The CNN headline regarding a new anti-immigration ad posted on President Trump’s Twitter account doesn’t sit above an opinion piece. It’s a news story, and the byline belongs to Stephen Collinson, who is a reporter for the network who covers the White House and politics. But it’s not every day that such a mainstream news outlet adorns a news story with this sort of headline: “Trump shocks with racist new ad days before midterms.”
Then again, it’s not every day, of course, that a U.S. president promotes such clear-cut racism in pursuit of political gains — though, to be honest, it has become more routine recently. This particular ad dispenses with whatever restraint Trump may have exercised with his divisive immigration rhetoric. It features footage of Luis Bracamontes, a Mexican citizen who entered the United States illegally more than once and was convicted of killing two law enforcement officers in Northern California. As he received his verdict this year, Bracamontes vowed to “kill more cops soon.”
In his tweet promoting the video ad, Trump writes, “It is outrageous what the Democrats are doing to our Country. Vote Republican now!” As the ad cycles through Bracamontes’s chilling threats in the courtroom, a banner reads, “DEMOCRATS LET HIM INTO OUR COUNTRY.” The focus then switches to footage of a migrant caravan overwhelming fences at a checkpoint, and then to a Fox News clip in which a migrant tells a translator that he plans on seeking a pardon for the “felony he committed … attempted murder.” Again, the multitudes splash across the screen, with this banner, “WHO ELSE WOULD DEMOCRATS LET IN?”
So the CNN headline checks out: The video stigmatizes a large group of people of color as criminals — killers bent on coming in and killing the law-abiding residents of the United States. It’s another in the long list of shocking-but-not-surprising developments in the Trump presidency. This is Trump’s remarks about Mexico’s “rapists” in video format.
Most of the ad’s coverage draws an inescapable parallel with the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that ran in the 1988 presidential contest between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer summed it up this way:
Its key image was a mug shot of Horton—a scowling black man with a dishevelled Afro. Horton, a convicted murderer, had escaped while on a weekend pass issued by a Massachusetts furlough program. A decade earlier, Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have forbidden furloughs for murderers. After escaping, Horton raped a white woman and stabbed her fiancé. [Ad creator Larry] McCarthy knew that showing Horton’s menacing face would make voters feel viscerally that Dukakis was soft on crime.
Political guru Lee Atwater, manager of Bush’s campaign, apologized for the politics of Willie Horton: “In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.” The ad’s impact is a matter of some dispute; what’s not disputed is that the ad was racist.
If anything, Trump’s Bracamontes ad is worse.
Other outlets have gone with headlines of varying degrees of honesty:
- The Post: “Trump revives ‘Willie Horton’ tactic with ad linking illegal immigrant killer to Democrats”
- USA Today: “Outrage erupts over Trump campaign ad blaming Democrats for immigrant who ‘killed our people’ ”
- HuffPost: “Trump Compares Migrants In Caravan To Cop Killer In Fearmongering Ad”
- NBC News: “Trump, in racially divisive ad, blames Democrats for undocumented immigrant convicted of killing police”
- BBC: “US mid-terms latest: Trump’s immigration ad draws criticism”
Here’s an ideal time to ditch the hedge of “racially charged,” “racially divisive” and the perennial fudge word “controversial.” The ad is racist; call it “racist.”