The game that Spicer is playing here relies on the things unsaid as much as the things said. In the wake of the Voting Rights Act and 52 years of changes in polite society since, naked voter suppression through outright violence and legal mechanisms openly targeted at black Americans has become anathema. The rabid segregationists of old were no longer tolerated, but the campaign to reduce the voting power of minorities—especially in the shadow of the old Jim Crow—continued apace, and picked up steam, respectability, and a sheen of intellectualism along the way. And the campaign continued so in a manner where intent no longer mattered.
After the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision rolled back federal oversight in southern elections for the first time since the civil-rights era, it’s no coincidence that many of those states moved immediately to restrict voting; and in North Carolina introduced the legislation on the same day as the decision. Emboldened by United States Chief Justice Roberts’s declaration in the Court’s opinion of that case that the country has changed since 1965, those states seemed intent on proving Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion that the law’s protections themselves had been the source of those changes, and not an eradication of the underlying instinct to disenfranchise.
Armed with that decision, so long as they don’t mention race and stick to the script of things like “ballot integrity,” conservatives can likely convince friendly courts and a friendly Department of Justice that increasingly restrictive voting laws do not violate the 14th and 15th Amendments, despite the clear racially-disparate impact that things like voter ID laws do have. As long as they play the dog-whistle game, the road appears to be open.
Trump has since attempted to back up his claims with misrepresented data from a Pew study, as well as some unreleased reports from voting app VoteStand and its founder Gregg Phillips, a company that does not have comprehensive access to voter data and a person who has not been established as a credible source or expert on voting in any way. In other words, he’s corrected his position back to the standard Republican talking points of using unsubstantiated, shoddy, or willfully misinterpreted data to support claims of fraud, and thus an agenda of more restrictive voting laws that only discriminate in effect, not in intent. But in his story about Bavarian golfers and “Latin American” voters, Trump perhaps inadvertently ushered in a new era. One of the strongest unofficial powers of the office is to set and maintain norms, and if the leader of America is open in using racism to advance racially-disparate policy, his party at the least should feel emboldened.
Maybe Trump just isn’t a deft enough politician to grasp the importance of maintaining the cloak of colorblindness in his calls for voter integrity. But the deeper implication is that such a cloak may no longer matter. After winning an election steeped in some rather overt appeals to racism and hatred of immigrants, why should the new president feel inclined to blunt his language? Underlying all the bemoaning of political correctness in his rhetoric is the Rosetta Stone of Trumpism: that Trump wants to be able to say the thing again. And with that comes a whole new world of possibilities for voter suppression.