Dog whistles and stochastic terrorism

How do politicians court the violent fringe? Dog whistles and scripted violence.

Dog whistle
Sebastian Hartlaub / CC BY-SA

Politicians want supporters, and some politicians want to get the support of groups and ideologies that are pretty repulsive to the general public – like white supremacy. (I really hope that white supremacy is actually repulsive to the general public, but I may be a little optimistic there.) If a politician were to openly appeal to these groups they could lose the rest of their support – so they must find a way to communicate “I’m on your side” secretly. Let the fringe group know that you’re one of them, but in a way that is not obvious to the general public. This is the concept of the political dog whistle.

The Wikipedia article below lists a lot of real-world examples. Many of these are tied to racism, because of course they are: find a way to talk about “those people” without saying it directly. In the United States, if a politician refers to “thugs” they’re pretty much always referring to a specific race without saying it directly. Likewise, if you talk about “the mainstream” you’re implicitly excluding all minorities in the ears of the right listener. It’s subtle but deliberate, in the same way that “taxpayers” exclude the unemployed and “citizens” exclude immigrants.

What if you want to take it a step further? The last few years have seen the rise of what some people call “stochastic terrorism” or “scripted violence.” A politician in power makes vague warnings and threats about a group of people, often using that dog-whistle coded language. He doesn’t directly organise violence or pay people to commit violence, but all his words are designed to tell the “right” people just what to do. Create enough of an atmosphere of fear and menace and violence emerges, seemingly randomly (stochastically) but in truth deliberately induced. In other words, it’s the dog-whistle of action. He trusts in his violent fringe to act out – and when they do so, well, it’s not his fault! They were just lone wolves, and he has plausible deniability.

(An end note: I was going to use a picture of an orange for this post, but my wife thought it was too subtle.)


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