President Trump has provided America with yet another reminder to never underestimate how deep into the gutter he will crawl to win an election. On Wednesday afternoon, the president tweeted a new, deeply racist campaign ad in which he continued to drive the narrative that Democrats are pro-crime. It begins with footage of a Mexican man named Luis Bracamontes bragging about how he killed police officers. Bracamontes has been deported, but re-entered the United States illegally, and in February was convicted of killing two deputies in California. The Democrats are to blame, the ad argues, as they will be for all the crime that will be wrought on the nation if the caravan of Hispanic migrants is able to make its way to the border.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 31, 2018
“Democrats let him into our country,” the copy reads as a menacing bass thumps. “Democrats let him stay.” The ad then cuts to another Hispanic man telling a reporter that he plans to apply for a pardon in the United States. Next are several clips of unruly mobs storming various gates. “Who else would Democrats let in?” the ad concludes before noting that Trump and Republicans are making America “safe.”
It’s one of the most racist, over-the-top and patently false political ads in recent memory. Many observers are comparing it to the “Willie Horton” spot produced by supporters of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. That ad highlighted how a convict named William Horton — who did not actually go by “Willie” — raped a woman while on release as part of a furlough program in the Massachusetts state prison system. As historian Kevin Kruse laid out on Twitter, Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, did not actually institute the furlough program for which he was blamed. It was adopted by his predecessor, who modeled it after a program put in place by Ronald Reagan when he was the governor of California. Bush went on to win the election, but the ad was widely condemned. Even Roger Stone, the former Trump adviser known for his dirty tricks, said it was “stepping over a line.”
The ad Trump released Wednesday makes “Willie Horton” look like a “The More You Know” public service announcement. It was also endorsed and promoted by the sitting president of the United States, not an outside group supporting a candidate.
As the leader of the GOP, Trump is setting an example for Republicans courting the votes of his base. Last Friday, Marsha Blackburn, the party’s candidate for Senate in Tennessee, released a similar ad aimed at drumming up fear over the migrant caravan while attacking her Democratic opponent Phil Bredesen.
“A caravan of 14,000 illegal immigrants is marching on America,” a voice intones. “Gang members. Known criminals. People from the Middle East. Possibly even terrorists.” It’s got the menacing music. It’s got the high-contrast images of mobs and brown people wearing bandanas. It’s got the portrayal of Blackburn’s opponent as a complicit bystander willing to let hardened criminals run rampant over the United States. “A few thousand very poor people is not a threat,” Bredesen says.
But Bredesen is right. Blackburn’s claim that 14,000 migrants are on the move is an exceedingly high estimate pushed mostly by dubious sources. On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that the caravan had shrunk to around 4,000 people. The thousands of people making their way north could theoretically include a few criminals, but there is no evidence it is in any way saturated with gang members or, as the president mused last week, just a few days before Blackburn’s ad ran, “unknown Middle Easterners.” The caravan is overwhelmingly comprised of, as Bredesen said, poor people fleeing untenable living situations in corrupt, crime-ridden nations.
Children traveling in a migrant caravan toward the U.S. stopped at the Mexican town of Juchitan on Wednesday, where they got a rare opportunity for some play time. pic.twitter.com/tfyTaYr1HY
— NBC News (@NBCNews) November 1, 2018
The town of Juchitan, where this video was shot, is barely across Mexico’s southern border, nearly 1,000 miles from the southern tip of Texas. It will take the migrants months to complete the trek, and when they do, the size of the caravan will have likely shrunk exponentially. The midterms are in less than a week, though, which is why Trump has already deployed 5,000 troops to the border. On Wednesday, he said the number could climb as high as 15,000. “We have to have a wall of people,” the president said.
Though the GOP’s hold on the Senate seems secure, most experts forecast Democrats will take the House of Representatives. On Wednesday, the Cook Political Report revised its outlook, predicting that Democrats will pick up 30-40 congressional seats, up from 25-35 in September. FiveThirtyEight currently gives Democrats a 6-in-7 chance of retaking the House. With his party’s prospects to hold control of the government dwindling, it isn’t surprising that Trump has double- and tripled-down on stoking concern over the caravan, even using government resources to do so. The only way he knows how to appeal to his base is through fear-mongering. As he recently told Axios, his “only form of fighting back” is calling the media the “enemy of the people.” There is no shame, only a hollow obsession with retaining power at all costs.
Kruse also pointed out on Twitter that Lee Atwater, the man responsible for the “Willie Horton” ad, later regretted it. He even repented for it on his death bed. There’s little doubt, however, that Trump will feel anything resembling remorse over what could be the most racist campaign ad in political history. In fact, he’s pinned it to the top of his Twitter page.