We’ve been hearing a lot about “dog whistles” this election season, meaning words that may seem innocuous to the average listener, but are loaded with sinister meaning for insiders. For example, when Donald Trump talks to nearly all-white suburban crowds and tells them they need to watch out for voter fraud in “other communities,” the pretty clear implication is that he’s talking about mostly black, inner-city neighborhoods. When he talks about Hillary Clinton meeting “with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty,” he may not consciously be making anti-Semitic remarks—but the anti-Semitic alt-right hears them as such.
But what does Mr. Trump mean when he says our election is “rigged”? That doesn’t sound like a dog whistle. It sounds like a fire alarm.
First, let’s be clear: Mr. Trump is using the word “rigged” exactly the way we think he is. He’s using a classic definition of the word: “to manipulate fraudulently.” He’s saying “there is large-scale voter fraud” that will steal the election from him.
That’s not what his running mate has been saying. Mike Pence said Sunday that they would absolutely accept the results of the election, but added Monday that “the media is trying to rig this election with their biased coverage in Hillary Clinton’s favor.”
Gov. Pence is not using the term “rig” as we commonly know it. He’s talking about media bias. But biased coverage is different from rigging, or else Fox News has been rigging elections for years.
We use the term “rig” in our work, too. We use it as a noun; a platform to support a video camera is a rig, and a musician’s gear—a bass guitarist’s, for example—can be called a rig. We also use “rig” as a verb to mean “assemble” or “set up” when we’re doing a show or shooting a commercial; you rig lights, for example.
Although they may not mean the same thing when they say it, Mr. Trump and Gov. Pence are using “rig” in the pejorative sense. Both continue to use the word “rig” not for clarity, but for the emotional charge it levels. It’s a cheat. Someone behind the scenes is manipulating the results.
But to rig an election, you’d have to have access to the votes, since those are what yield the results. This means that, to rig the election, the media would have to be involved in a widespread conspiracy to affect individual votes at local polling places.
But there is simply no evidence for widespread voter fraud in the past. So politicians like Gov. Pence have to spin the word “rig” to include media bias.
For the record: This is a load of hooey. If the media bosses were really trying to rig the election, they’d underreport Mr. Trump’s candidacy, not plaster his image all over their networks. The continued reporting on election rigging appears to be inflaming Mr. Trump’s supporters, even prompting calls for revolution and assassination. National polls still show a tight race. If the media are trying to rig the election, their strategy is all wrong.
That last sentence, btw, was a dog whistle to potential clients. Being good with words makes us good strategists. Did you hear it?
Dog whistle photo by Sebastian Hartlaub [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.