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Why Is Doug Jones Throwing Around a Dog-Whistle Phrase Southern Sheriffs Once Used to Attack MLK?

Doug Jones at a restaurant in Talladega, Alabama with voters.
Doug Jones on Nov. 20 in Talladega, Alabama. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ex-Trump adviser and white nationalist hype man Steve Bannon appeared at Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore’s rally in Alabama on Tuesday to make characteristically incendiary comments about “globalists” and whatnot, provoking this response from Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones:

It was an eyebrow-raising move: The phrase “outside agitator” has an inglorious history of being deployed by Southern segregationists to condemn civil rights activism. (“Carpetbagger” goes back even further.) I spoke to University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman about what Jones might have been thinking.

Slate: What do you think Jones was going for by using this loaded phrase?

Rothman: It struck me that he was using it at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek and sort of ironically. It’s a descriptor that historically has been applied by people on the reactionary side of politics to dismiss people who are not from a place coming in and stirring up trouble. So for someone like Steve Bannon, who has absolutely no connection to Alabama whatsoever, to come in a week before a big Senate election and start trouble—I think Jones was pulling that one out as a sort of turnabout-is-fair-play kind of thing.

Now, I don’t know how well that’s going to work. I think it must have been sort of a joke because it’s a little bit weird for someone on the left to use in any sort of non-ironic, non-self-conscious way.

Jones doesn’t seem like a jokester!

Not particularly. It does seem a little bit out of character for him. But I can’t explain it any other way. If you look at the phrase, it’s very racially loaded. It was used most often during the civil rights era—white people in deep southern states, whenever there was any kind of unrest or protest or lawsuit, they would trot out the idea that the black people were happy and wouldn’t cause any trouble unless somebody came in and stirred up the pot. And it didn’t even have to be people who were from the outside—sometimes you’d see it applied to people who were from the next town over.

Martin Luther King was the ultimate “outside agitator” and he was from Atlanta.

He was born and raised in the South. And the other thing about “outside agitator” is that it’s not only racially loaded but comes in the context of anti-communism. The notion of a political agitator carries with it a connotation that these people are communists, they’re not really American. It carries with it the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction—with “outside agitator” you’ll also see “carpetbagger.” The idea that these Yankees are coming in and messing with things they don’t know about, trying to cause trouble in the South. So that’s the broad history of the phrase. And I remember seeing it most recently with Ferguson.

Doug Jones obviously knows his civil rights history—he prosecuted the “Four Little Girls” church bombing.

If Doug Jones had been here in the ‘60s putting the guys in the 16th Street church bombing on trial—he’s from Alabama, but lawyers like him who tried cases like that, they would have been the outside agitators. It’s hard to apply to Doug Jones—he’s from Birmingham and his father was a steelworker, so good luck painting him as not Southern—but it is sort of ironic that someone who’s most famous for trying a civil rights case would use it.

How do you think his use of the phrase will go over with voters?

The reason that I think the phrase is so peculiar for him to use is that I don’t see it as the kind of the thing that would really pull in moderate Republican votes. It seems to me if it has any resonance at all, it’s with people who would be inclined toward [Roy Moore] in the first place. I could see Roy Moore using [the phrase] very easily! I mean, he essentially has, when he goes out there and says all these people are aligned against me—liberals and gay people and transgender people and mainstream Republicans. He might as well just say “outside agitators.”

The campaign on the whole has been quite a spectacle.

It’s sort of an amazing thing to watch. For someone like me, I’m not a Republican—I find it a really frustrating thing to watch. I think Doug Jones is a perfectly reasonable, uncontroversial if broadly-left-of-center candidate. The guy is born and bred Alabama, he’s from a working class background, makes a big deal of being proud of being a hunter, favors Second Amendment rights, he’s a white man—I don’t know what else this guy could do to appeal to moderate Republicans. Roy Moore was Roy Moore before all the allegations—he repeatedly has embarrassed the state. His political views are off the charts even for a decent number of people in Alabama. It’s baffling to watch, to see the tripling down that you get not only from Republicans in Alabama but from Republicans nationally. It’s more than the usual level of embarrassing.

Are you from Alabama originally?

I grew up in New York. I’ve lived in Alabama about 20 years. So I’m an outside agitator.

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