CLEVELAND — Accusations of racism, race baiting and use of racial dog whistles are age-old staples of American politics, but these recriminations have reached a fever pitch this year against Donald Trump.
The likely Republican presidential nominee’s blunt rhetoric about illegal immigration and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, as well as his clumsy handling of supporters with white supremacist ties, has made it easier for Democrats to call him a racist and even provoked members of Mr. Trump’s own party to admonish him.
In past campaigns, the accusations were usually veiled or implied or left to liberal commentators to vocalize, but that is not the case for Mr. Trump.
“Everyone sees this bigotry for what it is,” likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said early in the campaign.
When FBI Director James B. Comey was called to Congress this month to account for his recommendation not to prosecute Mrs. Clinton over her secret email setup and mishandling of classified material as secretary of state, Rep. William Lacy Clay steered the questioning to whether Mr. Trump was aiding recruitment for white supremacist groups.
“One of my biggest concerns is that certain public figures are actually promoting these groups even further, and as you may know, one of our most vocal candidates for president retweeted @WhiteGenocideTM. Three weeks later, he did it again. Two days after that, he retweeted a different user whose image also included the term white genocide, and that’s not even all of them,” said the Missouri Democrat. “Don’t these actions make it easier for these racist groups to recruit even more supporters?”
Mr. Comey replied: “I don’t think I’m in a position to answer that in an intelligent way sitting here.”
Mr. Trump did retweet @WhiteGenocideTM, a white supremacist account, but the tweets in question were not overtly racist.
He also invited a backlash when accusing Mexico of sending rapists and criminals across the border and proposing to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country as a way to prevent terrorism. However, Mr. Trump could have expected Democrats to label him a racist regardless of what he said or did.
“It’s no surprise that the Democrats are going to attempt to play the race card against the Republican nominee or any Republican running for office because that has been their playbook for many years,” said Chris Perkins, a Republican pollster and campaign strategist. “It is the way they have chosen to turn out their voters by attempting to portray the Republican presidential candidate as a racist.”
Indeed, the Democrats’ invectives motivate minorities, which are some of their most loyal constituencies, to get to the polls and register their opposition to the Republican Party.
Republicans have done little to change the narrative that they are not on the same side as minority voters, said Mr. Perkins, noting that black and Hispanic voters continue to view the party with suspicion.
“Looking at polling, minorities tend to view the Republican Party as the party of the rich, white, old guys. And what did we do this cycle? For the third straight presidential cycle, we nominated a rich, white, old guy,” he said.
Democrats say Republicans are the ones using racial politics to turn out their voters.
“Many Republicans in the past 50 years have willingly played on race to win elections, including Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1968, Bush 41’s use of Willie Horton in 1988 and Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187 during his re-election for California governor in 1994,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, referring to a California ballot initiative that made illegal immigrants ineligible for public benefits.
The measure passed but was never enforced.
“Donald Trump’s candidacy this year is the logical extreme of those past campaigns, as is the systematic effort at the state level to restrict voting rights and make it harder to vote,” he said. “But Trump is in a class by himself and has been more racially divisive than any party nominee in living memory, which is why so many Republicans have disowned his campaign or done everything they can to avoid him.”
One of those disowning Mr. Trump for perceptions of racism and bigotry is 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
But he, too, was accused of being a racist. Mr. Romney’s racial offense came in the form of his tough stance against illegal immigration and calling President Obama the “Welfare King,” which liberal critics described as a white supremacist dog whistle for Americans angry at the first black U.S. president.
Mr. Romney also was targeted for his Mormon religion because of its history of discrimination against blacks, although the church has disavowed those beliefs.
In 2008, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain got similar treatment. He was accused of using racial, homophobic and sexist slurs when telling jokes decades earlier in a Capitol Hill bar.
His running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was accused of allowing an atmosphere of racism to pervade state government, including racial jokes about Mr. Obama circulated by state workers on the government email system.
Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights hero who was once an ally of the senator, said Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin were “sowing the seeds of hatred and division” in a fashion similar to desegregation foe George Wallace, an Alabama governor who repeatedly ran for president as a Democrat and then as an independent.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson recently used a nearly identical expression to blame Mr. Trump for racial unrest roiling the country.
“When you do the birther movement with the president, which is a dog whistle for a kind of anti-black [attack], the anti-Mexican, the deportation of 15 million people, of families, disruption, anti-Muslim, that kind of rhetoric has helped to seed these clouds,” said Mr. Jackson, who twice ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s.
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