First District Congressman James Comer brought his dog whistle to Fancy Farm and the Republican white folks heard it loud and clear.
After bragging on President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and himself, the Tompkinsville Republican shamelessly demagogued on the biggest stage in Bluegrass State politics.
He called Washington Democrats “socialists [who are] for more welfare programs, open borders, and political correctness.”
The GOP faithful whooped and hollered, some waving big signs depicting a grinning Comer and Trump. They’d been loudly chanting “socialist!’ at Democrats who paraded to the mike.
The Republican side ate it up when Comer segued to old-fashioned, Know-Nothing style nativism, stock-in-trade of the Trump GOP: “So if you want to eliminate ICE and grant millions of illegals amnesty, then vote for my Democrat opponent.”
He hit on the social issues: “If you want to be politically correct and have transgender bathrooms in our public schools, then vote for my Democrat opponent.”
Thinly-veiled racism followed:
— “And If you want able-bodied men to continue to sit at home and draw a big fat welfare check, then vote for my Democrat opponent.”
Race-baiting, dog-whistle politics
Dr. Brian Clardy, a Murray State University history professor, shook his head in disbelief. “Why he went there is beyond me,” said Clardy, who characterized the congressman’s remarks as “the basest type of race-baiting, dog whistle politics.”
“Welfare” and related terms like welfare “reforms,” “fixes” and “overhauls” are really “racially coded language [that] was never about the facts,” Jared Bernstein wrote in The Washington Post earlier this year.
“It was and is about convincing a group of voters that, while you’re working hard to make ends meet, somebody’s making a bundle ripping off the system. And that somebody is an ‘other,’ a minority or an immigrant.”
Clardy said Comer’s welfare comments reminded him of the notorious Willie Horton TV attack ads from George H.W. Bush’s 1988 reelection bid.
“It was a cornerstone of the right’s so-called “Southern strategy”—dog-whistling to appeal to racist voters without making that racism explicit,” wrote Clio Chang in The New Republic in 2016, when Trump was elected.
More dog-whistle from Comer
Comer kept blowing his whistle:
— “But if you want to secure our borders, then vote for Comer for Congress.”
— “If you are sick and tired of liberal political correctness, then vote for Comer for Congress.”
Republican politicians ceaselessly invoke “political correctness as a straw man to justify bigoted comments about immigrants, Muslims, women, and others,” Laila Lalami wrote in The Nation, a little over two years ago.
Comer wrapped up with an extra helping of bigotry, which he called “the big one—if you believe that able-bodied men should get a job and go get off welfare, then vote for Comer for Congress.”
Why the choice to play the dog-whistle card?
At Fancy Farm last year, Comer took a swipe at transgender rights but otherwise stuck to GOP boilerplate.
He had cruised in 2016, demolishing Democrat Sam Gaskins of Hopkinsville, who was largely unknown and woefully underfunded. But he’s got a real-deal Democratic challenger for a second term, Dr. Paul Walker, a Murray State University English professor, who also spoke at Fancy Farm.
The fact that Comer descended to rank demagoguery and pandering to Republican base voters last Saturday suggests that he’s worried that the Trump tide is ebbing, even in Kentucky, and that Walker is serious competition.
Truth-in-labeling time: I’m rooting for Walker.
He kept his cool, despite Comer, the hecklers, and the late summer heat that even the shade of the ceiling fan-cooled pavilion couldn’t do much to beat.
Walker is the first viable Democratic to run in the First District since Brian Roy in 2000. Then a U.S. marshal who’d been Marshall County sheriff for years, Roy lost in a landslide to Rep. Ed Whitfield, whom Comer succeeded.
Walker broke a string of Democratic also-rans in the district which sprawls 300 miles eastward from the Mississippi River.
Walker surprised more than a few state and regional party foes by handily winning the May Democratic primary. He beat Alonzo Pennington, a Princeton hunting guide-musician-entertainer, by about three to one. (Walker made a believer of me. I was on the Pennington bandwagon.)
Pennington had earned the endorsement of The People’s House Project. Founded by TV journalist Krystal Ball, the organization backs blue-collar Democrats in Republican congressional districts in Appalachia and the Midwest. (Once the rock-ribbed “Democratic Gibraltar,” the First has been Republican represented since 1995, when Whitfield was first sworn in.)
After the primary, the Kentucky State AFL-CIO leadership unanimously endorsed Walker. I was happy to be among the “ayes.”
Walker knows he has a steep hill to climb. While Comer has loads of money, Walker is cash-strapped.
Walker, too, is painfully aware that Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in every county in the district. The influential Cook Political Report has Comer up by 23 percentage points.
No matter, Democrats in the Fancy Farm crowed were pumped by Walker’s poised, unflappable performance, especially since he’s never run for public office before. (Comer spent 11 years as a state representative and another four years as agriculture commissioner. He narrowly lost his party’s 2015 nomination for governor.)
So I’d bet next month’s Social Security check that after Fancy Farm, Republicans, at least in private, will admit that Walker’s no joke.
The dog whistle versus the underdog
History, the subject I taught for two dozen years, illustrates the peril of overdogs underestimating underdogs.
Comer might not know the story of Robert Greene, but Walker does. All but forgotten except among scholars, Greene was a well-established Elizabethan-era English dramatist.
He scoffed at a newcomer to the London theater scene, dismissing him as an “upstart crow.” The object of his disaffection was William Shakespeare.
I imagine that Professor Walker wouldn’t mind the “upstart crow” handle.