This morning, Brian Beutler wrote History Will Remember the Republicans Who Appeased Trump. And he introduced me to the concept of “virtue signaling.”
This is where you indicate to other people that you are virtuous. Normally, virtue signaling is something that conservatives attack liberals for. If I write an article bemoaning the treatment of native Americans, I might be accused of virtue signaling because I’m not native American. But generally, the person who would make such a claim does it because they don’t care about native American rights and so can’t imagine that I really care about them either.
Paul Ryan’s Virtue Signaling
Beutler used the term in relation to Paul Ryan who has made statements against racism and white supremacy without linking them to Donald Trump or the Republican Party. For example, Ryan tweeted, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
In so doing, someone like David Duke can think, “He’s just signaling what a virtuous guy he is to the liberal press, but I know what he really thinks! He’s on my side!” This is a different take on virtue signaling. And it’s useful stuff. Let’s face it: Republicans are good at this.
The Power of Dog Whistles
In this form, virtue signaling is just a specialized form of dog whistling. I’m not saying that Republicans are the only ones who use it. But they’ve made an art of it. How else could they have been so successful electorally with policies that are so unpopular? A majority of Republicans are actually economically liberal. Think of the so called Reagan Revolution. All those people who voted for Reagan did so because of his social signaling — not his economic policies.
As a liberal, I know just how frustrating dog whistling is. Conservatives manage to imply the most offensive things. But if liberals call them out on it, the conservatives play naive.
Returning to Reagan, there is the “states’ rights” speech that was the first he gave after winning the Republican nomination in 1980. It was given right outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was where three civil rights workers were murdered by Klan members in 1964. It’s obvious what Reagan was signaling to bigots: I’m on your side.
Of course, conservatives defend the speech to this day by saying that Reagan meant no such thing. It’s just us liberals who see racism in everything. That’s why dog whistles are so powerful.
But as a man who makes his living communicating with words, I find this pretense at naivete offensive. It asks us to pretend that language is simplistic — that it doesn’t have layers of meaning. And sadly, it is the moderates — those who are supposed to define what norms are (people like nightly network newscasters) — who allow Republicans to get away with this.
I don’t think for a minute that Paul Ryan thinks that his tweet is virtue signaling. But given that not offending Trump or his most vile supporters takes precedence over his hatred of racism, it does come off as facile. It is hard to think that he’s doing anything but virtue signaling. It is certainly true that the racists who think that are far closer to the truth than the “both sides do it” moderates who applaud such statements as though they were bold stands against racism.
The Rise of Virtue Signaling in Republicans
The reason that virtue signaling has not been a major part of the Republican lexicon is because it is only fairly recently that the party has gotten so far outside the mainstream that they’ve needed to. In the past, they didn’t really need to worry about alienating Pat Buchanan’s base. But now it is the Republican Party base itself. If you really think racism is a bad thing, you are not going to last long as a Republican politician.
Just the same, virtue signaling is one of the least powerful forms of dog whistling. And I wonder if the Republicans haven’t reached the point where they can’t manage the inherent contradictions in their party. If they have to polish every speech so that it is palatable to unabashed white separatists, it may be impossible to hang on to the latent racists that have so long been base of their party.
I remember reading an article several years ago where a guy said, “The worst thing about being a Republican was never being able to say what you actual thought.” That’s true. And it is only getting harder as their party slips into actual white supremacy and fascism.