Trump with Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Credit: Sheelah Craighead/Wikimedia Commons

A tweet from court evangelical Jerry Falwell, Jr. is getting a lot of attention, particularly because Donald Trump gave it his blessing by retweeting it.

That ups the ante for those who fear that the president won’t go quietly into the night if he’s defeated in 2020. As Ed Kilgore writes, “The 2020 election could be delegitimized on the right before it even happens.”

While that is the primary concern, it is also significant that Falwell used a dog whistle to get the message out, something many of us thought was outdated now that white supremacy has become the new normal with Trumpists. It is no accident that Falwell said, “I now support reparations.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates can be credited with reviving talk back in 2014 about reparations to African Americans for slavery. More recently, the topic has been coming up in discussions with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

Given that Trump’s base thrives on the politics of grievance, a discussion about reparations for slavery is sure to tap into their resentments and fears. Falwell knows that and used the word for his own agenda purposefully. What we see is someone who claims to be a Christian leader fanning the flames of hate—but in a way that he is sure to deny, because that’s how dog whistles work.

This is also another example of how propaganda works. There have been other times when Republicans twisted the use of words to undermine their meaning. You might remember when “fake news” referred to the kind of thing Russian bots spread all over the internet to suck in a lot of voters. But Trump has now co-opted the words to mean any reporting in the media that he doesn’t like. No one uses “fake news” to refer to the kind of stories it was originally designed to describe. Without that, we stopped talking about the phenomenon. Falwell is attempting to do the same thing to the word “reparations.”

Overall, Falwell accomplished several things with that tweet.

  1. He teed up the idea of a delegitimized 2020 election.
  2. He sent a dog whistle to fan the racist flames of Trump’s base.
  3. He attempted to co-opt the word “reparations” to rob it of its meaning.

Give the guy some credit. That’s not bad for two sentences totaling less than 280 characters. The only antidote is for us to recognize what he’s doing and point it out for anyone willing to see.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.