In 1898, armed rioters overthrew the elected government of Wilmington, North Carolina.

American politics have always been a game played by White men. People of color only gained the right to vote in 1869, though their right was not protected until 1965. Women did not win the ballot until 1920. It was not until 2008 that the U.S. elected a Black president. And a woman still has not served in the Oval Office, though a major political party nominated a female candidate for the first time in 2016. While people of color and women have begun to make forays into politics, the sad truth is the political arena is still dominated by White men. Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election demonstrated candidates need not win over voters of color. Black voters favored Clinton by 88 percent and Hispanic voters by 36 percent. In contrast, White voters favored Trump by 21 percent. Donald Trump’s victory not only proves a presidential candidate does not have to win voters of color, it suggests a strategy of purposefully losing the support of voters of color by making racist or xenophobic statements is a successful one. Essentially, lose voters of color to gain White voters. Trump is not the first and probably will not be the last presidential candidate to use othering of outgroups as a campaign strategy. Othering can be defined as “treating someone as outside of a particular dominant social group or social norm.” In presidential elections, othering is specifically used to label racial, ethnic, religious or national groups as a threat to White Americans. Then, the presidential candidate doing the othering promises to swoop in and protect White privilege. Othering is a strategy with a long history. And it’s a strategy that works. Othering in U.S. presidential elections has appeared in three main forms: anti-Black racism, xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment, and Japanese internment. Uniquely, all three forms appeared front and center in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

Anti-Black Racism

In 1898, white supremacists in North Carolina were nervous. A multiracial, working-class coalition was gaining political momentum. In response, a group of nascent campaign managers launched the White supremacy campaign of 1898. Candidates ran on a White supremacy platform at the city, county and state levels. The slogan that united them all was “Negro Domination.” The phrase served as a supposed warning of what was to come if they did not act. Political operatives manufactured fear of a rapacious other by propagating the myth that Black people were out to steal White people’s jobs and rape White women. The White supremacists emerged victorious on Election Day across the state of North Carolina, except in the city of Wilmington, where the multiracial coalition won. Supremacists groups rectified this loss by taking over the city in a coup and displacing hundreds of African-Americans from their homes. White supremacists then ruled North Carolina for three generations, until the 1960s.  

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Racial politics in America mirrored those of North Carolina. White supremacy reached its peak in American presidential politics in 1948, the year of Strom Thurmond’s presidential run. Thurmond ran as the candidate of the “State’s Rights Democratic Party,” or the “Dixiecrats.” The Dixiecrats’ slogan mirrored that of the White supremacists in North Carolina. Their slogan was, “segregation forever.” Thurmond decried desegregation efforts as “totalitarian” and a violation of the rights of southern states. While Americans did not vote Thurmond’s caustic racism into office, he did win four deep south states and 39 electoral votes. Thurmond’s politics reemerged once again in the 1968 third-party run of Alabama governor George Wallace. Wallace ran on a platform of opposing federal desegregation efforts. Most Americans were disgusted by Wallace’s blatant racism, though he won five deep south states, one more than Thurmond.

Voters across America were willing to tolerate, and even celebrate, the politer racism of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s, “southern strategy,” polished the ideas of George Wallace and made them more palatable to a wider audience. Before the 1960s, the language on the campaign trail was “in-your-face white supremacy.” After the Civil Rights Movement, politicians began using, “the coded language of white supremacy and white privilege.” Political scientists have come to refer to this phenomenon as the “dog whistle.” Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist during the advent of the southern strategy admitted to a researcher, ”you start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.” In particular, Nixon presented himself as the, “law and order,” candidate. Nixon simply argued to Americans he was the best choice to keep them safe. What was left unspoken, was that he was running to keep them safe from people of color.

While Nixon was the first presidential candidate to make use of the southern strategy, it was Ronald Reagan who perfected it. After the Republican Convention in 1980, Ronald Reagan made a trip to Neshoba County, Mississippi to deliver his first speech as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. Reagan did not choose Neshoba County on accident. During the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, three Black civil rights activists were brutally murdered in Neshoba County. White people in the county celebrated. Neshoba County quickly became a flashpoint in the conversation about Civil Rights. Reagan’s decision to speak at the 1980 Neshoba County Fair signaled his support for the South’s anti-black policies, at least to the White supremacists looking for a sign.  

During the general election of 1980, his presidency and his re-election campaign, Reagan continued to use the language of dog whistle politics. His loudest whistles were the war on drugs and the myth of the welfare queen. Much like the southern strategy, Nixon began the war on drugs, but Reagan was the one who helped it take off. Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan, made the war on drugs a hallmark of their White House. Media portrayals of the crack cocaine epidemic frightened Americans and made the labels drug addict and drug dealer synonymous with people of color. The alarm built with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No,” campaign. As the drug hysteria reached its crescendo in the mid-1980s, harsh drug penalties were enacted, most of which targeted Black and Latinx communities.  

People of color were not only demonized as drug addicts, they were depicted as lazy and dependent. Enter the myth of the welfare queen. When Ronald Reagan ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, his talking points centered around the broken welfare system. On the campaign trail, he told stories of public housing complexes with pools, welfare recipients crafting fraudulent claims based on nonexistent family members, and people choosing food stamps over job hunts. He returned to these same storylines in the 1980 election and throughout his presidency. Reagan presented welfare fraud as a rampant problem crippling the American economy. In reality, it was isolated to a few incidents. Reagan’s two most important domestic policy areas were drugs and welfare. Western Kentucky University Professor Dr. Patti Minter explains by never specifically mentioning the issue of race, Reagan could argue his policies were colorblind. The truth, however, was his rhetoric was engineered to generate fear of Black people amongst White voters. Reagan’s policies were then presented as the only safeguard against dangerous, inner-city drug dealers and indolent welfare cheats.

By the 1988 presidential election, Americans had been exposed to the southern strategy for two decades. By now, White voters had come to expect southern strategy rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates. George H.W. Bush did not disappoint. In the twenty years between Nixon’s and Bush’s runs, “law and order” morphed into “tough on crime.” During the general election, Bush launched the “Weekend Pass” ad.  This ad accused Democratic Presidential Candidate Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. “Weekend Pass” told the story of convicted murderer Willie Horton, a Black man who was released from prison on a weekend furlough during Dukakis’s time as governor of  Massachusetts. While on furlough, Horton committed robbery and rape. The message of the ad echoed the themes of North Carolina’s 1898 White supremacy campaign: Black men are criminals who rape White women. Bush put himself forward as the protector of White womanhood, a winning strategy. After Dukakis’s loss, which was blamed on the Willie Horton ad, politicians from both parties and at all levels of government grew terrified of being perceived as weak on crime. As a result, when Bill Clinton challenged Bush in the 1992 presidential elections, Clinton’s platform included law and order ideas. Clinton’s anti-drug and anti-crime policies would end up being the strictest yet. To this day, laws enacted under the Clinton administration, such as mandatory minimums,  continue to devastate communities of color.

Xenophobia and Anti-Immigration Sentiment

While anti-Black racism has been the most intense and sustained form of political othering, various groups of immigrants have also occupied a marginalized space in American presidential politics. Before the middle of the 1800s, the United States was settled predominantly by Northern European Protestants. However, during the mid-19th Century, Irish and German Catholics began to immigrate to the U.S. in large numbers. These newcomers were met with resistance for two reasons, which will seem familiar to anyone paying attention to the modern immigration debate: jobs and American values. First, Catholic immigrants competed against Native-born citizens for jobs. The increased competition generated resentment. Second, predominantly Protestant America feared the introduction of Catholicism would dilute established norms and values. For example, people believed the so-called Protestant work ethic was at risk. Anti-Catholic propaganda created stereotypes of Catholics as rebellious and sinful. The Pope was portrayed as a threat to American democracy. As a result, Catholic immigrants faced discrimination in nearly every facet of their lives and monasteries and convents were burnt to the ground.

In the 1850s, anti-Catholic sentiments emerged in presidential politics. They found expression in the Know-Nothing Party. The Know-Nothing Party’s platform centered around limiting the influence of immigrants already in the U.S. and ending immigration to the U.S. altogether. While the party won gubernatorial and congressional races, they were never victorious in a presidential election. In 1854, the modern Republican party absorbed most of the Know-Nothing Party’s supporters. However, the anti-immigration agenda was rejected by the Republican’s second-presidential candidate – Abraham Lincoln. With Lincoln’s election and the Civil War, anti-Catholic sentiment retreated.

However, hatred of Catholics re-emerged in the twentieth century. In 1928, the Democratic Party nominated a Catholic man, Al Smith, for president. Smith’s loss to Republican Herbert Hoover has largely been attributed to his religion. Even during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential run he was frequently criticized for his Catholicism. Kennedy’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, questioned his ability to defend the U.S. Constitution. Republicans scared Americans by saying Kennedy’s allegiances would lie with the Pope, not the U.S. While in the end Kennedy did win the election, his experience demonstrates the strength and stamina of anti-Catholic xenophobia in the U.S.

Catholics, of course, have not been the only target of xenophobia. During the twilight hours of the 19th Century and the dawn of the 20th, waves of Southeastern European and Jewish immigrants began to arrive in the U.S. Predictably, they were not greeted hospitably by Americans. Despite a national labor shortage, Americans again feared competition for jobs. Americans of Northern European descent also viewed Italian, Slavic and Jewish immigrants as genetically and culturally inferior. It was thought they would not assimilate, and if they did, they would destroy American Whiteness in the process. These thoughts continued well into the 1930s and 1940s. In the midst of the Holocaust, The Wagner Roger Bill provided for the admittance of Jewish refugee children into the U.S. It was met with fierce contention. Opponents feared the Jewish children growing into Jewish adults. European Jews suffered at the hands of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Today, most xenophobia is directed at people from Mexico, Central America and South America, who make up the majority of immigrants to the United States. Despite common misconceptions, this is not a new phenomenon. In 1942, the U.S. launched the Bracero program, which brought Mexican workers across the border to support the war industry. When the war ended, Americans were shocked and frightened by how much Mexican communities in the U.S. had grown. In 1954, under Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched Operation Wetback. This Operation involved rounding up Mexicans and forcibly ejecting them to Mexico. In the first year of Operation Wetback, over one million people were deported, many of whom were American citizens. One of the motivations for Operation Wetback was electoral; 1954 was a midterm election year.  Einsenhower’s expulsions were popular with voters.

Japanese Internment

Asian immigrants, particularly immigrants from Japan and China, have also been the victims of xenophobia. The internment of Japanese Americans from 1942-1946 marks the worst incidence of xenophobia in American memory. Anti-Asian immigrant sentiment first reared its head in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusionary Act. Alarmed that Chinese immigrants were stealing the jobs of White people, the U.S. halted most immigration to the U.S. from China. Devastatingly, many of the Chinese men who had immigrated to the U.S. and worked on the railways could not legally bring their wives or children to join them. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt negotiated an agreement with the Emperor of Japan that had much the same limiting  effect on Japanese immigration.

After the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the anti-Asian xenophobia that had been simmering for decades boiled over. Americans across the country, but particularly on the West Coast where most Japanese-immigrants had settled, feared Japanese-Americans would commit sabotage or espionage against the U.S. Fueled by anti-Japanese sentiment, Americans pressured Franklin Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This Order provided for the interment of 110,000 Japanese residents, many of whom were American citizens. It is unlikely Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 because of personal malice toward Japanese-Americans. Rather, 1942 was an election year and Roosevelt needed to win White voters on the West Coast. In exchange for their vote, White, West Coast voters insisted Roosevelt lock-up their Japanese neighbors. He obliged.

Othering in the 2016 Presidential Election

Clearly, the demonization of a racial, ethnic, national or religious outgroup for political benefit is not a new practice in American presidential politics. However, during the 2016 presidential election othering reached new heights. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was unique in that it featured anti-Black racism, anti-immigration sentiment and the enhanced xenophobia of internment. While each of these three do not typically appear in isolation, one is usually far more prevalent in campaign messaging than the others. Trump bucked this trend. Trump’s anti-woman rhetoric, anti-Black rhetoric, anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-Muslim rhetoric are not separate threads of hatred. They are intimately interwoven. Trump ran a presidential campaign that othered everyone besides White men. And it worked.

White men in the U.S. are undergoing a crisis of identity. They are experiencing economic difficulties or, at the very least, perceive themselves to be experiencing economic difficulties. Regardless, during the 2016 presidential election White men were looking for someone to blame for their suffering. Western Kentucky University Professor Dr. Patti Minter argues the real culprit in the decline of the working class is capitalism. Globalization and technological progress have created a dearth of factory jobs. To blame capitalism, however, would threaten everything White, American, men have been taught to believe in. So instead, they have transformed immigrants, women and people of color into scapegoats. The conversation has become White people, men in particular, versus people of color. Trump capitalized on this polarization by campaigning as the protector of White, male America. Despite his anti-woman rhetoric, it should be noted Trump won more votes from White women than Hillary Clinton.  His victory among White women suggests race is still more salient in constructions of identity than gender.

Initially, Trump carried on the tradition of the southern strategy during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump attracted White supremacists to his campaign by using familiar dog whistles, such as crime and voter fraud. Though, as Minter continues, in some cases he traded in the dog whistle for a bullhorn by openly commenting on race. Trump even hired Paul Manafort, one of the chief engineers of the southern strategy, to serve as his campaign manager during the summer of 2016. It was Manafort who suggested Reagan begin the 1980 general election at the Neshoba County Fair. Following in Nixon and Reagan’s footsteps, Trump took up the mantle of the law and order candidate. Following the murders of five Dallas police officers on July 7, 2016, Donald Trump gave a speech in which he proclaimed, “we must maintain law and order at the highest level, or we will cease to have a country…I am the law and order candidate.” Trump also expanded the association between being anti-crime and anti-Black. He frequently connected crime to inner cities during his speeches. For example, in a speech entitled “Creating a New and Better Future for America’s Inner Cities,” Trump said, “there is no compassion in allowing drug dealers, gang members, and felons to prey on innocent people. It is the first duty of government to keep the innocent safe.” In an election where Trump has also blatantly connected people of color to inner cities, Trump’s racism was only barely disguised under a veil of crime prevention.

While Trump retired the motif of the welfare queen, he brought forward a new character – the fraudulent voter. Throughout the election cycle, Trump hinted that the election might be rigged. Even after winning, Trump tweeted: “There is NO QUESTION THAT #voterfraud???? did take place, and in favor of #CorruptHillary???? !” Essentially, be blamed his predicted loss and his loss of the popular vote on voter fraud. Voter fraud is a textbook dog whistle. There are infinitesimal incidences of voter fraud in the U.S. Yet, Republicans at all levels of government act as though it is an epidemic. Rhetoric about the threat of voter fraud “plays to inclinations to believe that others are trying to steal elections and this is the only way others can possibly come to power.”

For example, Republicans in North Carolina passed a law specifically targeting African-American voters.  Among other measures, the law implemented strict voter ID requirements and shortened early voting periods. In July of 2016, A federal appeals court struck down the law for its overt targeting of African-Americans. However, Communications Director of the North Carolina ACLU Mike Meno explains the court’s decision did not stop the state GOP from issuing a memo to county election boards to suppress turnout. For instance, during the 2012 elections Guilford County opened 16 voting sites during the first week of early voting. In 2016, there was only one. North Carolina’s swing-state status meant even these small steps had huge consequences. Donald Trump won North Carolina. Across the US states are implementing voter ID laws similar to North Carolina’s at the bequest of Republican governors and state legislatures.

Along with anti-Black racism, Trump’s campaign relied on xenophobic, anti-immigration statements to excite voters. Trump began his presidential campaign by talking about the danger of Mexican immigrants in a similar manner to the way Catholic and Japanese immigrants were discussed decades ago. In his campaign announcement speech, Trump said, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He also returned to the classic anti-immigration argument again and again: they’re stealing your jobs. Voters responded to Trump’s xenophobia favorably. “Build a wall,” became his unofficial campaign slogan. At rallies, crowds often began chanting “build a wall, build a wall, build a wall.” Trump has also hinted at a mass deportation policy modeled after Operation Wetback. A large part of Trump’s success has been attributed to his anti-immigration message. Two-thirds of Trump supporters cite immigration as a “very big problem” facing the United States.

Much like anti-Japanese xenophobia was an enhanced and intensified version of other forms of xenophobia, Trump has honed in on Islamophobia. Similar to the way all Japanese-Americans were blamed for the actions of Japan’s military, Trump made it a point to blame Islam for acts of terrorism committed by groups like ISIS. When discussing counterterrorism, Trump has made a deliberate attempt to use the term “radical Islam,” as opposed to other terms favored by those who support separating terrorists from Muslims as a whole. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were punished for being Japanese. Trump proposed policies during the campaign that would do the same to Muslims. Throughout the campaign, he suggested increasing surveillance of mosques, expanding watch lists, banning Muslim immigrants and refugees and creating a database of Muslim immigrants in the U.S. When asked if the similarities between his proposals and Japanese internment startled him, Trump said he was unsure whether or not he would have supported the internment of Japanese-Americans. Rather than finding this troubling, many Americans found Trump’s attitude towards Muslims refreshing. Marking another successful case of othering.

Donald Trump’s campaign manufactured fear of people of color, immigrants and Muslims to win. He created a threat and then convinced people he was the only one who could save them from it. This is not a new strategy. It is one that has been winning elections, dividing America, and oppressing millions for nearly two centuries. North Carolina’s White supremacists targeted African-Americans, the Know-Nothings targeted Catholics and WWII Democrats targeted the Japanese. Donald Trump is the first presidential candidate to place all marginalized groups in the crosshairs. Whether or not he will continue to target people of color as president, remains to be seen. Unfortunately, the damage to the American psyche, and the personal well-being of millions, has already been done.  

–Lily Nellans




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