”? Possible.
Is it possible that Trump was using a dog whistle? That he was actually making a play on the n-word to attack and insult Fani Willis? Also possible.
Is it a conspiracy theory to suggest as much?
I would suggest that context and history are everything. Indeed, Trump has a long history of racism, especially toward Black women, though not solely.
Unlike the above examples from Qanon, which requires codes and number counting, Trump has left quite a history of implicit and explicit racism. Now, I fully acknowledge that those who support Trump and those who follow Qanon will say that that is exactly what I’m doing. I’m looking back for signs and codes. They’ll say that when I am looking for implied slights or for dogwhistles, that I’m engaging in the same kind of looking for codes. I guess you’ll have to be the judge and decide whether they are similar or different.
(For a much longer and more complete list of racially suggestive and racially charged statements by Trump, see this article in Vox that catalogs statements from 1973–2023.)
Years ago, Trump quite infamously took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five. They were five Black and Latinx men who were accused of rape. When they were exonerated, Trump refused to apologize. Instead, he pulled his much-used “people on both sides” argument.
When Trump announced his candidacy, he did so by maligning all Mexicans. He called them rapists and drug dealers and lazy. He painted an entire nation with one broad brush, and he relied on insulting and degrading cultural stereotypes to do so. And that is part of his clear pattern.
For example, Trump has described Alvin Bragg, who is Black and who is the Manhattan District Attorney, as a “Soros backed animal.” I hardly need to remind you of the history in this country of equating African Americans with animals. That equation was a justification for the treatment of slaves. Slaveholders demeaned and dehumanized enslaved people by thinking of them as less-than-human, by calling them animals. To them, they were mere beasts of burden. No, the choice of the word “animal” here is a direct and deliberate invocation of that history. He might have said “Soros backed attorney.” He would have made his claim of influence by a common target on the Right (Soros), but without the racial element. He might have said “Soros backed hack” and thereby again made the connection to Soros and attacked Bragg’s skill as a lawyer. No, he deliberately chose a word with a charged racial history in this country.
Trump has called Letita James, who is Black and who is the New York Attorney General, “Racist A.G. Letita ‘Peekaboo’ James.” “Peekaboo”? I suspect that that term struck some people as odd, as out of place. However, here the word “peekaboo” is a play on words. First, he’s suggesting that she is playing a child’s game. That suggestion simultaneously infantalizes her, and it suggests that she is hiding and then revealing something. Second, and more importantly, “peekaboo” sounds very similar to another word that has historically been used to denigrate African Americans. As in the example of Alvin Bragg, Trump could have argued against James with neutral or professional language. He chose not to. And, more importantly, he chose to employ a racially charged word.
And now, most recently, he called Fani Willis a “Rigger.” Of course, it’s not just that. He has attacked her in multiple ways. For example, he suggested that Willis had an inappropriate sexual or romantic affair with a gang member that she had been investigating. The suggestion had no basis in fact. In fact, a recent article on the case made it clear that there was NO relationship. Even so, Trump maligned her personally and professionally by using the racist trope of the hypersexual Black woman. Then, when she released the indictments, he called her a “Rigger.”
Look again at Trump’s statement:
They never went after those that Rigged the Election. They only went after those that fought to find the Riggers!
So, he intends to say that the justice system has not pursued the individuals who stole the election (in his argument, anyway) but, rather, pursued only the individuals who sought to expose the corruption. That could have been phrased in many, much more innocuous, ways. For example:
They never investigated the ones who stole the election. They only investigated the ones who exposed the robbery.
That makes the same argument. It contains no personal attacks. It contains no racially suggestive language.
So, the question is: was Trump’s tweet a deliberate, racial attack, or was it an innocuous word choice?
Trump’s 50-year history in public life would suggest the former. Trump’s base would suggest it is the former. The increase in racially motivated hate speech and hate-fueled violence (see, for example, the murder of three Black citizens in Florida [26 August 2023]) would suggest that the dogwhistles are being heard and acted upon.
Trump’s version of the tweet uses a dogwhistle to signal to his base that the attack on him is racially motivated. He believes (or argues) that Black attorneys who are charging him with crimes are the true racists. He believes (or argues) that they attack him because they are Black and because he is white.
It’s no conspiracy theory to suggest that Trump knowingly used a racial slur to attack Fani Willis. It is not acceptable behavior from our elected officials.
Call him — and anyone else who does so — out on it.
Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Queering SF: Readings, Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction, and edited a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls. His most recent book is Queering SF: Readings (Aqueduct Press).