Donald Trump's tweet of a racially inflammatory ad, days before the midterm elections, illustrates that the President and the Republican Party are long past dog whistles.
The ad features at least three villains: Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported Mexican immigrant found guilty of killing two police officers; an unidentified group of immigrants crashing through borders; and the Democratic Party, which the ad accuses of eagerly inviting angry, dangerous and violent immigrant hordes into the country.
Welcome to Trump's version of American nationalism.
The commercial tweeted by the President virtually pours kerosene on the already raging flames of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that has helped fuel Trump's political rise and helped maintain his base of support. According to reporting by The Washington Post and The Sacramento Bee, it's also based on a series of falsehoods spun out to demonize the Democrats.
Thirty years ago, Lee Atwater, the campaign manager of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's faltering presidential campaign, unleashed the infamous Willie Horton attack ad portraying Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as a weak-on-crime liberal who allowed a black criminal to rape and assault a white couple while on a weekend furlough from prison.
The tactic proved brutally effective, smearing Democrats as purveyors of urban violence and chaos, stereotyping black men as dangerous criminals, and influencing all subsequent Democratic presidential nominees' stances on the death penalty and criminal justice policies -- which in turn helped produce our contemporary crisis of mass incarceration. The fallout from the ad proved to be a watershed, transforming the name of a once-obscure black man into a verb.
Future politicians all vowed never to let anyone "Willie Horton" them. In fact, candidate Bill Clinton so feared being "Willie Hortoned" four years later that he personally flew to Arkansas to oversee the death sentence of a black defendant to prove his bona fides to white voters who remained skeptical of the Democratic Party's ties to civil rights and racial justice advocacy.
The Republicans took the White House after the 1988 election at the cost of the party's anti-slavery roots. The once-proud party of Lincoln, having weathered the racial storms brought on by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, could not survive the nakedly racist appeals of the Horton ad. Atwater's promise to turn Horton into Dukakis' running mate succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and long past his change of heart while stricken with terminal cancer and dying at the age of 40.
Willie Horton transformed American politics. Like a racist apparition rising from the fever dream of a Reconstruction-era racial segregationist, Horton played upon longstanding and historic racial fears and anxiety about black violence, criminality and sexuality. The image of Horton's scowling mug shot juxtaposed against a picture of Dukakis lent visual evidence to the era's criminalization of the entire black community.
Less than a quarter of a century after the passage of major civil rights and voting rights legislation of the 1960s, the Horton ad also represented an assault on a rising black middle class and elites determined to gain their share of the American dream. Jesse Jackson's stirring presidential runs in the 1984 and 1988 Democratic primaries, where he garnered millions of votes in campaigns that anticipated the Obama coalition's political success, challenged the myth that the nation would never elect a black president.
Atwater's tactics, once considered politically extreme by Republicans, have now become the standard political appeal for the GOP. Where past Republican presidents hid behind political consultants and campaign managers, Trump remains an unapologetic pied piper of racial division.
Trump's tweet follows on the heels of the President's order to increase the military presence on America's southern border to confront an immigrant caravan he's characterized as nothing less than an "invasion."
The President has also claimed, erroneously according to legal experts and elected officials from both parties, that he can and will end the 14th Amendment's conferring of birthright citizenship on any person born on American soil.
A President who rode to unimagined political heights demonizing a panoramic group of Americans and immigrants has now embraced an ad that is the visual equivalent of the toxic rhetoric and anti-human policy measures that have marked his administration. We know the reason why he did it: It wins elections and helps him maintain his narcissistic grip on power.
How he did it represents a larger cautionary tale for our entire democratic system. Three decades ago forces in the GOP determined that they needed to expand the political strategy that ushered in the Nixon and Reagan administrations to maintain power. They did so at the cost of their own political souls and in the process opened up a racial Pandora's box that this nation has been struggling to close ever since.
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