Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue reportedly used the words “cotton-pickin’” to describe the importance of Florida’s gubernatorial race Saturday — a race that could see Democratic candidate and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum become the state’s first ever black governor.
“Public policy matters; leadership matters,” President Donald Trump’s top agriculture official said while campaigning for Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate. “And that is why this election is so cotton-pickin’ important to the state of Florida. I hope you all don’t mess it up.”
The use of the term “cotton-picking” as a Southern stand-in for “darn” or “damned” is widely understood to have racial connotations, referring to the work of black slaves working on cotton plantations. Perdue, a former Georgia governor, may or may not have been aware of, and intentionally drawing on, these connotations. But his remarks land in a contest that has been racially charged from the start: DeSantis suggested on Fox News the day after Gillum won his primary in an upset that while his new opponent seemed “articulate,” voters should not “monkey this up” by electing him.
Asked about Perdue’s remarks, DeSantis’s campaign told Politico’s Matt Dixon to talk to the former governor about any of his remarks. “We were happy to have him in Polk County campaigning with us,” Stephen Lawson, a spokesman for DeSantis’ campaign, told Dixon.
In an October debate, Gillum said that DeSantis “has spoken” through his actions, and suggested that his dog-whistling matters, whether intended or not:
Mr. DeSantis has spoken. First of all, he’s got neo-Nazis helping him out in the state. He has spoken at racist conferences. He’s accepted a contribution and would not return it from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-i-g-g-e-r. When asked to return that money, he said no. He’s using that money to now fund negative ads.
Now, I’m not calling Mr. Desantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.
It’s not just in Florida — racism has played a huge role in the 2018 midterms
Trump built his political brand on racist and nativist appeals. But he — and the rest of the GOP — have ratcheted it up in the final days before the midterms, stoking fear about a caravan of Central American migrants and immigration more broadly, as Vox’s Laura McGann and Stavros Agorakis noted:
This year, Trump doesn’t bother with fig leaves. He smears minority groups, particularly immigrants, with impunity. This week alone, he made comments, sent tweets, and unveiled policies (some real and some fake) all designed to further dehumanize and demonize his scapegoats…. Trump’s message is growing increasingly extreme. Like all demagogues, he has no choice but to continue to ratchet up his worst words and worst behavior.
It’s not just foreigners fleeing persecution who are being demonized, though. In the final days of this decisive midterm race, Republicans are turning their attention back to old-fashioned dog-whistles against their opponents, expanding their racism from immigrants to candidates.
Much of the race-baiting in recent days has been targeted specifically at black Democratic candidates. On Thursday, Trump called Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — who has a Master’s degree in public policy, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and has served in Georgia’s House of Representatives for 10 years — “unqualified” and cited her “past” as evidence against her, something the Washington Post suggested related directly to her race and gender.
At a Saturday rally, the president suggested that Gillum was “not equipped” to be Florida’s governor. And a few days earlier, Trump tweeted that Gillum is “thief,” who oversees possibly “one of the most corrupt cities” in the United States, with no evidence cited.
In Florida there is a choice between a Harvard/Yale educated man named @RonDeSantisFL who has been a great Congressman and will be a great Governor – and a Dem who is a thief and who is Mayor of poorly run Tallahassee, said to be one of the most corrupt cities in the Country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
At a rally in Indianapolis on Friday, Trump made a reference to Barack “H” Obama, drawing out the “H” with his finger in the air for emphasis. He didn’t elaborate, instead simply shaking his head, in what some saw as a nod to his previous promotion of birtherism. (H stands for Hussein.)
On Tuesday, meanwhile, a Republican campaign mailer surfaced in Connecticut, drawing on anti-Semitic tropes. The flyer, sent out by a Republican candidate for state senate, depicted his Jewish opponent gleefully gripping fistfuls of cash.
It’s not just Republicans’ nationalistic rhetoric that’s escalating — Trump and others in the party are also using racist language against their minority opponents. It’s a reckless strategy, when it’s clear now more than ever that the divisive language can put targets directly on those individuals’ heads.